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Genial, tan, cigar-chomping man worked hard for leisure

Pierce V. Gahan peppered the city with playgrounds, started softball here, and standardized shuffleboard locally and nationally.

By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 12, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- If Pierce V. Gahan were here today, he just might pull the plug on this story.

"Don't write any piece about me," Gahan, the city's first recreation director, once said. "I just don't like to be in the limelight."

But the limelight pursued Gahan -- with reason.

From 1924 to 1951, Gahan developed playgrounds citywide and initiated softball here. He standardized shuffleboard locally and nationally. He was revered as the dean of recreation.

"Every reform and advancement in sport and recreation in Florida can be traced to the genial (Gahan)," the St. Petersburg Times reported.

The Evening Independent called Gahan "one of the city's busiest and most popular department heads. A legendary figure."

Born of seafaring stock in 1885 in Richmond, Maine, Gahan grew up in Pittsfield, Mass., the son of a shoe factory superintendent.

Gahan studied recreation work at Springfield College in Massachusetts. After graduating in 1909, he became superintendent of playgrounds in Pittsburgh.

"He (received) invaluable training in youth work in the . . . centers located in tougher sections of that virile city," said an honorary citation.

After marrying Jeannette Lawrence, Gahan moved to Bridgeport, Conn., in 1918 to direct a new recreation department. "His work in Bridgeport attracted national attention," Gahan's Times obituary read.

In 1924, Gahan was summoned here and given a $60,000 grant to start a recreation department. His annual salary, $7,996, was a lot of money then; but during the Depression and World War II, his salary was slashed, then frozen.

Only two schools were equipped with playgrounds when Gahan arrived; within two years, every school had one.

Gahan organized physical education in grade schools. He introduced after-school and summer programs, where children sang, danced, played sports and enjoyed arts and crafts.

"(We needed) to keep small children off the streets," Gahan later said. "Remember, this was the age of horse-drawn vehicles."

Gahan, who frequently displayed a healthy tan, initiated a swim-for-free program at the Municipal Spa. Ladies Home Journal reported that 300 children learned to swim in the summer of 1946.

When sports groups were struggling around 1925, Gahan organized the Tourist Sports Council. His council convinced the groups to charge membership dues and become independent.

"He had the right idea of having a tennis facility that was run by the club and not the city," said Jim Vuille, 91, a player who recalled Gahan, the Tennis Association's director from 1929 to 1931.

"The ever-smiling, cigar chomping, crew cut" Gahan fathered modern shuffleboard in 1925, the Independent wrote. With help from the Independent's C.J. Mathews, Gahan made shuffleboard the sport for seniors by creating the game's current worldwide rules and court design.

Gahan's shuffleboard attracted throngs of players and led to the creation of the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club, "the largest club of its kind in the world," the Independent reported.

In 1928, Gahan helped organize the Florida Shuffleboard Association. After its inception in 1931, he presided over the National Shuffleboard Association for 25 years.

"He stimulated folks and got them interested in the sport," said Lakeland's Robert Pearson, 80, who met Gahan in 1929.

While at the annual Masters Tournament recently at the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club, Pearson acknowledged Gahan for promoting the game. "It's my activity," he said. "Outdoors. Fresh air. Exercise."

Oddly enough, Gahan, who was elected into the National Shuffleboard Hall of Fame, never played the game. "He loved teaching the sport and providing recreation," said his daughter, Jeannette Wenzel, 72.

Diamond ball, later known as softball, wasn't played in Florida until Gahan introduced it in 1925. He organized the first league one year later.

In 1928, Gahan paid for the installation of lights at Waterfront Park. After that, there were "double headers five nights a week," the Tourist News wrote.

"He was at the park all the time," Wenzel said. "He was one of the first there and one of the last to leave."

Gahan was the first president of the Florida Softball Association; he was the Florida commissioner for the National Softball Association for years. On Oct. 1, 1951, Gahan retired as city recreation director at age 66. The Florida Recreation Association honored him with a plaque for his 42 years of service.

In retirement, Gahan directed the Festival of States from 1952 to 1958, and continued his involvement in softball.

The recipe for longevity "is a matter of heredity," said Gahan, who died in 1981 at age 95.

"He was king of the hill," Pearson said. "I admired the guy 'cause he was so knowledgeable."

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