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Humble beginnings? Don't despair

High school graduates often face less-than-stellar first jobs. But success in life isn't elusive; just ask these folks.

By ADRIENNE LU and LOGAN D. MABE
Published May 27, 2003

Thousands of newly liberated high school seniors will embark this month on the next stage of their lives. The one that involves drawing a paycheck on Fridays.

For many it will be the first summer of their discontent. You can almost hear them chanting the minimum wage mantras: "Paper or plastic, sir?" and "Would you like to supersize that?"

Be not discouraged, entry-level laborers. For the crucible of greatness, the sweaty cauldron of future success, is more often than not found in places such as the McDonald's drive-through.

Want proof? Just check the resumes of some local notables who have risen to the top ranks of their professions. Go all the way back to that first summer job after high school and you'll find that a lot of hot shots had some humble beginnings.

Look no further than Gov. Jeb Bush.

"The summer after graduating from high school, I worked in Houston for a company called Stratford of Texas," Bush said in an e-mail interview. "I worked from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., on top of huge cookers which produced ammoniated rice hulls. The final product was used as cattle feed. I lived with my brother (that would be future president George) who made me wash down before going into the apartment. I liked to go to the Astrodome after work to watch the Astros play."

Was Bush a rabid baseball fan? No, not really. "I would write love letters to Columba out in right field."

Tech Data Corp. CEO Steve Raymund's summer job was pretty grim, too.

"I think I was a janitor," Raymund said. "I believe it was in Pasadena Elementary. It wasn't particularly taxing. I could usually get the work done in about half the time alloted, so there was always some time left over to read or study or do something else."

Raymund took most of the year off between high school and college. His janitor job earned him enough money to travel to Europe and parts of the Middle East, where he developed a taste for international travel.

But the summer job picking up trash and cleaning up after little kids taught him a lot. "I learned that I didn't want to be a janitor," Raymund said. "At that age, I knew I wanted to go to college. Working during that summer as a janitor reinforced that belief."

Jazz trombone player Buster Cooper, a fixture at St. Petersburg's Garden restaurant, was determined to make it in music.

"I knew from the beginning what I wanted to do," said Cooper, who graduated Gibbs High in 1947. After finishing school, "I got a call from Omaha, Neb., to come out there. They'd heard about me from a friend of mine. We went to places like Fargo, N.D., Cheyenne, Wyo., places like that," Cooper said.

And Belinda Womack, a popular local jazz singer who lives in Town 'N Country, used to wow them in the nuts and bolts section of the Sears department store along Detroit's 8 Mile Road. A 1970 graduate of Thomas Walter Josey High School in Augusta, Ga., Womack headed off for the motor city three days after graduation to attend classes at Wayne State University.

Womack said she applied for a job at Sears in the baby department but there were no openings. "When they called back, they said they had one position in automotive, one in make up and two in hardware," Womack said. "So I took the one in hardware and learned a heck of a lot."

And she sang, too. All day long in hardware, Womack sang. "I was like the Sears on 8 Mile songbird," she said.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio didn't just wake up one morning on the fast track to prominent politico. Iorio got her career started at Busch Gardens when she was a 15-year-old school girl.

"I worked at the Zagora Cafe with the hamburgers and french fries," Iorio said. "It got to be a little hot and we had uniforms that looked a little ridiculous, but I had a great time there."

By the time she graduated from King High School in 1977, Iorio was on a slow climb to success. By that summer she had ascended to tour guide, intoning the splendors of the park from the caboose car of the Stanleyville Express.

"Hey, I needed the money," Iorio said.

So did St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker. After graduating from Brandon High in 1974, Baker needed to save for college and found his summer home at the local Shell station.

"I pumped gas, I changed oil and I did tune-ups," Baker said. "I just had to work a lot of hours."

As did Don Wallace, now the reigning king of recreational vehicles. Wallace, who owns Lazy Days RV SuperCenter and one of Bayshore Boulevard's most spectacular spreads, just scraped out a living after he graduated from Chamberlain High in 1967.

"I went to work," Wallace said, his voice deadened by the drudgery of that particular memory. "I got married, and I went to work."

Wallace's metier was mechanicking. He worked at not one but two garages and turned wrenches on the side for a local drag racer. "I just loved cars," Wallace said. "That was the era of Vietnam, drugs and drag racing, but I only did one of them."

Wallace gave up the grease pit for greener pastures a year later when he went to Tennessee to try his hand at tomato farming. "The only dream in my life that I pursued was to farm," said Wallace, who did it for 10 years but barely remembers the drill now. "We were talking about planting some (tomatoes) the other day, and I had to think how to do it."

Outback Steakhouse Inc. co-founder Tim Gannon says two of the passions of his life - polo and porterhouses - can be traced to a horse farm he worked at after graduating Fort Lauderdale High in 1966.

"That first summer I went to a horse farm in El Paso, Texas, that trained thoroughbred race horses to become polo horses," Gannon said. "It was on the border of the Rio Grande river, a very dramatic spot. We'd ride horses across the river and up into the mountains of Mexico. For a 17-year-old kid, it was a lot of adventure, and it filled me with a lot of wanderlust."

Oddly, it was polo that lead Gannon into the restaurant business. Gannon met Steak & Ale founder Norman Brinker through their shared love of polo, and Brinker set up the young horseman at one of his restaurants in Rockville, Md. That's where Gannon met Chris Sullivan and Bob Basham. The three later created the Outback chain.

"My whole career path started at that farm," Gannon said.

Given Hillsborough's deep agrarian roots, it's not surprising to learn that a number of local luminaries also got their starts down on the farm.

School superintendent Earl Lennard, Brandon High Class of '60, worked on his father's farm the summer after graduating. "We were getting ready for the fall crop and bringing in the spring crop," said Lennard, who later enrolled in the charter class at the University of South Florida. "Dad paid. He paid very poorly, but he paid."

Susan MacManus, now a USF government professor and expert on Florida politics, also spent her summer in the fields after graduating from Pasco High.

"Any spending money I had, I had to earn. We had orange groves and agricultural property, so I worked outside helping my mom keep the place up," said MacManus, who co-authored with her mother a history of the Lutz area that centered on their lives there. "I had the best suntan around, which I've learned in my older years is not the best thing to brag about."

After that summer, MacManus went on to Florida State University and spent her college summers working at youth camps. "I was always an outdoors person, and what am I doing now?" she asked. "Working in front of a computer all day long."

Tampa Bay Devils Rays manager Lou Piniella spent his post-graduation summer on dirt and grass of a different sort of field of dreams. Piniella, Tampa Jesuit class of 1962, played American Legion baseball that summer, West Tampa Post 248.

"It was a great summer playing ball," Piniella said. "Tony LaRussa (manager of the St. Louis Cardinals) was our shortstop. It was a great team. That's pretty much all I did. The next summer, I was playing ball at the University of Tampa, and then I was drafted and went on to play pro ball."

Then it was off to Baltimore, Cleveland, Kansas City and New York. Piniella would not spend another summer in his hometown until he was hired to skipper the home team.

Columbia Restaurant owner Richard Gonzmart, another Jesuit grad class of 1971, took to the high seas after getting out of school.

"My best friend and some other friends went on a cruise out of Miami," Gonzmart said. "It was $69 for three nights, four of us in a room. We were on the bottom of a ship, no portholes or nothing. We went down to the Bahamas and did what most 18-year-olds would do. Here I am 32 years later and remembering how much fun we had. We just had a blast."

Joe Stines, director of the Tampa-Hillsborough County library system, enjoys a bookish career now. But that wasn't the case when Stines graduated from high school in 1970 in Gaston County, N.C.

"I actually worked in a textile plant," Stines said, a note of weary wistfulness in his tone. "It was my first full-time, eight-hours-a-day job, and I was trained as a twister tender."

No, Stines did not referee party games. "It's a process in which the cotton and other materials are made into yarn and then into thread," said Stines, whose father was a lifelong textile worker. "I'd had some little part-time jobs at the library and at a service station, but this was my introduction into what the real work world was like. It was totally physical work."

Stines made his dad proud the first time he ran his own set of machines for a day and met the back-breaking quota set by the factory bosses. "I did it," Stines said. "But I did not go to the bathroom or do anything else for eight solid hours."

Stines worked the mills long enough to know he could succeed there, but had aspirations elsewhere. "I'll always remember that time," he said. "I'd go home tired and aching all over, but I'd go home at night with a clear head. I wouldn't trade that background for anything."

Hillsborough County sheriff's spokesman Rod Reder traces his career in law enforcement back to an incident when he was on the other side of it.

"The first week after high school, about seven of us decided to grab our scuba gear and head down to the Keys," said Reder, Chamberlain High Class of 1973. "We went to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and rented a boat. Within the first minutes on the water, the Florida Marine Patrol stopped us."

The officer did a quick head count of the recent graduates and the number of life vests on board. Reder and his crew were busted. "They impounded the boat and fined us," he said. "It didn't help that we were being a little silly as he went by. We all stood in a line and saluted him."

After that aborted road trip, Reder worked at Jim Harrell Pontiac detailing new cars and later got a job at Creighton Bros. awnings. "Worked with a lot of grommets," Reder said.

But the money helped fund his tuition at USF. "I was a sociology major and a surfing nut," Reder said. "I was going to be a social worker and save the world."

That is until Reder transferred to Hillsborough Community College and "met a bunch of cops." He quickly learned that peace officers made about twice as much as social workers.

The die was cast. "Believe me, a lot of people at my 10- and 20-year reunions were shocked," Reder said. Shocked that the beatnik had become a beat cop.

Outspoken attorney Barry Cohen was more sure about what side of the law he would come down on.

"When I was in high school, I used to skip classes and go downtown to watch the trials," said Cohen, Plant High class of '57. "I just had a feeling that (being an attorney) was what I was going to do when I grew up."

Cohen, Tampa's go-to attorney for the rich and infamous, did a lot of that growing up the summer after graduation when he enlisted in the Coast Guard.

"It was humbling," Cohen said. "I thought I was a big shot. President of the student body, king of Gasparilla. Then I got in the Coast Guard and they cut all your hair off and call you skinhead."

Cohen spent the first month of his Coast Guard tour in the dog house. After an altercation with a cook ("He got grease all over me and I took a tray and shoved it up in his face") Cohen said he was basically told to stand in the corner. "They had these holes in the wall at varying heights," Cohen said. "I had to put my nose in that damn circle my first 30 days in the Coast Guard."

- Logan D. Mabe can be reached at 269-5304 or at mabe@sptimes.com Times staff writers Lucy Morgan and Tom Jones contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 27, 2003, 05:33:00]


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