Lifelong rights activist, 72, dies
By CRAIG BASSE, Times Obituaries Editor
Bob Gilder, a civil rights activist for four decades who built bridges between white and black people on both sides of Tampa Bay, has died at age 72.
Mr. Gilder, a former president of the Tampa NAACP and onetime chief of a War on Poverty program, died of heart failure Friday night (Feb. 28, 2003) at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, said his wife, Ellie Gilder.
He had been hospitalized several times in recent months, having suffered two heart attacks and a stroke.
Asked about dying by a recent visitor to his Tampa home, Mr. Gilder said he prayed to God to hold off. "I've got too much to do," he said.
Community leaders mourned his loss Saturday.
"He's probably responsible for registering more African-Americans than any other person I can think of," said Pam Iorio, a former Hillsborough County commissioner, supervisor of elections and presently a Tampa mayoral candidate. Iorio called Mr. Gilder a "great, great leader."
Sam Horton, president of the Hillsborough County NAACP, said Mr. Gilder was at his best when working with the everyday man on the street.
"The most distinct thing was his ability to be a liaison between the mainstream community and the downtrodden," Horton said. "It's such a rare gift, a rare power."
Mr. Gilder made his mark in St. Petersburg as well. This past May, the city honored him for his years of work to bridge the gap between the races. Former Mayor David Fischer, City Council member Earnest Williams and others offered testimonials. Scores of well-wishers gathered to catch a glimpse of the man sometimes called "the winemaker."
"We call him 'winemaker' because he had a real gift for making things that didn't look so promising turn into something good," said Goliath Davis, St. Petersburg's deputy mayor for economic development and a longtime friend.
Mr. Gilder, who received as many as 1,000 awards during his career, was promised an additional enduring honor. A new annual award, named for him, will be given to city residents who distinguish themselves in public service.
His good works ranged from grass roots organizing for civil rights to big-time boosterism for the Tampa Bay area. He served on the advisory committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and the Florida Commission on Human Rights.
Beginning in 1963, he took part in lunch-counter sit-ins, protests and marches. He pushed for complete school desegregation.
He helped squelch riots, ran interference between Tampa's leaders and the black community, and, he said, talked girls away from the clutches of prostitution and boys out of the arms of drug dealers.
Mr. Gilder also bumped heads with St. Joseph's and Tampa General hospitals, which had discriminated against blacks as a policy.
In the 1970s, the height of his career, when he directed the federally financed Community Action Agency, he succeeded in keeping St. Joseph's Hospital from getting federal money, because at the time it set aside only two rooms for black patients.
In 1991, Mr. Gilder, director of the Voter Registration Coalition, led other protests. One target: the then all-white Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla's heavy sponsorship of the main Super Bowl parade.
To him, Gasparilla celebrated racism and exclusion.
"It's still a closed society," Mr. Gilder said in 1990. "The role of black folks in Gasparilla is to catch the spent bullets, catch the candy and clean up."
Ye Mystic Krewe admitted its first black members in 1992.
In 1992, Norman Hickey, St. Petersburg's city manager and a former Hillsborough County administrator, hired the Tampa community activist to work in the St. Petersburg Human Relations Department.
Hickey wanted his longtime friend from Tampa to help him relate to St. Petersburg's minority residents. Mr. Gilder arrived in St. Petersburg to find a city in racial turmoil.
The police chief, Ernest "Curt" Curtsinger, had been fired for alleged racial insensitivity. There were accusations that the city's top black administrators had conspired to get rid of him. A citywide referendum was set to bring back Curtsinger as chief. And predictions of election violence circulated through the city.
But Mr. Gilder also found "many people, both in and out of government, in and out of political structures, that were well-meaning people, who wanted to get on about the business of educating their families, taking care of their neighborhoods and working together," he recalled years later.
More recently, Mr. Gilder worked in St. Petersburg's codes assistance program. He supervised multiracial teams of volunteers and nonviolent jail inmates who painted and repaired houses for poor, mostly elderly homeowners.
Born in Warren, Texas, Mr. Gilder was the oldest of three boys. His great-great-grandfather was a cowboy. After his father, a U.S. Army officer, was killed in World War II, Mr. Gilder moved with his grandparents from Texas to Valdosta, Ga.
After serving in the Korean War, he attended Florida A&M University. He moved to Tampa in 1959 and soon became an outspoken civil rights leader.
He worked right up until he died.
"Even when he couldn't have visitors, he would call me from his hospital bed to give me some insight or some instruction on what needed to be done with a particular community problem," said Henry Carley, a longtime Tampa NAACP activist. "He stayed until the very end, until his very last breath, if you will, still working for and caring for his community."
A wake will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at Ray Williams Funeral Home, 301 N Howard Ave., Tampa. The funeral will be at 11 a.m. Friday at Beulah Institutional Baptist Church, 1006 W Cypress St., Tampa.
-- Staff writers Mike Brassfield and Jay Cridlin contributed to this obituary.
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