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Untiring activist; his whirl of cuisine

By MICHAEL CANNING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 9, 2002

Do you think 45 years of social activism has tuckered out Rudolph Harris?

"I probably won't retire until they bury me," said the 70-year-old veteran teacher and newspaper columnist.

Authoring the "Black American History" column in the Florida Sentinel Bulletin since 1974, Harris has remained one of the most consistently outspoken advocates of Tampa's black community.

Born and raised here, Harris graduated from Middleton High School, and served in the Army from 1950 to 1953. After earning a bachelor's degree in education from Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Harris began his teaching career in 1957 at Booker T. Washington Junior High. From 1958-60 he taught at Henderson Elementary, 1961-69 at Potter Elementary, 1970-74 at Plant High School, and from 1975 to his 1993 retirement at Jefferson High School.

Harris' social activism was spurred at the dawn of his teaching career. It bothered him that in those days teachers were surreptitious about joining the NAACP, worried about their careers. "It was a hidden fear," said Harris.

He went on to participate in numerous civil rights campaigns. A short stint as Plant's human relations specialist ended in 1975 when Harris criticized then-principal Jack Marley's handling of a fight between a black and a white student. Harris was demoted back to a classroom teacher. He and the Hillsborough Classroom Teacher's Association unsuccessfully challenged the decision.

Harris also protested a proposed downtown museum in the early '90s that would feature a former slave ship, testified for the defense in the murder trial of a black man who shot Tampa police Officer Porfirio Soto in 1989, petitioned the county for the renaming of Buffalo Avenue to Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., and protested (along with his son Marzuz Al-Hakim) at-large School Board elections in 1990 and 1994. In 1995 he ran unsuccessfully for Perry Harvey's City Council seat.

When not busy writing his column, Harris reads and watches CNN. Despite his historically tenuous history with the School Board, Harris still substitute teaches at local middle and high schools.

"I'll give the school system 10 more good years," he said, laughing.

* * *

When savvy Tampa diners talked New American cuisine in the '80s, they needed only three letters.

rg's.

That stood for Rusty Grimm, the restaurateur who also brought the Cactus Club and Hot Tomato's to Tampa's restaurant scene. Carrollwood's Hot Tomato's lasted a little over a year and closed in 1988. The Cactus Club, opened in 1985, remains in Old Hyde Park Village.

The cozy converted house at 1502 S Howard Ave. was French long before it was Le Bordeaux. Grimm opened it as Rhones in 1980, then sold the business in 1981. Grimm, now 51, closed both of his namesake eateries, rg's north in Northdale and rg's city centre in downtown, shortly before he left Tampa for his hometown of Denver in 1991.

He decided to break ground back home too, bringing a balmy dose of Florida to the Mile High City with the Palmetto Grille. Featuring a palm tree motif, seafood, pasta and wood-fired pizzas, the concept caught on for a spell. Grimm opened a second one in 1995, but closed both by 1997.

Then he was hired by Dallas-based restaurant chain owner Brinker International to manage a Maggiano's Little Italy in Washington D.C. He remained there until two weeks ago, when he transferred to Durham, N.C., to manage a new Maggiano's.

In November Grimm returned to Tampa briefly to work at the WestShore Plaza Maggiano's. Despite considerable changes to the city center since the rg's days, he said, "It still looked kind of dead downtown."

Grimm golfs in his spare time, and recently got to play at Durham's prestigious Pinehurst No. 2 course with a group of friends.

-- Michael Canning can be reached at 226-3408, or canning@sptimes.com.

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