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A half-century later, man seeks details of father's death in Tampa

Frank Christlieb stands with his siblings, Teresa Workman Zoubovitch and Crys Workman in this 2005 photo.
Published Feb. 8, 2012

TAMPA — Frank Christlieb was in his early 20s when he learned he was adopted as an infant. Two decades later, in 2005, he began to search for his birth family.

He discovered that he had three older siblings, Crys, Robin and Teresa, who grew up in Huntington, W.Va. Their mother, Betty Workman, died in 1992.

Robert Workman, their father, was an alcoholic who became estranged from the family and moved to Tampa. They heard he died in an accident in 1962.

But as Christlieb began to dig deeper, newspaper clippings, obituaries and police reports told a more complete story of Robert Workman's demise: A drunken fight near a bridge in Tampa had ended with his drowning in the Hillsborough River.

No one was charged. The incident was ruled an accident. Now, half a century later, Christlieb wants to know more about the death of the father he never knew.

• • •

In the early afternoon of July 2, 1962, a group of workers at a phosphate plant spotted a man's head bobbing in the Hillsborough River near what is now Harbour Island.

They shouted to a nearby boater, who snagged the body with a rope. Tampa police arrived and hauled the dead man out of the water. In his pockets he carried a red comb, a small can opener, three pennies and a wallet with pictures and papers that identified him as Robert Orval Bradford Workman.

An autopsy report later noted a tattoo on Workman's right shoulder, depicting three names: Crys, Robin and Teresa.

An investigation found that Workman had picked a fight with Harold Wicks, then 72, the previous day on a dock near what is now the Laurel Street Bridge.

"I think I'll throw this old S.O.B. in the drink," Workman reportedly said as he approached Wicks. But it was Workman who ended up in the water.

Wicks and a witness, Burnett Albert Peters, then 36, were jailed on drunkenness charges.

A small funeral was held and Workman was buried in an unmarked grave in Orange Hill Cemetery.

• • •

What Christlieb gathered about his father suggested a man at odds with himself. On one side was an adoring husband and amiable friend who worked hard and did what he could to help others. On the other, a troubled alcoholic whose demons created an abusive home life for his wife and children.

"Despite most of what I've been told and learned, I believe deep down that Bob was probably a decent man," Christlieb said. "He just had a lot of problems, mostly brought on by his drinking as well as whatever demons he was dealing with, possibly from childhood."

Christlieb, an editor at the Dallas Morning News, plans to write a book about his efforts to learn more about his birth family. He suspects that his mother gave him up to protect him from his father. They were divorced by the time he was born. His siblings never even knew of his existence until he tracked them down.

• • •

Christlieb talked with owners of the Orange Hill Cemetery and located the spot where his father is buried. He hopes to visit it.

He talked with Bill Hodgin, 86, a Bradenton man who was onboard the Seastar, the boat that pulled Workman's body to shore. Hodgin had been vacationing with his wife and two friends aboard the charter vessel.

Christlieb tried to find relatives of Wicks and Peters, both deceased, or others who knew the two men who were with his father when he died.

He also found the Rev. Babb Adams, 83, of Inverness who was called upon to preside over Workman's funeral service. Adams remembered the service, Christlieb said. It stood out because no family or friends came.

Christlieb wants to know more. He has combed through the police report of his father's death, absorbing each detail. He has searched records for names that were mentioned and scoured online databases for information on anyone who might still be alive and know something about Robert Workman's death. What drew his father to Florida? Was his death really an accident?

"There is a certain part of me that feels like it would be nice to know what really happened," Christlieb said. "What I feel for him is empathy. I feel bad for him because it didn't have to be that way. It didn't have to end the way it ended."

Dan Sullivan can be reached at (727) 893-8321 or dsullivan@tampabay.com.

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