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For some, civic duty is destiny

By PATTY RYAN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 12, 2002

I SAT THERE Monday night, only listening.

I SAT THERE Monday night, only listening.

Outside, it poured. An old wooden sign in the grass announced the "Christ Died For Our Sins Gospel Meeting."

Inside, saviors were emerging, squeezed into a concrete shoe box of a building -- headquarters for the Gandy Civic Association.

Pat Frank and Chris Hart came. They were big toes on a foot of humanity, at least 125 people strong.

ONE BY ONE, the people complained about the road that loomed. They didn't like the state's plans to expand Gandy Boulevard. Not to the north. Not to the south. "No build," they chanted.

Some listened.

Others led.

IT ISN'T in my genes to be political, never mind that a grandfather once marched to Tallahassee to lobby for the creation of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. That was before color television. He was probably bored.

SO I MARVEL that David Gutcher, president of the Gandy Civic Association, is so young and serious. He's 32. He was barely of drinking age when the state raised the topic of beefing up Gandy Boulevard a decade ago.

He looked around Monday night to see once-feuding factions of the Gandy corridor working together.

And he felt good, despite the weight of an overpass on his shoulders.

He had arrived at 7 p.m. to an empty room, at first worrying. By 7:15, there were three cars outside. At 7:20, 55 people came through the door. By night's end, the number had more than doubled.

"It was amazing," he said later.

Nothing's solved.

AMID THIS, by virtue of a brain synapse, I can't help but think of John Bryan.

You wouldn't know Bryan unless you followed the sale and destruction of Sunnydale Mobile Home Park two years ago.

SUNNYDALE banded together then, just as Gandy now gathers, each protesting progress.

Bryan stepped in when Sunnydale needed a leader.

He was 50 and able, it seemed. With help from a volunteer lawyer, John Dingfelder (also in attendance Monday, shaking hands for county commission votes), he won financial settlements for the park's displaced residents.

WHY, I wonder, do people like Bryan and Gutcher and Frank and Hart and Dingfelder exist? How can they pack their days with politics when there are dogs to be walked, flowers to be planted and seared scallop dinner parties to be planned?

There was Dingfelder at my door a couple of weeks ago, killing a weekend to canvass Palma Ceia, all so he can be in another room one day and listen to more people complain.

BRYAN saw some odd sort of romance in civic duty.

Once, when we talked on the phone, he offered a quote from Teddy Roosevelt:

The credit belongs to the one who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood . . .

APARTMENTS now replace Sunnydale.

Bryan died of cancer in March, only 52.

Shouldn't he have spent his last days lying on a beach somewhere, instead of standing up for a mobile home park?

"I think he would have felt good about it," widow Marlene Bryan says. "A lot of people were helped by what he did."

IT'S TRUE. I saw some in their new homes, safe and happy.

Still, I couldn't help but feel relief when I learned that Gutcher, down at Gandy, had left the VCR on at home when he took off for his meeting Monday.

Some sporting event was coming on TV.

He planed to go home to watch the tape.

Life, after all, would plod ahead, unmindful of a road.

-- Tampa's Kennedy Boulevard was once called Grand Central. Now Grand Central is a weekly City Times column. Writer Patty Ryan can be reached at 226-3382 or

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