Michael Gannon, Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Florida, continues to work on book projects and public lectures on Florida history.

Above: Michael Gannon, Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Florida, continues to work on book projects and public lectures on Florida history.

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Michael Gannon

Head of the CLAS

Staff at the Ocala headquarters of the Marion County Public Library had never seen anything quite like it.

On an April Sunday for an adult lecture program – the History of Florida in 40 Minutes by retired University of Florida historian Michael Gannon – about 300 people filed into the building. The audience ranged from teenagers to the elderly. They filled up a conference room then filled up another one where staff set up a remote video feed.

Librarian Lee Schwartz, who helped organize the event, compared the speaker to a rock star. Reeling off humorous story after story, “he just had the audience in the palm of his hand,’’ Schwartz says.

Gannon, Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Florida, goes to work most days on campus where he has an office provided by the University of Florida Foundation. He works on book projects and on the speeches which he delivers on many other days like the one that drew the crowds into the Ocala library. Once a Catholic priest, he led anti-Vietnam War protests at UF in the early 1970s. He had begun his adult years as a radio broadcaster, and still speaks in a commanding baritone.

In the summer of 1968, the Catholic opinion journal America sent Gannon to Vietnam as a war correspondent. He returned an opponent of the conflict and organized peaceful marches against it in Gainesville.

In the spring of 1972, a standoff materialized on West University Avenue where a contingent of Florida Highway Patrolmen massed against a large group of students protesting the war. The patrolmen advanced and many of the students bolted for a Krystal fast-food restaurant where Gannon says they were “packed like sardines” inside the large plate-glass windows. When a patrolman cocked his arm to throw a gas grenade inside, Gannon grabbed his arm to stop him.

Recounting the incident from his home 37 years later, Gannon recalls telling the patrolman that if he filled the small space with gas the students would be badly injured or killed going through the glass. Another patrolman clubbed Gannon over the head with a baton for intervening. Gannon was hauled off by police but was released when university officials spoke up for him. The gas grenade was never thrown. Gannon says, “I was grateful to that patrolman who did not throw the grenade. If I ever did anything good in my life, I think that was it.”

Gannon, 82, has spent much of his academic career studying the history of Spanish Florida. And that has intimately involved the city of St. Augustine. For his service to St. Augustine in 2007 he was awarded the Order of La Florida, an honor bestowed on only a handful of people.

Gannon created a sensation in November 1985 when he told an Associated Press reporter that the first European thanksgiving shared with Indians was celebrated by Spanish settlers at St. Augustine in 1565, decades before the 1621 thanksgiving held by English pilgrims at Plymouth. Gannon was inundated with calls during that Thanksgiving break from news organizations around the country. A reporter from the Boston Globe told him that in New England he had become known as “the Grinch who stole Thanksgiving.”

Kathleen Deagan, Distinguished Research Curator of Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, and fellow holder of the Order of La Florida, has known Gannon since she took a history class from him as a college freshman in 1966.

“He really embodies Florida history,” Deagan says. “He is the guy who does Florida history throughout the state. He has taught so many people who have gone on to lead Florida in so many areas: politics, academics, law, business.”

Credits

Writer

Richard Goldstein

Photo

Jane Dominguez

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