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Wednesday, Jul 23, 2014
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Otto: Traveling with Leland Hawes was trip for the ages

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Many, among the hundreds of comments I have read since former Tribune reporter/editor/historian Leland Hawes passed away on Saturday, have attached the word “gentleman” to his name. I’ve said the same thing.

It’s not a word you see much these days, I suppose for good reason. And it’s certainly not one you might expect to be used about a newspaperman, which Leland most certainly was.

In his reporting days he found himself being questioned/threatened at a Klan rally in the Florida sticks. He was in downtown Havana the day Castro rolled into town. He wrote about bad guys as well as good and never held back. He believed in truth and accuracy and telling the whole story. It’s a trait that doesn’t always make for close friends, although I don’t know anyone in town who has more.

Today, in some circles, he would be an anachronism. Why would you need someone to tell the history of something when you can push a computer button and ask Google?

I’ll tell you why. Leland could connect the dots that computers could not know about. He could tell you why some politician had it in for another. He knew why developers did this or why projects failed. He could tell you why they put palmetto leaves in Cuban bread or where you might find Hannah’s Whirl. He knew why Ashley Drive has a great story behind it and where Elvis spent his time in town.

Sometimes I toss around terms such as “Tampa treasure” or “legendary” a little too casually. Leland was both.

He re-created the murder of mobster Charlie Wall inside his house for me, pointing out where everything happened and who likely did the killing. He showed me where secret tunnels would be in Ybor City and could draw family lines in his mind that explained who was who.

You can’t go out and buy an iHawes at some store in the mall. The technology doesn’t exist. He was our particular treasure.

In 1984 I drove to San Francisco for the Democratic National Convention. The idea was I might take a few weeks and write about the mood of the country along the way. It turned out Leland was going to Arizona for a hobby printer’s convention — the man had his own printing press in a back room of his house — and wondered if he might tag along. Sit in the back seat for a minute and let me take you with us.

We got as far as Americus, Ga., that first Saturday night in July. I wanted to stay over and hear Jimmy Carter teach Sunday school in nearby Plains the next morning.

So what do you do in Americus on Saturday night? I figured on watching a ballgame on the tube. Leland came running from the motel lobby to tell me he had seen a notice about a prisoner of war film festival going on at a Civil War cemetery.

A couple of hours later we were standing outside with a dozen others watching a Ronald Reagan POW movie shown against a cemetery wall, fighting off thousands of mosquitoes. I understood a little of the hell those poor prisoners must have undergone at that same place. By the end of the film the crowd had dwindled to Leland, me and the projectionist. “I’ve got another film,” the projectionist said glumly, “if anyone wants to stay.” Leland, being Leland, actually thought he wanted us to hang around. Reluctantly Leland agreed to call it a night and go back to Americus.

Leland, the proper southern gentleman, was also punctual. In a sense, traveling with him was like traveling with your mother-in-law. We couldn’t drive after 5 p.m. because he needed to get ready for “supper.” Then we would take a quick drive around the town so he could check out its history in plaques and markers and go back to the motel so he could call it an early night.

We drove into Tampa, Kan., on a Sunday morning where the only store open was a shoe repair shop, and the guy happened to be the mayor and local historian. Leland told him more about his town than he had any idea. Leland even knew that at the outskirts of that Tampa you could find the ruts of the old Santa Fe trail.

By the time we hit Wyoming I could tell Leland was getting a little nervous as the speedometer crept up as we crossed the prairie with nothing in sight but herds of antelope. He seemed grateful when I asked him if he wanted to drive.

Bringing the speed down to about half of what we had been doing, it was about 10 minutes before the siren of some local sheriff’s deputy pulled us over and gave Leland a ticket for speeding.

Mortified, he demanded we pull off into the next town, which happened to be Chugwater, Wyo. He said he needed a drink, which seemed unlike Leland until we pulled into a drugstore that still had a soda fountain and he could drown his embarrassment in a chocolate shake.

There was so much more. Leland knew everybody, from the guy who ran the Pony Express Museum in Missouri to Paul Mcllhenny, who invited us to lunch at his Tabasco plantation on Avery Island in Louisiana.

I believe a lot of that came from his hobby printing. He would gather a few stories, set the type by hand and ship off his “Gator Growl” booklet around the country and in turn get similar publications from colleagues across America.

But it was this town he knew best. He told it completely, warts and all, and he made us the better for it.

For those of us at Mother Trib and especially for me, Leland was always there, always going the extra mile and always the one person who gave our newsroom and even this town a little more grace than it deserved.

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