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Some from Tampa were shocked over Castro's rise

Charles Arnade, a professor at the University of Tampa and later the University of South Florida, was unimpressed with Castro in 1955.
Charles Arnade, a professor at the University of Tampa and later the University of South Florida, was unimpressed with Castro in 1955.
Published Dec. 4, 2016

During Fidel Castro's only visit to Tampa, the wife of a local journalist mistook him for a house painter and a college professor thought he was a "crackpot."

It was November 1955 and Castro was not yet one of the world's most famous figures. He had not grown his trademark thick beard or begun wearing his signature military fatigues. He was still trying to raise money for his revolution.

While Castro's death last week is considered a historic moment, there were some who met the future dictator during his trip to Tampa who didn't think he would amount to anything.

"My father thought Castro was crazy," said Peter Arnade, the son of Charles Arnade, a Latin-American scholar and longtime professor.

Charles Arnade and Castro met on the evening of Nov. 24, 1955, at an Ayres Diner near the University of Tampa. Castro was there rallying a group of students to support him.

Arnade, who was teaching then at UT, was relaxing with a cup of coffee. When a student mentioned that Arnade had lived in Bolivia, written a book on its history and was considered an expert on Latin America, the revolutionary joined the professor at his table.

"My father was known as a left-leaning person and an activist," said Arnade's son, dean of the University of Hawaii's College of Arts & Humanities. So it would seem his father would like the pre-communist Castro who promoted himself as a freedom fighter.

Not the case.

They talked a bit about history and revolutions, but ultimately Arnade lectured Castro on morals and manners.

"My father was notoriously evasive, so that's all I know," his son said.

When Castro asked if they could meet again, Arnade declined.

"He thought Castro was over-the-top and not realistic," his son said. "He didn't think Castro could do what he promised."

Still, some in Tampa were impressed with Castro when he visited the city Nov. 23-28. Hundreds attended his Nov. 27 speech at an Ybor City union hall.

Because Tampa Tribune reporter Tom O'Connor wrote of the event, Castro stopped by the journalist's house the next day to thank him.

When Castro — with days-old stubble on his face and wearing a loose-fitting suit — knocked on the door, O'Connor's wife mistook him for one of the people who had painted their house earlier that week and thought they must still owe him money, the reporter's daughter Celia Ziegenfuss recounted in 2009.

As a sign of his appreciation, Castro gave O'Connor a lighter that had the Empire State Building etched on one side and the Statue of Liberty on the other.

Ziegenfuss could not be reached for comment for this article, but in 2009 she wrote that she still had the lighter. However, when it was gifted, her father didn't think it would have any historic value.

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Arnade — who would later have a 47-year career at the University of South Florida — had contact with other revolutionary figures besides Castro.

In the early 1950s, while in Bolivia researching a book, Arnade frequented a bar known for lively political debates. Among the regulars was Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

"He would tell my father how he was going to organize the Bolivian peasantry and my father would tell him that's not possible," Peter Arnade said.

His father also believed he had once met Adolf Hitler. It was around 1936, and Charles Arnade was 9 and living in Germany.

While Arnade was swimming in a river, a man on a nearby raft yelled out to keep up the hard work and one day he could compete in the Olympics.

"He thought that was Hitler," Arnade's son said. "There is no way to prove it. But Castro and Che 100 percent happened."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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