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Thursday, Apr 17, 2014
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Born in the Depression, they led Tampa to prosperity

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The three men were born within three years of each other during the bleak years of the Great Depression. Their parents were hard working, mostly lacked formal educations and wanted their sons to do what had been unthinkable in their own lifetime: attend college. All three married their high school sweethearts. As young adults they entered the work-a-day world of the 1950s eager to start a family and a career. The three men, all different, yet bearing striking similarities from their shared generational experiences, became mayor of the city of Tampa.

Bill Poe, born in 1931, Dick Greco, born in 1933, and Bob Martinez, born in 1934, all came from close-knit neighborhoods and families of Seminole Heights and West Tampa. Greco and Martinez were only children. Their early years were consumed by the memories of the Great Depression and World War II, times of frugality and sacrifice.

Bill Poe remembers that he and his friends would try to “find dimes” for the war effort. Bob Martinez recalls soldiers from nearby Drew Field marching through their neighborhood, and that each Friday the military sent a speaker to Tampa Bay Boulevard Elementary to talk about military service and the war. Dick Greco was given a gift by a neighbor: a .22 rifle used by a son killed in combat.

Early in their lives, national leaders had an impact. When Franklin Roosevelt died in April 1945, Greco felt that someone in his family had passed away. “I cried,” remembers Poe. For Martinez, his first memory of a president was Harry Truman in 1946, sitting in the review stand as Martinez marched in a school parade in Washington, D.C.

Their Tampa was a small city, industrial, lacking in basic infrastructure. Many streets were unpaved, and people stayed within their neighborhood, socializing with kids on the block. Though their families were all of modest means, none of the three recalls going without. Martinez describes his early years as “the happiest childhood you could ever find.” Greco watched a steady stream of people come into his father’s Ybor City hardware store to discuss politics. Poe, one of three children, remembers a childhood of simple pleasures, such as attending the Tampa Theatre for 25 cents.

In high school, Poe and Martinez mirror one another, playing team sports and regularly being elected to leadership positions. At Hillsborough High, Poe was the president of the Student Council, lettered in basketball and was the school’s tennis champion. Martinez, too, excelled at team sports, playing baseball and basketball. He held leadership positions at Jefferson High and in his senior year was crowned the Dragon Court King.

Greco was two years behind Poe at Hillsborough High, but his interests took a different, more solitary path than the others. At age 14 he developed a love for skeet shooting, and that activity carried him through his high school years as he entered national tournaments where he consistently stood out.

None of their fathers had a high school education; only Poe’s mother had any education beyond high school. They wanted more for their sons and stressed the importance of hard work and a formal education. Poe headed to Duke University for a year before transferring and graduating from the University of Florida. Martinez and Greco graduated from the University of Tampa. All three married and started their families between 1953 and 1955. Poe and Martinez have been married for nearly 60 years to the women who first caught their eye while sitting in their high school classroom.

None of the three imagined themselves as a future mayor. Poe’s father wanted his son to be a businessman, and Poe obliged, starting his own insurance firm after completing military service and college. Greco saw himself taking over his father’s hardware store in Ybor City. Martinez started teaching after college, but entered the field of labor relations, earning a Master’s degree in the field. Later, he followed his father’s path into the restaurant business, operating the popular Café Seville.

Although Greco entered politics early by running for the Tampa City Council, Poe and Martinez were established businessmen who community leaders courted to enter the mayor’s race.

For nearly three decades they governed the city of Tampa, each bringing progress to their hometown. Their styles differed, the trajectory of their careers distinctive to their individual talents. But they contributed in similar ways to today’s Tampa. Through their collective efforts, Tampa grew from a small municipality to a city with a positive national reputation, boasting first-class amenities such as the Tampa International Airport and a National Football League franchise. Downtown skyscrapers dotted the landscape along with a Convention Center, and the waterfront was redeveloped. Roads were paved, and state of the art, water and sewer treatment systems built.

For the generation born during the Depression, molded by the experiences of World War II, and coming of age during the economic boom of the 1950s, opportunities seemed limitless. From this era came three Tampa mayors who embraced all that was possible for their hometown.

Pam Iorio, the former mayor of Tampa, is a speaker and author. Her history column, Our Journey, runs biweekly in The Tampa Tribune. Contact her at pam@pamiorio.com

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