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Lawyer John Germany, driving force behind downtown Tampa library, dies at 92

TAMPA — His diagnosis came only this month. Incurable cancer. At 92, John F. Germany began to say his goodbyes.

Young lawyers and old friends dropped by to see him and his family gathered around.

But there were final instructions from the man who founded downtown Tampa's public library and remembered it in his waning hours, as he shared the beginnings of a plan to expose more children to books.

"He wants people to love to read," daughter Jan Gruetzmacher said.

Mr. Germany died peacefully at his South Tampa home early Wednesday morning (Aug. 26, 2015.)

He was a founding partner of the Holland & Knight law firm, one of a handful of men who pushed aside obstacles to build the University of South Florida, and the driving force behind construction of the public library that bears his name.

In a journal written at age 77, he described the first book he ever owned, given to him by his eldest brother's wife. The siblings were 18 years apart.

"Roy's wife, Mamie, gave me my first book, which was of the Tom Swift series," he wrote, "and reading it would set me to dreaming.

"My mother, even though we were poor, made us believe we were the best and she never had any doubt that one day I would become President."

His last book read was the third volume of a Winston Churchill biography, The Last Lion, left open on his night stand to Page 682.

•••

He was born in Alabama but arrived in Plant City as an infant in 1923, the youngest of six children. His father's aspirations of real estate development and banking were drained by the Great Depression.

As a boy, Mr. Germany delivered newspapers to pay his family's light bill, pedaling on dirt roads before 4 a.m., and then collecting payment on Saturdays.

"It was a lesson in economics," he told the Tampa Bay Times in 2012. "Just because a person had a Cadillac in the driveway did not mean they paid the paperboy."

As a teen, he set his sights on Harvard, Yale and Princeton, but later recalled the teacher who tore up his list of prospective universities and called his ambitions "impossible."

"I've always been a dreamer," he said.

He made it to Harvard Law School after first attending the University of Florida and serving in World War II.

He and his contemporaries came home to a Tampa that would be driven by their ideas.

"My father's friends were the publisher of the newspaper, the head of TECO," Gruetzmacher said. "They were the men who shaped Tampa. They had strong friendships and cared about each other and the community.

"It wasn't political. They got things done."

In 1956, Mr. Germany and his good friend Sam Gibbons, the future congressman, hatched plans with Gov. LeRoy Collins to launch USF.

The library effort grew out of the 1960s. Mr. Germany was chairman of the Friends of the Library Organization while a sitting Hillsborough County circuit judge. Tampa's original library, built under a Carnegie Corp. grant, had outgrown its Seventh Avenue quarters.

He combed through the city budget and found unused money from cigarette taxes, convincing then-Mayor Nick Nuccio to pay for the plan.

Mr. Germany once called the downtown library on Ashley Street his most significant accomplishment.

But there were others, some less obvious.

Architect Harry Wolf said Mr. Germany built community and government support for NCNB Plaza on the Hillsborough River at Kennedy Boulevard — now known as Rivergate Tower, affectionately dubbed "the beer can building."

Mr. Germany's love for literature was immediately evident, said Wolf, who designed the tower.

"On entering his office for the first time, as we shook hands a title in his bookcase to the right caught my eye," Wolf said. "Our first words were not a discussion of the project but of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. With this an immediate friendship was forged."

•••

The young man from Plant City had long since married a South Tampa Gasparilla queen, the late Mary Ellen Germany. She taught school before giving birth to the first of their four children.

She died seven years ago at the age of 82.

They had lived for decades in one home then another near the Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club before retiring to a condominium at Howell Park on Bayshore Boulevard.

Time had stolen others from Mr. Germany, including one of his law partners, John Arthur Jones, and Gibbons, the congressman, whom Mr. Germany loved like a brother.

To some it is the curse of a long life: burying friends and loved ones.

But Mr. Germany reached out to those younger for comfort, and in so doing, provided it.

"I want to hold your hand and talk about Sam," he once told another lawyer at the news of Gibbons' passing.

As a widower, he held court at the Howell Park swimming pool with visitors and neighbors.

He gathered fledgling lawyers for excursions to iconic Mel's Hot Dogs in the summer.

He worked until age 90 and read his daily newspapers until last Friday, daughter Lindsey Robbins said.

He met friends for breakfast at the Palma Ceia club. His absence this month was noted. A server called home to check up on him.

Mr. Germany's cancer was confirmed 2½ weeks ago after the discovery of a tumor on his pancreas, the family said.

He wasted no time. He saw friends and loved ones. He talked to people on the phone.

It was as if he had an agenda each day, a daughter said.

He died as he so often had lived: amid the excitement of a big idea and the hope of making his community better.

With a signature on paper, he left the financial means to jump start one final civic project — the John Germany Youth Reading Initiative — through the Hillsborough County Friends of the Library organization.

He wanted to encourage children to dream, Robbins said.

He knew that books were the way.

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Patty Ryan at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

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