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Legendary storyteller, barber for 73 years

He loved to tell tales of old West Tampa and Ybor City to customers in his shop, where he worked until he was 84.

By JAY CRIDLIN
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 28, 2002


MIDTOWN -- At the age of 11, when most children his age were still playing catch in the streets, Harry Almerico was already a family breadwinner, delivering newspapers and milk, shining shoes, and even cutting hair.

Whatever meager earnings young Harry brought home helped supplement his father's income as a baker and cigar roller and provide for the family's eight children.

Mr. Almerico, a legendary storyteller who worked as a barber in Tampa for 73 years, died Friday at the age of 94.

"My dad told so many stories; that's what we loved about him," said his daughter, Celeste Almerico. "Right up until the end, his memory was just great. He always would start with 'Well, I remember when...' and 'Swear to God, this is the truth..."'

Mr. Almerico, a West Tampa native, learned much about storytelling from his parents, who emigrated from Sicily, Italy, at the turn of the century. He would often awaken to their Italian singing and dancing, and neighborhood kids would gather in his living room to hear his father tell stories.

It wasn't long before Mr. Almerico began cultivating stories of his own. While still very young, he delivered milk and bread around town in a horse-drawn carriage, six days a week, sleeping in the carriage at night.

At the age of 11, he had a paper route that took him into a downtown barber shop each morning. The barber hired him to shine shoes, and before long, as an apprentice barber, learning the trade by watching the other barbers work.

An athletic teenager, Mr. Almerico was a fairly successful local boxer, fighting in Ybor City under the name Harry Miller. He trained and managed his brothers in the ring, and their mother handled their prize money.

He was good friends with Santo Trafficante Jr., Tampa's mob ruler and one of the country's most powerful underworld figures. He is, in fact, buried just one plot from Trafficante in the Italian Club Cemetery.

Grandson Jesse Rodriguez said Mr. Almerico always prided himself on being a legitimate businessman.

"He went for the honest route," Rodriguez said. "No inhibitions about anything. He had a confidence about it that just wouldn't shake."

Mr. Almerico worked as a barber for 73 years, owning Harry's Barber Shop downtown before it was razed to make way for the public library, and later working at Almerico's Barber Shop on Henderson Boulevard. He even trained his brothers to be barbers.

"If ever he had a customer that was sick, they would call and my dad would go and give them a haircut at their home or the hospital on Sunday mornings," said daughter Harriet Almerico.

His own home was in the neighborhood of Midtown, near Kennedy Boulevard and MacDill Avenue.

"He worked until he was 84 years old," Harriet said. "He didn't want to give it up. He hated to leave his customers."

Most important to Mr. Almerico was family -- his wife of nearly 69 years, Antoinette, and their two daughters. "All he ever wanted was his family close to him," Celeste said.

He spent his life spinning yarns of old West Tampa and Ybor City to anyone within earshot, from his barber shop customers to his grandchildren. Even recently, he would gather with about 15 friends every Saturday at the Tropicana restaurant in Ybor City to tell jokes and swap stories about the city.

"He always told a story good, I thought, entertaining," Rodriguez said. "Everybody would listen when he spoke."

Mr. Almerico's survivors include his wife, Antoinette; two daughters, Celeste Almerico and Harriet Almerico; three brothers, Louis, Leo and Pat Almerico; four grandchildren, Gabrielle Ayala, Jessica Rodriguez, Jesse Rodriguez and Jason Almerico; and a great-grandson, Theo Almerico.

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