SUSAN R. PARKER: Remembering Michael Gannon and a life well lived

In the month since Michael Gannon passed away on April 11, there have been columns, broadcast interviews and other recollections and reminiscences of his accomplishments and his influence on Florida and Floridians.

 

It is stunning to recount the number and variety of topics, projects and causes that engaged Michael Gannon. Unlike many others, he did not reinvent himself when a new subject lured him, he just added it on.

Michael lived a long and very full life. He died just 17 days before his 90th birthday. For 75 of those years he was associated with St. Augustine, whether he was present in this city or not, and his resumé and biography offer a stunning list of experiences and awards.

But what is missing? The things he would not say about himself. Let me take the opportunity to share a few of my own random recollections. There are so many other who have their own memories to tell, as well.

He was indeed a great story teller. Who could pull away from that magnetic voice that could sound like an authority on any topic? I often thought that Michael could read the ingredients listed on the back of a bottle of shampoo and make it sound as if he were delivering a life-changing speech.

His stories and recollections that he told about his life began with his teen years in St. Augustine. During World War II, while in high school, Mike became an announcer on WFOY radio and a sportswriter for the St Augustine Record. With so many men away serving in the military during the conflict, those of Mike’s age stepped in to take over the tasks usually handled by older males.

In his biography, you could read about his time as newspaper correspondent in Vietnam during the war there in the late 1960s. What you don’t find in the resumé was the emotional aspect of the assignment. Mike went to Southeast Asia as a reporter, but he was also a Roman Catholic priest. I remember exactly where I was when Mike recalled to me how he found himself “giving last rites to so many 19- and 20-year-olds. The same age as my students at UF.”

Michael, history professor at the University of Florida, influenced and inspired students who later became leaders of Florida and some who served in the U.S. Congress. Because of Mike’s class, many became devotees of the study of Florida’s past and it provided them with broader base to view their responsibilities.

When the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History held the program to open the “Michael Gannon Papers” in November of last year, I was honored to speak at the event. The problem was that I had only five minutes to do so. What could I say that was worthy in 300 seconds? Then it came to me: Michael Gannon’s involvement with historic anniversary events of Florida and of the nation.

Michael was big player in St. Augustine’s 400th anniversary in 1965 and he continued over the decades with commemorative events and commissions. Michael wasn’t just about the ceremonies, but looked to create a commemorative item that would last. At the time of the 400th anniversary, Gannon published his own work, “The Cross in the Sand: The Early Catholic Church in Florida, 1513-1870.” It is not just a history of the church; it is a history of Florida.

As the 150th anniversary (1995) of Florida’s statehood approached in 1993, Dr. Gannon gathered more than 20 historians to contribute to a history book of the state. “A New History of Florida” was released in the spring of 1996. As the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Juan Ponce de Leon in Florida loomed in 2013, Gannon gathered most of the same historians again to update the state history book. A few of the writers of the 1996 book were by then deceased and new topics on environmental history, geography and maritime heritage were added. “The History of Florida” was released in the fall of 2013.

It is time to say “adiós” to Mike. Don’t mistake my farewell word to be the slang-y word we hear tossed around in today’s culture. I have chosen it with fondness and care. I am invoking that word with its ancient form and roots and wish for a safe journey. Two words “a Dios” — “to God” became one word over time.

Adiós, Michael Gannon.

Susan R. Parker holds a doctorate in colonial history.

 

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