Citrus loses a star that still drew a crowd
By JIM ROSS, Times Staff Writer
His likeness appeared on many billboards, encouraging drivers to pull off the highway and check out the place where he lived: a growing development called Citrus Hills.
The Citrus Hills developer also used Mr. Williams' name and star power to gain a foothold with fellow New Englanders. The fans responded, with thousands choosing to spend their retirement years in the same place their sports hero was spending his.
Years later, long after Citrus Hills had blossomed into a thriving community, Mr. Williams helped Citrus County stand out again. This time he did it with celebrity guests: the athletes and broadcasters who visited annually to honor the former Boston Red Sox great at his baseball museum.
"He certainly put Citrus County on the map as far as I was concerned," said Bob Crowley, a local advertising executive and transplanted New Englander.
Mr. Williams died Friday morning (July 5, 2002) at Citrus Memorial Hospital after suffering cardiac arrest. He was 83.
There was no information late Friday about funeral arrangements, nor was there any comment from the Williams family or the Tamposi family, which developed Citrus Hills.
One thing was certain, though: Mr. Williams had a significant effect on the development of Citrus County from a rural outpost to a growing retirement community.
Mr. Williams first visited Citrus about 1950. He came for the fishing and other outdoors activities.
In December 1982, he changed from visitor to celebrity pitchman. Mr. Williams became a marketing consultant for Citrus Hills and lent his name and endorsement to the growing community.
Mr. Williams was attracted to the project by developer Sam Tamposi, a part-owner of the Boston Red Sox.
Crowley, the advertising executive, said the strategy worked in New England for one reason: Like him or not, people knew Mr. Williams was a man of his word.
"Anybody who would know Ted Williams said Ted wouldn't say Citrus County wasn't a nice place to live if it wasn't true," Crowley said. "You couldn't pay him enough to say something he didn't think was true."
Crowley, 59, grew up in Boston and watched Mr. Williams play. Years later, when seeking a place to relocate, the Ted Williams endorsement made him pay attention to Citrus County.
"There's thousands of us here for the same reason," Crowley said.
After moving here, Crowley opened an advertising agency in Citrus Hills and secured office space a few doors down from where Mr. Williams kept an office.
"He was always friendly, very friendly," Crowley said.
Mr. Williams put Citrus in the spotlight in 1994, when his museum and Hitters Hall of Fame opened at the Citrus Hills entrance off County Road 486.
For years, Mr. Williams the celebrity had inspired people to come live where he lived. On this occasion, Mr. Williams the retired ballplayer inspired his fellow ballplayers of yesterday and today to spend a few days in his adopted home county.
And what a collection of celebrities: Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Al Kaline, Enos Slaughter and Tom Seaver were among the many Hall of Fame players in attendance. Muhammad Ali paid a visit, and Bob Costas was master of ceremonies, introducing the players and reciting their vital statistics from memory, without the need of notes.
The scene has been replayed each February, with a varying cast of attendees, as the museum inducted hitters whom Mr. Williams had selected.
The most recent ceremony, on Feb. 17, marked one of Mr. Williams' last major public outings. He made a surprise appearance, sitting in a wheelchair and unable to speak. Mr. Williams tearfully gave admirers a final wave, inspiring an emotional ovation from the crowd.
The ceremonies, and the museum itself, attracted many visitors and provided the county positive exposure.
"He had a great effect" on tourism, said Mary Craven, the county's tourism development director. "It (the museum) certainly put Citrus County on the map. He was certainly an icon in the sports arena and he had quite a following. A lot of those people in turn came to his museum and the Hitters Hall of Fame.
"The museum and the events that were hosted by the museum were always first class," Craven added. "And his presence in Citrus County certainly meant a lot to us in the tourism industry. We have a great appreciation for what he brought here. My sympathies go out to his family."
Mr. Williams touched many lives during his time in Citrus. He once was a breakfast customer at Joe's Family Restaurant in Inverness. In his later years, he would come inside using a walker and an assistant to help him sit.
He had a favorite table toward the back of the restaurant. Even though he was recognized, the other patrons let him eat undisturbed.
"He was always nice and courteous," said manager Joe Kozevski, 28. "He hadn't been here in a couple of years, but it was nice to have a celebrity eat here."
"My thoughts and prayers are with Ted Williams' children today," County Commissioner Josh Wooten said in prepared remarks. "I'm glad that we were able to honor him this year by dedicating 0.9 of a mile of County Road 486 as Ted Williams Parkway. Ted was an original American hero."
Stan Olsen, the developer of the Black Diamond development and golf club and Rock Crusher Canyon entertainment complex, got to know Mr. Williams years ago when both worked with Citrus Hills. He described his friend as "unnervingly straightforward."
"Ted handled himself in a very professional way. He was just a fine person to know," Olsen said. "Here's a pro who loved to practice, and that's what made him so good. A lot of our pros today, they get paid so much money, it's a lot of trouble getting them to go out and practice because they think they are so good."
Mr. Williams didn't seek any favors when he joined Black Diamond, Olsen said. "He joined and paid just like anybody else."
But Olsen would expect nothing less from a man who served as a Marine pilot during World War II and the Korean War, both times leaving baseball behind to serve his country.
"He was a dedicated athlete and a dedicated American," Olsen said.
-- Times staff writer Jorge Sanchez contributed to this report.
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