Michael Gannon has been named the first recipient of the Florida Literary Lifetime Achievement Award according to a report from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Florida received by Historic City News.
A towering figure in his long career at the University of Florida, Gannon has earned praise for the breadth and depth of his writing.
Gannon stands as the undisputed dean of Florida history. For more than seven decades, he has chronicled the state and his beloved St. Augustine. He began his literary career as an unpaid sports reporter for the St. Augustine Record in the 1940s.
Ordained in 1959 following his studies at the Universite de Louvain in Belgium, he received a Ph.D. in history from the University of Florida in 1962. As a priest and monsignor, he experienced the civil rights movement in St. Augustine.
Texans in St. Augustine
St. Augustine at war was a fascinating place for a young teenager. “In some ways,” wrote Gannon, “St. Augustine had returned to its roots as the disorderly garrison town of Spanish and British colonial times.” No group of soldiers was more rowdy or disorderly than the Texas National Guard 36th Infantry Division.
On weekend leave from nearby Camp Blanding, Texans frequented Glick’s Famous Bar at 52 Cathedral Place. Gannon recalled the GIs “feeding nickel after nickel into the jukebox to hear ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas,'” adding, “Patrons were expected to stand at attention while it played, even if a Texas patriot had to take the recalcitrant by the collar and make him stand.”
More than a few St. Augustinians uttered, “God help the Germans if those guys were ever sent to Europe!” The reality of war, however, can be cruel. In January 1943, Gannon writes, “elements of the 36th were mauled by the Germans while trying to cross the Rapido River in Italy.”
‘What is your name again?’
In late November 1963, President John F. Kennedy visited Tampa. In between a campaign rally at Al Lopez Field and an inspection of MacDill Field, the youthful president spent a few minutes with a young priest who encouraged the president to visit St. Augustine in 1965 to celebrate the city’s 400th birthday. The priest gave the president a photograph of the oldest surviving European record in the New World, the first page of the St. Augustine Parish Registers and documents related to Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the founder of St. Augustine. As Kennedy exited the room, he promised to “keep in touch.” At the last second, he asked, “What is your name again?” Michael Gannon never saw the president again.
A literary renaissance
Gannon’s career was in transition as he joined the faculty at the University of Florida in the 1960s.
His fascination with Florida’s deep religious roots resulted in two books. In 1964, he wrote “Rebel Bishop: Augustin Verot: The Life and Era of Augustin Verot,” followed in 1965 by “The Cross in the Sand: The Early Catholic Church in Florida.” Seminal studies, these books are now considered classics in the field. Through the turbulent decades of the 1960s through 1980s, Gannon served as dean, as well as director, of the Catholic Student Center at the University of Florida. In 1968, he became a war correspondent in Vietnam.
Resigning from the priesthood in 1976, Gannon resumed his writing career. For decades, he had traveled the state, making speeches for myriad social and civic groups. Told to keep it brief, he honed a sweeping overview of the Sunshine State into exactly 40 minutes. Not only did the University Press of Florida publish “History of Florida in Forty Minutes” in 2007, it produced a companion DVD read by the author, who. Anyone who has ever heard Michael Gannon speak – he began his broadcast career as a sports reporter for WFOY radio in 1944 – understands that he commands the talent to record his own book on tape.
In 1990, Gannon wrote “Operation Drumbeat,” which became a critically acclaimed best-seller. Published by Harper & Row, the book became the subject of a National Geographic Explorer program.
Gannon burnished his reputation as an historian of WWII with “Black May,” which explored 1943, the pivotal year in the Battle of the Atlantic.
The home-front war
In 2001, Gannon returned to a topic that had gnawed at him for six decades. On Dec. 7, 1941, Gannon was a teen setting pins at a bowling alley on Aviles Street in St. Augustine. Noticing that the bowling alley had emptied, Gannon followed the crowd into the street, where a newsboy was yelling, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” Gannon recounts the rest of the story:
“Some of the bowlers asked, ‘Where’s Pearl Harbor?’ I knew because I had recently read a National Geographic piece about the U.S. Navy anchorage there. I thereupon delivered my first-ever lecture. Little could I have known that 54 years and 8 weeks later, I would be testifying in the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee Room in defense of Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, U.S. Navy Commander of Pearl Harbor on that fateful day.”
Gannon helped redeem Kimmel’s reputation with the publication of “Pearl Harbor Betrayed” in 2001.
In home-front St. Augustine during World War II, the young Gannon became friends with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. As part of his literary wanderings, Gannon authored a two-act play, “Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings on Trial,” in 1997.