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Column: The noblest Gator of them all

Michael Gannon, then a Catholic priest, meets with President John Kennedy in Tampa in 1963.
Michael Gannon, then a Catholic priest, meets with President John Kennedy in Tampa in 1963.

Michael Gannon, whose eventful life included delivering newspapers to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Zora Neale Hurston, a stint as the voice of the University of South Carolina Gamecocks, ordination as a Roman Catholic priest who rose to the rank of monsignor, authoring seminal books about Spanish Florida, a furtive meeting with President John Kennedy, being an early critic of Vietnam and civil rights pioneer, and one of the most revered figures in the history of the University of Florida, died this week. He was 89. He was the noblest Gator of them all, the recipient of the LeRoy Collins Lifetime Leadership Award.

Born in Oklahoma in 1927, he was brought by his mother to St. Augustine in 1940. Few Floridians have ever been so attached to and identified with a place as Gannon and his love affair with "The Oldest City." As a young boy, he developed a lifelong curiosity in exploring the city's narrow streets and its turbulent past.

A newspaper delivery boy for the St. Augustine Record in 1943, he was asked by the editor if he would like a promotion to sports reporter. Not everyone was impressed with his prose. Bishop Joseph Patrick Curley asked to see the young reporter, who also served as altar boy. He told Michael that he had read his columns, but was disturbed by his excessive use of adjectives and adverbs. He then provided Gannon a book of Red Smith's sports essays culled from the New York Herald Tribune. "It was the finest writing advice I ever received," Gannon recollected over libations many years ago.

St. Augustine throbbed with excitement during World War II. "In some ways," reflected Gannon, "St. Augustine had returned to its roots as a disorderly garrison town for the Spanish and British."

Gannon recalled the Texas 36th National Guard recruits who trained at nearby Camp Blanding. On weekends, they took over Glick's Famous Bar on Cathedral Place. Only one song was allowed on the jukebox: Deep in the Heart of Texas. Soldiers demanded patrons stand at attention during the song, and if one declined, a patriot seized the offender by the collar and made him stand in attention.

Bishop Curley quipped, "God help the Germans if the Texas 36th were sent to Europe." War's reality appeared in sobering headlines. The Germans slaughtered the Texans at the Rapido River in Italy.

A graduate of the Catholic University of America, Gannon followed his vocation to the Université de Louvain in Belgium, where he was ordained. He later received his Ph.D. in history at the University of Florida. His dissertation became one of the classic works of Florida history: The Cross in the Sand: The Early Catholic Church in Florida.

In 1963, Father Gannon was preparing for St. Augustine's 400th anniversary. He was praying for federal funds to refurbish the city named after the patron saint of brewers and theologians. He learned that President John Kennedy was visiting Tampa on Nov. 18. Arranging a meeting with the president, he showed Kennedy the oldest surviving documents in Spanish Florida. As President Kennedy exited the room, he asked Father Gannon to "keep in touch." At the last second, he asked, "What is your name again?"

Father Gannon became a towering figure on the University of Florida campus. He taught history, directed the Catholic Student Center, and hosted a public television show. In the upheaval following the Kent State killings in 1970 and 9/11, he provided a calming influence on the Gainesville campus.

Gannon left the priesthood in 1976, devoting his passions to the university, writing and his wife, Genevieve.

Gannon's influence as a teacher was incalculable. Ten years ago, a new dean arrived on the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus. I greeted Frank Biafora, offering him a copy of my book. He noticed a Gannon blurb on the back cover. "Michael Gannon changed my life," he exclaimed. Biafora admitted that he was a drifting, unprepared undergraduate at UF until he took professor Gannon's class on Florida history. "I wanted to be just like Michael Gannon," Biafora declared.

In an age of specialization, Gannon revealed his breadth of talents with his 1990 book, Operation Drumbeat: Germany's U-Boat Attacks Along the Atlantic Coast in WWII. Audiences flocked to his book talks, in part to hear his booming voice, in part to pay tribute to one of Florida's great teachers.

He never finished his much-awaited autobiography.

Michael Gannon was a good shepherd. He was also a gentle mentor, a calm voice amid the hurly-burly, and a gifted chronicler who wrote singing prose with just enough adjectives and adverbs.

Gary R. Mormino is scholar in residence at the Florida Humanities Council.

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