TAMPA — Two and a half months ago, Marion Lambert’s only child returned to the South Tampa farm where she grew up to reconnect with her dad and help run the place along with her husband and two young children.
Lambert was in good health and had no intention of stepping back from the day-to-day operations at South Tampa Farm, nestled on a four-acre plot in one of the city’s toniest neighborhoods. But his daughter Blue Ayala said he was glad that she wanted to be involved and might even be motivated to keep it going when he eventually couldn’t.
“He was excited,” said Ayala, 38. “He said, it’ll be so nice for me to be around my grandkids. We’ve just had the best time with him.”
Now the handoff to the next generation is suddenly and unexpectedly upon the family.
Lambert died on Wednesday after he was involved in an accident on the farm at 6101 S 2nd St., Ayala said. He was 73.
Exactly what happened was still unclear Thursday, but Ayala said the family suspects Lambert was injured during a run-in with a bull named Levy about 2:15 p.m. She said surveillance cameras captured Lambert walking to a neighbor’s house in an apparent effort to get help, but he collapsed in the driveway, his little white mutt Dotty by his side. Another passing neighbor spotted Lambert laying on the ground and called 911.
The Hillsborough County Medical Examiner will determine the cause of death. Foul play is not suspected, a Tampa police spokesman said Thursday. Ayala said her dad appeared to have suffered head trauma.
“He’s had a lot of run-ins with animals and he never gave up,” Ayala said, her voice cracking with emotion. “He just did what he loved doing. Unfortunately, Mother Nature was stronger this time.”
Along with the farm he’d run for most of his life, Lambert was probably best known locally for leading the effort to raise a huge — and hugely controversial — Confederate battle flag over Interstate 75 in Tampa.
A Pensacola native, Lambert completed work for a master’s in psychology at 24, but when it was time to write a thesis, he got in his truck and drove toward Tampa, according to a 2018 Tampa Bay Times story. He purchased the farm, which dates back to the early 1900s, in 1974 and was grandfathered in for agriculture.
Lambert and his wife Nancy ran the farm together until their divorce about seven years ago. At the time of the 2018 story, the farm featured an outhouse, 1,000 chickens and dozens of dairy cows, steer and hogs. Lambert sold milk, eggs, meat and honey by the honor-system. His customers dropped cash in a box and took what they wanted.
Along with farming, Lambert had a passion for Southern history that would bring him more notoriety.
In 2008, as a member of the Gen. Jubal Early Camp No. 556 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, he led the effort to raise a massive 30-by-50-foot Confederate flag — then the world’s largest — over I-75 near I-4. Lambert bought the land on U.S. 92 in 2004, and got permits to build a park to honor “American veterans.”
The Sons of Confederate Veterans raised the flag on the morning of June 3 of that year and lowered it that same evening, marking the 200th birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. But it would eventually fly 24 hours a day, illuminated by spotlights at night, over a granite monument erected on the site known as Confederate Memorial Park.
Lambert later donated the property to the Florida Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the site became home to several more monuments.
Hillsborough County commissioners and activists fought Lambert’s flag from the beginning, saying it would damage Tampa’s reputation and hurt the local economy, but they couldn’t stop it.
Since then, the Florida division has flown several types of Confederate flag there including the most recognizable banner for the Tennessee Army known as the Southern Cross, said David McCallister, the division’s heritage chairman. McCallister said the flag is part of the division’s “Flags Across Florida” project that is still going strong.
“He was a deceptively clever man who was consistently underestimated by his opponents and a fierce believer in the American Constitution and an independent way of life,” McCallister said of Lambert.
He said the division planned to lower the I-75 flag to half mast in Lambert’s honor for several days. By Thursday afternoon, the battle flag was waving in a stiff breeze halfway up the flag pole.
Lambert told the Times in 2018 that his goal in raising the huge Confederate flag was to “preserve Southern heritage” and create “a memorial to those who served.” He said he wasn’t racist and was bothered by the fact that people feel bad and divided when they see the flag.
“It does bother me, a lot,” he said. “They don’t understand what it means.”
But the Ku Klux Klan used the flag as a protest symbol, John Coski, author of The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem, said in a 2008 Times story about Lambert. The flag came to be seen less as an emblem of regional pride, and more as thinly-masked hate.
Back on the farm, Lambert was able to go on making a modest living as McMansions sprouted up around him. He told the Times in 2018 that he took in around $100,000 a year, but after all his expenses his profit was only a fraction of that. The farm’s unpasteurized dairy products are labeled “for pets only” and “not for human consumption.”
Late last year, as the coronavirus pandemic dragged on, Ayala got an opportunity to take a break from her nursing career, so she and her husband Charlie decided to move from Washington state to Tampa with their 7-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. They figured it would be a good way for her father to spend time with his grandkids and for the family to help out and learn the ways of the farm.
Along with her father’s lessons, Ayala has a base of knowledge and an inherent fondness for farm life.
“I’m just like him. We’re stubborn and we like the animals, and it’s in my DNA to farm,” she said. “I’m a nurse but have always loved this. I’d rather work on land and keep milking cows and teach my kids that. It’s a beautiful thing.”
She said her father was a man of his word who was as smart and thin as a whip and considered everyone a friend. Now that he’s gone, Ayala said she and her family have resolved to keep the farm going.
“He shared a lot of knowledge with me and my family and I hope to remember it all,” she said.
She said she was grateful for the support of the farm over the years and now in the wake of his sudden death. A GoFundMe page, set up after Lambert’s death by family friend Tracy Fruehauf to raise funds for funeral expenses and “the future of the farm,” had raised nearly $2,900 by Thursday afternoon.
“I just want to say thank you for the years of the community being so generous and kind,” Ayala said. “We couldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the community.”
Times staff writer Anastasia Dawson contributed to this report.