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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Bronson Thayer, walking rolodex

Bronson Thayer, who died on Christmas Eve, was one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever known. I’m sure he had literally thousands of friends – and could remember not only their names, but also those of their children, grandchildren, and quite possibly their pets. The man was a walking rolodex. More than that, he truly cared about those in his database mind. Hubby and I knew Bronson from the local Harvard Club, and I have no idea how that organization will carry on without him. He was its heart and soul.

I doubt if there is any Harvard alumnus in the nation who outpaced Bronson in the amount of time spent encouraging young people to get the best possible education. That certainly was true for our daughter and some of her Harvard classmates. He visited high schools to urge talented students to apply to Ivy League colleges, especially here in East Hillsborough, where he lived and where many kids don’t get the support they need to take this leap. He loved the September parties for incoming students and helped make Harvard financially possible. In our daughter’s case, he arranged funding for a summer job with the Museum of Science and Industry. He treated this as so routine that I’m sure he did the same for many others.

He was supportive of women, especially his wife, Stella Ferguson Thayer, who was one of Tampa’s first female lawyers. She outbid George Steinbrenner for ownership of Tampa Bay Downs, and the Harvard Club regularly held events there. Once we had a competition that included rowing in the oval track’s small pond – and I’m trying to remember what Bronson wore, as I can’t recall ever seeing him in anything but a suit and tie. He looked like the banker that he was, but in no way did he fit that stereotype. He also served in the Marine Corps, and like his neighbor, the late Bill McBride, didn’t fit that stereotype, either.

Like Stella, he was interested in horses and participated in a pony club that attracted young people. He knew one of our Armwood High School friends from that, and when the club took a trip to Ireland, he went out of his way to take this teenager to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, just because the kid’s name was Patrick. Bronson was both spontaneous and thoughtful – a delightful but rare combination.

He also took time to appear on one of the television classes that Hubby did for WUSF-TV. The course was “Professional Ethics,” and Bronson discussed the many ethical problems that can arise in banking. He said that he was convinced that business leaders are becoming more committed to including moral considerations in their decisions. He also said that not only would this make businesses more concerned about how they affect the rest of society, but also that it would be better for business, because being good is good for business.

Despite wealth and fame, Bronson was modest to a fault. The fault was that I never could get him to talk about his historic family. He would sort of acknowledge that Thayer Hall in Harvard Yard might be named for them, but soon changed the subject. The name on his business cards was “A. Bronson Thayer” – and more than once, I unsuccessfully asked him about any connection to A. Bronson Alcott, the father of author Louisa May Alcott. He invariably deflected it and turned the conversation back to me and mine.

I have never known a less self-centered person. I only wish we could have had him longer. His mother-in-law, Louise Lykes Ferguson, died in October at age 104, and Bronson followed just two months later at age 77. What a crushing blow to the family! Our hearts go out to them.

Celebratory Gunfire and More

Did you get the robocall from the Sheriff’s Office about that? It was a good message, reminding people that it is illegal to fire a gun in the air during New Years parties -- or any other time. It said that they had “zero tolerance” for aimless shooting and encouraged people to “as always, report any suspicious activity.” It also offered the non-emergency number for our district and repeated the message in Spanish.

I was glad to hear this – and I hope the Hillsborough County Fire Department will emulate it. We and our next-door neighbors have been having trouble with new neighbors to the back of us burning what we think is plastic and rubber. Our yards are big with lots of trees, so we can’t see what they are burning at night, but we certainly can smell it. So just last week, I tried to find a number other than 911 for our local fire station, which is only a few blocks away. I wanted to ask them to step outside and see if they, too, could smell illegal burning. I looked for a number in the phone book and on the internet in vain. The internet showed a map of where it is and titled it Station Number Four, but good luck with trying to call.

The only non-emergency number had the 272 prefix, which I know is the centralized system for the county, not a local number. I tried it, though, and got a message, which was not terribly surprising for county government during the holidays. Having no other choice, I dialed 911 – and got the same robotic technique from a live person that I had gotten when I called this number several months ago for a different problem. My experience is that 911 does not try to distinguish between fire, police, or EMT needs and forward the call to the appropriate and closest responders -- and worse, dispatchers insist on too much information before they even begin to assure you that help is on the way.

In the case that pertained to law enforcement, not fire, I saw someone who appeared to be trying to pick the lock on the gate of the church across the street. This congregation is composed of Baptists from the former USSR province of Moldavia, and they understandably are afraid of xenophobes. Except for a small crucifix carved into the concrete above the front door, nothing indicates that this former house is now a church for foreigners. They had been burglarized previously, with a television and other electronics stolen.

So when I saw this guy appearing to tamper with the gate lock, I called 911. Again, the dispatcher wanted my life history before she accepted the report. “What is the address of the emergency?” she asked. I told her the general location, but she wanted a specific street address. How many of you know the exact address of other buildings in your neighborhood? “What is your address?” she continued, and to shorten the conversation, I gave it. But why is that relevant? I might have been a passerby using a cell phone and my address would be totally meaningless.

She continued to waste time by asking for my phone number, and irritated by the delay, I said, “I’m sure it’s on your screen.” “Yes,” she said, “but I need you to verify it.” Now, I’m no electronics expert, but I’ve never heard of the capacity of putting a phone number on a computer screen that is not the number of the caller. Doing that would take a real CIA type, not an older woman trying to report a potential burglary at a church. Not surprisingly, while the dispatcher was questioning my motivation, the lock picker evidently decided it was beyond his expertise and walked away.

So one of my New Years wishes is that our local law enforcement and fire fighters sit down with our 911 dispatchers and figure out a way that citizens can report “any suspicious activity” without being treated as suspicious themselves. It’s notable, too, that the enlightened New Years Eve call on gunfire came from the Sheriff’s Office, which has an elected chief. The people who head fire departments and emergency management are not elected, and at least subliminally, that may make a difference in the way their employees treat the public. Nor have I ever heard of a preventative warning from either the city’s or the county’s fire departments on fireworks, which should be a priority at this time of year.

I’m not a nanny-state person, and Hubby and I enjoyed both a big bonfire and fireworks on New Years Eve – but it was carefully prepared and in a remote place that endangered no neighbors. Many fireworks are not in such places, and especially in this extraordinary dry winter, fire officials should be issuing warnings akin to those of the sheriff. Moreover, the county commissioners and city council members who are their ultimate bosses should think about the contradictions between what their ordinances say and the actuality of fireworks for sale on every corner. The contradiction between what we say and what we do only breeds contempt for government.

I’ve Been Intending to Say…

On election night, I immediately thought of Republican Frank White, the Arkansas businessman with no experience in government who defeated Democratic Governor Bill Clinton after his first term. I didn’t write about it, but now I shall, because of holiday parties where I encountered reports of people who voted for Trump, but never expected him to win. “I was just sending a message,” was the usual explanation. Exactly what that message was isn’t entirely clear, except that these voters wanted to be outliers.

Bill Clinton said that after his loss, he heard the “I was just sending a message” message from countless people, people who assured him that they didn’t intend for him to lose. He won the next time around, defeating White in a landslide, and was reelected until he was elected president. He told the story of Frank White many times, including at our Florida Democratic conventions. I liked his approach: “The next time an opponent goes after me with an ice pick, I’ll go after him with a meat cleaver.” But I don’t fault Hillary for not heeding this advice: A woman wielding a meat cleaver would be far too scary for most voters.

As a woman, her mere candidacy was unconventional enough, and she had to stick with conventional behavior, even in the face of outrageous attacks. She stayed positive, refusing to take the low road that would have been easy with her much-sued opponent. Her theme of “Stronger Together” was and is the moral message that America needs: She did not divide, with a meat cleaver or anything else, and she led Americans to see diversity as a strength, not a weakness. And we shall overcome.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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