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Ex-dean Travis Northcutt, 73

Known for his work in sociology and his activism, the ex-professor is claimed by his ailments at age 73.

By DAN DeWITT
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 7, 2003


SPRING LAKE -- Travis Northcutt not only knew the names of the nursing home aides who cared for him during a recent stay, "He would always tell me something about them," said Northcutt's son, Stevan, 48.

"He had engaged them in conversation and knew something about their lives. That was the epitome of how he went through life," his son said.

Mr. Northcutt, who died Thursday (Jan. 2, 2003) at the age of 73, was a former dean and professor at the University of South Florida, a political activist and a Hernando County Commission candidate.

But his professional accomplishments, impressive as they were, did not begin to define him as a person, friends and family members said.

He was a booster of his native state, North Carolina, and his adopted one, Florida. He was a student of fishing, hunting, cigars, baseball and boxing. He loved his mule, Lulu, his goat, B.G., and scouring yard sales for unusual merchandise.

On Saturdays, Stevan Northcutt said, "We used to go to the Beaver Street auction in Jacksonville, and we would bid on the most ridiculous stuff. I remember we brought back a couch upholstered with (pictures of) the Liberty Bell. My father just loved stuff like that."

He liked all of those things at least partly because they brought him closer to his one overriding interest, which was people.

"He almost always had something in common with people he was talking to," his son said.

Mr. Northcutt of McFarlan, N.C., received his bachelor's degree, master's degree and doctorate from the University of Florida. He served as chief social scientist and director of community mental health research for the state Board of Health from 1959 to 1964.

Living in Tallahassee, he served on advisory councils for two governors and became friends with a future one, Lawton Chiles.

And, unusual for a Southerner of his generation, his son said, he was sympathetic to the civil rights movement almost from the start.

While Mr. Northcutt lived in Jacksonville, a black barber named Rayford Brown was fired by his white employer because of his civil rights activism. Brown, who then started his own shop, was worried that his views had alienated his white customers, Stevan Northcutt said.

"My father, who was a big supporter of his, actually tapped on the door (of his new shop) the night before he opened and got him to give him his first haircut," he said.

Mr. Northcutt moved to Tampa in 1972, when he accepted a job as a professor and director of planning in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of South Florida. He was named dean of the college in 1973. Later, he was director of the USF Human Resources Institute and a professor of social work.

He and his third wife, Susan, moved to the Spring Lake area in southeastern Hernando County in 1984, partly because the hills reminded him of North Carolina.

He almost immediately went to work trying to preserve them. He joined a community group that opposed the Mountain View subdivision on Spring Lake Highway, which the Hernando County Commission approved in 1988.

That led him to run for the commission the same year. Though he eventually lost to Republican Harold Varvel, he emerged as one of the county's most thoughtful advocates of growth management.

Residents "will tell you that they love Hernando County's beautiful trees, rolling meadows (and) sawgrass-swept coastlines," Times columnist Barbara Fredricksen wrote in the election's aftermath.

"If they feel this way -- and I have no reason to believe they're fibbing -- why didn't they elect Travis Northcutt their county commissioner?"

Though Mr. Northcutt's loss was attributed partly to views that were too far left for the people of Hernando, his views did not keep him from making friends with people on the right. One of his main diversions in recent years -- besides going to Tampa Bay Devil Rays baseball games -- was attending informal meetings of the Liars Club at the Brooksville Donut Stop every morning.

Most of the club's other members are conservatives such as former County Commissioner Murray Grubbs and former Brooksville City Manager Jim Cummings.

Mr. Northcutt got along with them because, like them, he enjoyed politics and because he took pleasure in occasionally getting them to admit he was right, his son said.

"I'm going to miss him most of all because they were all Republicans, and we were Democrats," said Donut Stop owner Harry Viruet.

Viruet visited Mr. Northcutt in the nursing home, he said, to deliver buttermilk doughnuts, coffee and the latest political news.

Politics was also one of the main bonds between Mr. Northcutt and former County Attorney Bruce Snow, whose father, Roy, is a Liars Club member.

"He loved the process of politics," Bruce Snow said. "He loved talking about it. I perceived Travis as being a person who was really interested in how government and politics impacted a person's life."

Not surprisingly, the conversations didn't end there.

"He was an avid sportsman, an avid baseball fan," Snow said, and he unfailingly asked Snow about his son, Bert, a pitcher in the Oakland Athletics organization.

Mr. Northcutt once passed on to Bert a ball signed by Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts, whom -- also not surprisingly -- Mr. Northcutt knew.

"He was a friend of his," Bruce Snow said.

These conversations continued when Snow visited Mr. Northcutt in the hospital, even though Mr. Northcutt was suffering from the ailments that led to his death. He suffered numerous complications from neck surgery about eight months ago and spent much of the time since in hospitals and nursing homes, his son said.

A memorial service for Mr. Northcutt, who is survived by his wife, Susan Stroudinger Northcutt, three children and three grandchildren, will be at 4 p.m. Thursday at Spring Lake United Methodist Church.

Snow said that, even in the last few months, when he asked Mr. Northcutt how he was feeling, "He would always say he was fine."

And he always expressed interest in Snow's father and son.

"He was always the same cheerful person," Snow said, "and he would always inquire about them, even as he was at death's door."

-- Dan DeWitt can be reached at 754-6116. Send e-mail to dewitt@sptimes.com .

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