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Joseph House, decorated veteran and civic leader, dies at 85

Published Jun. 7, 2017

TAMPA — Joseph W. House was a decorated veteran, past chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and former member of the University of Tampa board of trustees.

And for one year, he was Batman.

It was the early 1990s, remembers his wife, Susan House, and the two of them were the first married couple to jointly chair the annual fundraising drive for the local chapter of the United Way.

"At our first luncheon he shows up dressed as Batman," she said. "He said he saw a Bat-Signal that the United Way needed his help."

At almost every local United Way fundraising event that year, he donned the Batman costume. They raised $10 million, said his wife, 80.

Mr. House died on Friday, June 2 after a lengthy illness. He was 85.

"He was a super person in every way," his wife said. "He didn't need a costume."

As general manager for the United Services Automobile Association's southeast regional office in Tampa, Mr. House would send personalized birthday cards to all of his employees.

"If we were traveling, he carried a stack of cards with him," Susan House said.

And there was the time that he met King Hussein of Jordan while leading U.S. military exercises in that Middle Eastern country.

"In his very Southern manner, he invited the king to visit him at Fort Bragg," his wife said. "A while later, he got a call from the State Department wondering who he was and why the king was coming to see him."

The native of Birmingham, Ala., was born on Halloween in 1931. He began his military career shortly after graduating from West Point in 1957.

Mr. House would go on to serve in Vietnam on a one-year tour of duty that included time as an adviser with the 42nd Vietnamese Rangers operating out of the Bac Lieu Sector.

It was after retiring from the Army in 1984 as a colonel that Mr. House made his way to Tampa.

He quickly became immersed in the civic community, his wife said. He supported Metropolitan Ministries and the Alpha House, among other charities.

In 2009, he received the Tampa Bay Ethics Award from the University of Tampa.

"Joe was a model for our students to emulate, and we are humbled to have shared in his leadership and a special friendship," UT president Ron Vaughn said in a statement.

Most of all, Susan House hopes her husband is remembered for his colorful personality.

She recalled the time he was asked to testify on behalf of the business community in front of the Hillsborough County Commission about the importance of building Legends Field, now called George M. Steinbrenner Field.

"With his Army helmet in hand, he stood up and said, 'I never go into battle without a helmet,' " she said. "Then he made his plea. That's who he was."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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