Bruce B. Downs: The man behind the name

Thousands of cars a day drive on the boulevard that is his namesake.

Published February 18, 2007

TAMPA - If you live in New Tampa or even if you don't, the name "Bruce B. Downs" is part of everyday language.

It creeps into conversation, in forms like: "Have you seen the new shopping plaza on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard?" Or, "Wow, I can't believe all of the development along Bruce B. Downs." "Sorry I'm late. I got stuck on #@&%! Bruce B. Downs."

Had public officials in the 1980s known that a desolate, two-lane country road would become such a hard-traveled mess, they might have picked a different name. The real Bruce B. Downs would never have approved of such congestion.

Yet somehow the name rolls off the lips, "broosbeedowns," never shortened to "Downs" or "BBD." The road endured growing pains along with New Tampa, as the one common vein that links that village of gated cul-de-sacs. Once known as the Road to Nowhere, it is now the Road to Excessive Growth That Won't Stop.

But who the heck was Bruce B. Downs?

* * *

There is a heaviness in the Bartow living room of Patsy Downs, a widow who hasn't dated in the 23 years since she lost her shy Hernando High School sweetheart. It might be the weary expression worn by her daughter Luanna Sheridan, who rocks in a nearby recliner. Or perhaps it's the smell of cigarettes, smoked during bouts of stress or sadness. Or the stacks and stacks of yellowed newspaper clippings, letters, photographs and other memorabilia she kept to remember the events surrounding Bruce's death.

"I never throw anything away," she said.

The most interesting pieces of Bruce memorabilia are a pair of news articles from February 1983. One front-page story shows photos of three Hillsborough County commissioners in handcuffs, walking to the courthouse with their attorneys. Jerry Bowmer, Joe Kotvas and Fred Anderson were charged, and eventually indicted, for taking $75,000 in bribes for a rezoning vote.

It was a stressful time in Hillsborough County politics, where Bruce Downs worked as a deputy public works administrator.

"The county was in poor shape," Patsy recalled. "So many people loved Bruce because he got them out of a hole. He was very personable and wasn't one to brag."

Downs, an engineer who previously worked 29 years for the state Transportation Department, was responsible for improving local infrastructure and helped create a local gas tax that financed road building and repair. He was often asked to speak at Mothers Against Drunk Driving meetings and served as an expert witness during accident trials.

He had a staff of about 40 and a photographic memory, Patsy said. He could retrieve people's names and faces after meeting them only once.

On May 21, 1983, a local newspaper ran a story about how Downs' job was one of the most stressful in the county. Downs, who had high blood pressure most of his life, was scheduled to go the doctor a few days later to get a physical and a stress test.

The day the story came out, Downs collapsed in a restaurant while eating lunch with co-workers. He was rushed to a hospital, where doctors tried to revive him from a massive heart attack.

He died before his family could get to the hospital. He was 56.

Over 500 people attended the funeral, and county employees were so distraught, they asked that his county car be removed so they didn't have to see it every day, Sheridan said.

On April 17, 1986, coincidentally Downs' birthday, the county renamed little-used 30th Street as "Bruce B. Downs Boulevard," in memory of a man who loved roads.

"This would have been a shock to him," Patsy Downs said. "He would have felt so humble."

* * *

On official documents and letters, Downs always signed his name "Bruce B. Downs," though no one remembers why he used the middle "B." It stands for Barkley, which is what his son, Bruce B. Downs Jr., goes by. Barkley has a son, Bruce B. Downs III.

Bruce III, a 20-year-old medical assistant who lives in Bartow, hears his name on the radio and on television all the time. He often signs his name "Bruce B. Downs III," and gets asked, "Like the road?" He hasn't been on the road in over a year.

"There not much reason for me to go out that way," he said.

Downs' other grandson, 23-year-old Justin Sheridan, lived off Bruce B. Downs Boulevard while he attended University of South Florida. It was a little strange, he said. And sometimes people didn't believe that Downs was his grandfather.

They always asked: Who was he?

"Everybody knows Bruce B. Downs the road because it's so popular," Sheridan said. "Nobody knows Bruce B. Downs the person. It's odd."

Emily Nipps can be reached at 813 269-5313 or nipps@sptimes.com.