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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.

MADD, Madder and It Matters

The irony of this timing: My friend Debbie Katt, who is the Democratic nominee for Florida House District 57 (Valrico and surroundings), was in a meeting on gun safety when phones started ringing with the news about Sunday’s shooting in Jacksonville. She said it felt surreal. I’m sure it did. It probably felt helpless, too, as that’s where we seem to be with mainly thoughts and prayers from our legislative “leaders.” Debbie had been in the House gallery last spring, when lawmakers voted not to even discuss the issue – despite the fact that Parkland students had made the long trip there.

The first e-mail I got about Jax was from Gwen Graham; the second from Gabby Giffords. It made me think of how women seem to care more about caring than (most) men, and that made me think of MADD. Drunk drivers had been killing innocent people on highways ever since cars became common in the 1920s, mostly with impunity. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when women began to feel empowered, that this crime was discussed as a real crime, instead of excusing it as “boys will be boys.” Ditto with rape, although we won’t get into that today.

MADD formed nationally in 1980, and I met members when I was working for Betty Castor in 1986. She had given up her seat in the Florida Senate to run for education commissioner (no longer an elected office, thanks to Jeb and his Republican buddies) when MADD began to emerge as a powerhouse of ordinary women. Mothers Against Drunk Driving was not a typical lobbying group: they were simply women who were mad about the deaths of loved ones and the state’s lack of concern. Many, even most, alcoholic killers soon would be back on the road, while mothers and children had their world changed forever.

One of the leaders in Florida’s movement was Karen Gievers, whose husband had been killed by a drunk driver. Ironically, I saw her image just hours ago, in my routine review of the daily news. She is now a Circuit Court Judge, and she was lecturing the lawyer who stupidly argued that the court must approve the bundled provisions of constitutional amendments because the CRC won’t meet for another twenty years. That’s another topic we won’t go into today, but of course the judge was right to point out that the legislature and the people, via petition, can put a constitutional amendment on any ballot any time.

I don’t know if the frat-boy lawyer really is this ignorant, or if he thought his 20-year argument was clever. But frat boys who either are dumb or who assume that they can deceive women old enough to be their grandmothers -- that’s the real problem. These guys have been in charge in Tallahassee for the last two decades, each one more self-interested than the last. It’s time for women to take control again, as we did in the golden days of the 1970s and 1980s, when Hillsborough’s Senate delegation included Pat Frank, Helen Gordon Davis and Betty Castor. That’s when we made real change on domestic violence and other crimes that previously had been excused.

So, let me suggest to gun safety advocates that you take a page from MADD’s methodology. Go to the candidate forums that are occurring now, ask loaded questions, and don’t settle for platitudes. Make plans to flood the capitol halls after the election and to dog legislators’ district offices. And be encouraged by the MADD analogy. We continue to overcome – but not without work. And that work includes supporting good candidates with some money and/or time.

A Sad Week, Part 1

The first loss was Delia Sanchez, who died on Saturday, August 18, at age 93. Delia was a genuine national figure, as she worked with the late Congressman Sam Gibbons to create Head Start. I was a teenager in Arkansas when Head Start began – aimed at poor communities like ours. I never thought that one day I would know the visionaries behind this highly successful federal program, nor that they would be so modest and self-effacing about the great good that they did for generations far into the future.

Born in Ybor City in 1924 – two years after LaGaceta began -- Delia Perez may have been the first Hispanic woman to go to Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee. FSCW, now FSU, was a very WASP institution; my friend Lu Dovi, who graduated from there in 1944, can confirm that. Delia’s ability overcame any prejudice, though, and she went on to earn a master’s degree in social work in 1947 at New York City’s Columbia University. Then and now, Columbia’s Teacher College is the best in the nation, and Delia knew whereof she spoke on children and learning.

Others have and will say more about Delia and her stellar son Francisco, but I want to relate two personal things. First, Delia translated some documents for me when the Athena Society sponsored the writing of Real Women of Tampa and Hillsborough County. They were for the first chapter, and I was trying to figure out the roles that Spanish women played in the settlement of Florida. I’m still trying to figure it out. But I greatly appreciated Delia’s reassurance that some of these things – mostly written by Catholic priests – made no sense. The bottom line is that women were active in all the attempts to settle Florida from 1513 to success in 1565, and I remain grateful to Delia.

The second story is from 1957, when she married Francisco Sanchez, Senior. They honeymooned in Spain, and as I recall her telling, she had a relative in the automobile business who gave her a new car as a wedding present. Spanish authorities absolutely could not believe that a woman owned this vehicle, and there was a great deal of red tape before the newlyweds could go on. So in addition to being a strong advocate for children and for Spanish-speakers, Delia was a feminist.

A Sad Week, Part 2

Melinda Chavez died on Tuesday, August 21. She was not a close friend, but we had known each other for a long time. The first time we met was at a panel discussion organized by the late, much-lamented Leland Hawes of the Tampa Tribune, who was the local history expert. It was at the old art museum, and judging from the online bio of the third woman on the panel, Dr. Nancy Hewitt, was in the mid-1980s. Nancy moved on from USF to better opportunities about then, and I see that she retired from Rutgers in 2013.

Anyway, I never shall forget that event because it was the first time I was exposed to the modern style of “panel discussion.” It’s essentially sequential speeches, with a little Q&A at the end if there’s time. I had expected that Leland would ask questions, and we would discuss them in a general give-and-take -- but instead Nancy and Melinda delivered their prepared addresses, while I hastily scribbled some notes for my turn. It was one of several times that I’ve been glad to have a name that ends in W. (Except once at USF. The moderator didn’t reign in the first speakers, and because of my end-of-the-alphabet name, the microphone never made it to me.)

But back to Melinda: She was prepared and knew what to expect, and I believe she was ever thus. With degrees from Emory and the University of Virginia, she had to be. Among other positions, she taught at Tampa Prep, was a curator at the Plant Museum, and headed both the Ybor State Museum and the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts. Always impeccably dressed, she was a beneficial presence in our community, and I shall miss her.

A Sad Week, Part 3

I got Simon, a German shepherd, in lieu of pay for working in George Sheldon’s 1982 congressional campaign. Simon was the best of dogs. He looked like a police dog, which could be helpful in some situations, but those who knew him quickly came to understand that he was a politician’s dog. Like George, he loved everyone who loved him back. Simon died in January 1988, relieving us of the worry we had about leaving him when we left for six month in Europe that fall – which we would not have done had George won. He lost by less than one-half of one percentage to Mike Bilirakis. Like other Republicans, he ran on a platform of term limits – and now, 36 years later, the Bilirakis family still holds that seat.

It is especially painful to write about George, not only because we were once very close, but also because his August 23th death was a profound shock. We had exchanged e-mails fairly recently, and neither I nor anyone I know knew that he fell while exercising three weeks ago and broke his neck. I still don’t know details, but it doesn’t matter. He’s gone, and I’ll have to get up the backbone to erase him and too many others from my database.

My memory is very clear about our first meeting: John Iorio, Mayor Pam’s late father, introduced us at a USF candidate meeting. George won that 1974 election, and my next clear memory is a pig roast that he soon gave for volunteers. Our daughter, now a middle-aged lawyer in Washington, was not yet walking. She crawled around the Plant City venue wearing an orange tiger jumpsuit. There were many other barbeques, picnics, beach and boat outings, and more, as George loved a party.

Until 1982, reelections were easy and provided a good excuse for getting together with dear friends, some of whom lived in Tallahassee. George moved there after losing the congressional race, bought a house, and obtained another German shepherd. Josh had belonged to George’s wonderfully faithful secretary, Sonny Oppenheim, and the dogs were jealous of each other. They remembered their hatred years later, when I took Simon to Tallahassee. (Yes, I know you probably are thinking: Who is she mourning? The dog or the man?)

George was poor, so poor that his campaign committee in 1972 actually held a yard sale. The youngest of seven, his widowed mother was a cook at a school lunchroom; they lived in a Plant City trailer park. He got his start in politics by volunteering for Governor Reubin Askew, and George was elected to office before he graduated from law school. He went on to work for Governor Lawton Chiles, Attorney General Bob Butterworth, and President Bill Clinton. In the latter, he was an assistant head of Health & Human Services in Washington and helped implement the Affordable Healthcare Act.

Like Delia, George’s life revolved around social work, especially for children and the mentally disabled. I guess I didn’t mention that when we first met, he was eking out a living as the sole employee of the Hillsborough County Associated for Retarded Citizens. Neither he nor Delia or Melinda ever made much money for their good work, but they make good obituaries. Bless their memories.


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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