[Times photos: Jamie Francis]
By BILL DURYEA
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 26, 1999
The most important person in Florida has cats named Mo and Harry and a catfish named Ralph that lives in a backyard pond. Her car radio is tuned to the left of the dial (emphasis on left), she doesn't much care who's quarterbacking the Bucs and it makes her sick how little teachers are paid.
The most important person in Florida is Pamela Carmen Brown.
Her friends call her Pam. That's her over there. If you're smart, you'll get to know her.
Because she owns you. Not quite yet, but soon. In about 10 years -- mark it on your calendar -- the Pam Dynasty will dawn. That's when things are going to get reeallly interesting around here.
In the World According to Pamela C. Brown, teachers will have more power than sugar growers, legislators will pay more attention to homeless people than to lobbyists, and no man will ever be able to tell a woman what to do with her body.
Mind you, all this talk about Brown's being the most important person in Florida makes her uncomfortable because she's a modest person who was raised to be kind to others. She's a nurse, for gosh sakes. She's married to a minister.
So who says she's so important?
On a sunny Sunday in November, Pam Brown is welcomed to the United Church of Tampa by Lolita Binford. There was a time when going to church did not give Brown so much to smile about. She was turned off by the dogma of the Catholic Church. Then she discovered a church that could satisfy her spiritually and not offend her politically.
[Times photos: Jamie Francis]
A lot of smart people, that's who.
We asked professors, home builders, bank presidents and politicians what group will have the biggest impact on Florida in the next century. We considered the rapidly growing Hispanic population as well as the group that is now 18 and younger -- the so-called Millennium Generation that is swamping classrooms and begging for Pokemon cards.
Pam Browns life changed for the better once she realized that for many others life was not so kind. She felt a responsibility to help people who were suffering. Here she plays with her cat, Mo, in the back yard of her North Tampa home.
They make a good case.
Just look at the boomers' numbers -- 76-million people born between 1946 and 1964. Hands down this will be the largest elderly population in U.S. history. They have buckets of money, thanks to the stock market, and the SUV has not been invented that is too over-sized or over-priced for their taste. The prospect that these new retirees will spend their exercise-lengthened lives in Florida has everyone from financial planners to pharmacists rubbing their palms together with anticipation.
That much is not a surprise. The Baby Boom Show has been running for decades now. They were the children of the '50s nuclear family, the radicals of the '60s (or liked to think they were), the yippies-turned-yuppies of the '80s and the overbooked soccer moms of the '90s.
Now, according to trend-fixated academics, they're about to redefine old age.
Forget the cherished stereotypes. Forget the notion of the tight-fisted snowbird from Cincinnati driving too slowly in the passing lane on the way to Morrison's Cafeteria to gripe about school taxes.
According to the experts, the oldsters of tomorrow won't be early birds. They'll be 1,000-pound gorillas.
Right now, people 65 and older make up 18.5 percent of Florida's 15-million residents. Starting in 2011, as the first of the boomers reach retirement age, the percentage of seniors will climb rapidly, reaching more than a quarter of the state's population by 2025.
With numbers comes political clout. Gray-haired though they will be, the boomer retirees will be bullies at the polls, accounting for as much as 40 percent of the voters in some elections and making them the most coveted bloc of votes.
To put it another way, it's possible that if you are under 60, a politician will reach right past you to shake a hand with more age spots.
"They're going to be running the state," says Lance deHaven-Smith, associate director of the Florida Institute of Government in Tallahassee. "Whatever they want they'll get."
What will they want?
They'll want to protect the environment for the sake of their families who live nearby. They'll want the state to spend more on their grandchildren's education (after all, their grandchildren will be here, not in Cincinnati). After years of fiscal conservatism, deHaven-Smith says, they'll return to the civic activism of their youth -- putting principle over principal, you might say. Like it or not, demographers predict they'll be politically liberal.
FRIENDSHIP: Among the possessions dear to Pam Brown are these angels, given to her by an old friend. The inscription reads, In celebration of 30 years of friendship, 1964-1994.
MARRIAGE: Brown and Warren Clark were both divorced when they met. To improve the chances that things would work out this time, they sought counseling before they got married.
RELIGION: Though no longer a Roman Catholic, Brown cherishes the rosary that belonged to her grandmother, Blance Olivier. She keeps it in a basket next to the bed.
TOLERANCE: This sticker from the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. is the only one Brown has ever put on her car.
Was there someone out there who personified the future?
We were told we might find this person in a PTA group or a progressive congregation. The Unitarians perhaps. The person needed to be a she; there will be more women than men in this age group. She needed to be college educated and employed, or formerly employed. She should have children, but needn't be married still. It would be a plus if she were active in her community.
It didn't take long before we found Pam Brown. She fit the profile almost perfectly. Actually, she was better than perfect. She was real.
For someone vested with so much power, Brown cuts an inconspicuous profile.
She is tiny and trim, with a heart-shaped face and a bob of wavy brown hair. Her eyes are pale blue and in the right light can appear almost green. The lines on her face have been etched by her tendency to smile so brightly it makes her blush.
She is quiet, but when she expresses herself her opinions are strong. You get the impression her confidence in sharing them is newfound. This makes sense when you understand that Brown was raised to be a follower.
"When I was younger I remember telling my grandmother, "I want to be an archaeologist,' " Brown says. "She said, "When you grow up you're going to where your husband goes and you'll do what he tells you.' "
Born in 1946 in San Antonio, Texas, Brown was the first child of a World War II bombardier from Jacksonville and his high school sweetheart. Her father's military career led the family around the country until he retired as a teacher in Gainesville.
Brown arrived in 1964 at the University of Florida, but the '60s had not quite caught up with the campus. Women still had to wear skirts to class and obey a curfew. Some Gator women would sign up for a four-year tour of duty in the feminist revolution, but Brown missed the draft. When it came to activism, she was a late boomer.
"I didn't question things," she says. "Whatever the government did, whatever I saw in the news, I believed."
She had not gone to college to meet a husband, but things worked out that way. Halfway through her sophomore year she married a Florida classmate. She took a job in the university registrar's office to pay their living expenses while her husband studied business. She never finished her degree.
Later, working for AT&T as an operator, Brown was offered a management position. She refused. It never occurred to her that she could have made a career with the company.
This pupal stage is not uncommon in the female of the species Geezerus Boomerus.
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What happened was, her daughter started kindergarten.
It rankled Brown that she had not finished college. Her daughter, Julie, was about to begin an education that would enable her to pursue a career. Why couldn't Brown do the same?
In 1974, she enrolled at Hillsborough Community College and in short order earned her associate's degree. By that time, her marriage was in trouble (among other things, Brown and her husband never agreed on politics) and she knew she would need to support herself. She put herself through nursing school and then got a job in the open-heart surgery recovery ward at Tampa General Hospital. It didn't matter that she was only making $5.18 an hour.
Her divorce became final in 1977. Later she got a court order to reinstate her maiden name. Feminist transformation complete.
Twenty-two years later, Brown is still a nurse, though she now makes five times as much money. She specializes in a growing field called wound care and teaches it to other nurses.
Like many in her generation, Brown plans to keep working long after she reaches the traditional retirement age of 65. She is unlike her peers in that she wants to continue working in the same field instead of moving from job to job, as many other retirees are expected to do.
On a Tuesday in early November, Brown accompanies another home-health nurse on a visit to a 43-year-old paraplegic man living in a shabby block of subsidized apartments near the Tampa Greyhound Track.
In the man's undecorated concrete block bedroom the two women pull back a pus-soaked bandage on the side of his calf, revealing a gaping wound that has been growing more foul since May.
The wound, initially caused by friction from a special boot the man wears, has not responded to treatment.
"I just don't know where to go with this," the other nurse says.
Part of the problem, Brown discovers from the patient, is that the man's doctor had not routinely examined the wound. Now it seems the bone may have become infected. Brown knows she will have to find a diplomatic way to suggest this diagnosis to the doctor. In the meantime, she recommends a strong antibacterial cream.
It's satisfying work. But even if Brown decides not to work, she figures she can survive on the money she has been socking away in her tax-deferred savings plan. She started investing 15 years ago, as soon as her children were grown and out of the house.
"I have this thing about not wanting to be poor," she says. "I'm confident we won't have to work if we don't want to."
Being poor is something most baby boomers will not have to worry about -- which is one reason why the Pams will be so powerful. On average, boomers are expected to have an annual retirement income of $38,000. Add it up nationally and you have an impressive bank account:
Households headed by people over 50 have close to $1-trillion in annual income, own more than three-quarters of the financial assets in the country, and have a net worth of nearly $9-trillion, an amount that exceeds the nation's gross national product. What they don't earn they'll inherit: another $1-trillion as the frugal World War II generation parcels out itssavings.
But if money were all Brown wanted, she never would have married the preacher who cares for the hungry.
It's Sunday morning at First United Church of Tampa. ("Dedicated to peace and justice in the community and open and affirming to all people," says the church's answering machine.) Warren Clark -- the Rev. Mr. Pam Brown -- is taking his parishioners through some pre-sermon soul stretching.
"Pray for the migrant laborers bent in the sun, forced to live in rat-infested trailers," Clark says, eyes clenched. "Pray for the homeless in downtown Tampa."
Though he speaks with a hint of a north Florida twang, Clark, 51, has the earnest mien of the Rev. Scott, the eternally liberal pastor in the Doonesbury cartoon strip.
Forty or so members of the congregation, Brown among them, are assembled in the small sunlit chapel off Fowler Avenue. They are an older, educated group. One woman introduces herself as "Lolita, like the book," confident the reference will be understood.
This little church, with roots that stretch deep into the rebellious history of Protestant New England, is the kind of place where Brown's fellow boomer revolutionaries go for spiritual sustenance.
Brown grew up Catholic, but abandoned the church in her 20s. She stayed away for 15 years, she says, setting foot inside only for weddings and funerals.
After her daughter left for college, Brown saw an opportunity to plug the spiritual void in her life. Someone suggested the Unity Church in South Tampa. She found less doctrine and more acceptance, an inverse ratio to the one that had turned her -- and so many other boomers -- off organized religion.
"I loved it. I was home," Brown says of the Unity Church. "They say there are many paths to God and theirs is only one."
She and Clark met in 1993 at a line dance, but they weren't partners; Brown danced with his then-12-year-old son, just her height. She and Clark saw each other again at Unity. He loved the bright way she would bounce on her toes as she spoke to him. They married just over three years ago. Recently, Clark was offered the pastorship at First United, near USF.
"I used to be very anti-organized religion and here I am married to a pastor," Brown says. "If that isn't proof God has a sense of humor, I don't know what is."
Brown, no longer hesitant to describe herself as a feminist, kept her maiden name.
The nurse and the minister now live on a shady street in the Forest Hills section of North Tampa. It's not Hyde Park, but the neighborhood is quiet and was affordable when Pam went looking seven years ago.
They take care of themselves, and each other. Her bedside table is stacked with books on nutrition and alternative medicine. She tells him to take more selenium to slow the aging process. They're eating less red meat and more fish. They like wine with dinner.
"But just one glass," Brown says. "I'm a believer in moderation."
They talk about their future together. They might move to St. Augustine to be near, but not on top of, Brown's family in Jacksonville. (Survey says: Nearly half of boomers think they'll move to a new home when they retire. And if they're not already here, they're coming; Florida is still the favorite destination of retirees.) Then again, Brown and Clark might journey to Central America or make a return trip China to do missionary work. They have plenty of time yet.
Well, Brown does.
It is an actuarial truth that women live longer than men -- 5.8 years longer, in fact. Even though Clark quit smoking years ago, there is a strong likelihood that his wife will be living alone at some point. Brown knows it and so do the home builders who are already designing shared living facilities for widows.
"I took one of those longevity quizzes in the AARP magazine the other night. Can you believe we get AARP magazine now?" Clark says. "Anyway, it didn't come up so good on the exercise, saturated fats and red meat."
Care for more selenium with your grouper, Pastor?
If marrying Warren Clark did nothing else for Brown, it has put her in touch with her inner McGovern.
She joined the Sierra Club a couple of years ago.
She is still angry about the way Hillary has been pilloried by the Republicans.
She is unequivocally pro-choice.
She is just as unequivocally anti-Jeb. "I'm against school vouchers. I'm against chain gangs. I'm against the death penalty. Just about everything he's for, I'm against."
For years, most of Brown's opinions were known only to her and the voting machine. Now she is not ashamed to play along with a game of "If I were governor."
At work she sees patients who are so poor they have to choose between medication and food. That would stop.
Don't even think about off-shore oil drilling.
Class sizes would come down and teacher salaries would go up.
Taxes? Oh, you bet.
Lotto? Your number's up.
"I thought it was a bad precedent to set, putting the success of our schools in the hands of chance," Brown says.
By now it may be apparent to you that at 53 Brown is just hitting her stride.
This will come as good news to those of you who sympathize with her politics. Some of you may be scared to death and start checking real estate prices in Sun City -- the one in Phoenix.
Of course, there will be other powerful political currents. There's a new morality movement afoot that will be an interesting counterweight to the liberal bent of many boomers. Think: less free love and more free spending. It's also true that a tight labor market could cause inflation, which would push interest rates higher and cause an economic downturn that could drain retirement accounts faster than a Florida sinkhole.
The experts don't think that will happen.
They've got their money on Pam Brown.
They've got their money on you. All you baby boomers. You will all be standing in extra-long lines at the voting booths, checking your mutual fund performance on your pocket computers and fretting about being late to your kick-boxing class.
Don't sweat it. Just remember, the world revolves around you.
* * *
--Times researchers Cathy Wos and Kitty Bennett contributed to this story.