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Wednesday, Apr 16, 2014

Iorio: A day to remember — when it snowed in Tampa

Published:   |   Updated: January 5, 2014 at 01:25 PM

There was plenty of news that day. The mayor of Tampa, Bill Poe was hospitalized with a heart attack. The country was preparing for the inauguration of Jimmy Carter as president.

But the news that dominated The Tampa Tribune on Jan. 19, 1977, was the snowfall in Tampa — that rare occurrence when a blast of Arctic air and our high humidity came together to make for an unforgettable experience. Real snow fell across almost all of Florida — even as far south as Miami.

That morning I awoke at 5:30 to find our front yard covered with the white stuff. I was a senior at King High School, and the school was on double sessions due to overcrowding. That meant juniors and seniors started class at 7 a.m. — and we were dismissed at noon.

But who could think about school when there was snow outside? Real snow — enough to scoop into a ball and throw; enough to make a snow angel in the lawn!

School was called off that day. Looking back, I wonder how we got the word that school was canceled. Without cellphones, email or social media, I suppose someone must have called the home phone. But who was inside to receive any calls? We were all outside laughing and running around — writing messages on top of cars and taking photos with our little Kodak Instamatic.

Still, the home phone must have been the messenger. That's how I learned that my best friend, Caryn, was one of hundreds involved in a fender bender that day — hers while attempting to cross an icy bridge. It must be how we all organized a trip to the Village Inn on 30th Street in North Tampa where friends gathered to have breakfast and celebrate the snow.

Caryn's car accident was one of many as cars slipped out of control on ice patches. A hard freeze lingered after the initial snowfall, endangering crops and causing a run on long johns at the stores.

Memories abound of that day. Ask anyone who lived here during that time, and to a person they will remember the day snow fell.

Our journey is a collection of memories ranging from personal reflections within our own family to broader societal events that are seared into our consciousness.

Look no further than the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination and the outpouring of emotion decades later to see how we are collectively touched by events and how it shapes our lives. Sept. 11 had a similar effect, and our reaction to that day and its aftermath defines us as a nation.

History is dull to those who see it as a memorization of dates and events. But told as an unfolding story — a collective journey that frames our lives — then history comes alive.

During my most difficult times as mayor, I relied upon reading history to lend perspective. Washington and his command of the army in the Revolutionary War, Jefferson and his thoughtful and visionary writings, Lincoln and his unusual brand of leadership that brought us through the Civil War, Teddy Roosevelt and his vigorous use of the bully pulpit to rally Americans toward an active agenda of change. The list goes on, and the lessons are many. What we can all draw from history is our own personal connection to events — and the themes of resiliency, courage, vision and enduring optimism that can help define our own lives. I took comfort in looking at today's problems through the context of a historical lens. Our past is a source of strength for today.

History is filled not only with the big events, but memories of the everyday. Founding Father Benjamin Franklin saw the relevance of the daily schedule, the importance of each activity: his meals, his thoughts, the weather, reading and contemplation. His journals contained a morning and an evening question: “What good shall I do today?,” and “What good have I done today?” Within those pages were details of daily life — no great pronouncements, discoveries or signed treaties. Rather, he saw the significance of life through the lens of the ordinary.

We tend to discount the relevance of daily routine and occurrences because we don't see them as part of a larger narrative. Often, though, we show interest in the mundane lives of those who lived long ago. Museums, books and television programs examine the lives of our ancestors: What did they eat? How did they travel? What were their daily habits? What did their diaries tell us? We see significance in the past that we don't recognize in our own lives.

It is called social history, and it is an important component of understanding our past, our future and one another. It is about the commonplace — family activities, great meals, the impact of a teacher, births and deaths, accidents, celebrations, a good book, music, art, theater, learning to drive, a hurricane, power outages, restaurants, sporting events, a day at the park, a commute to work, our spiritual home, dreadful mistakes, an act of kindness — and yes, a rare snowfall in Tampa.

It is all history — yours and mine, and what we share becomes a collective journey that creates community.

Here's to the new year, where our day-to-day lives has value and forms an ongoing narrative of a lasting and meaningful history.

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