Mary Magdelene G. OBrien
A tale of gadflies
By Geoff Dobson
Will Rogers’ opening line when appearing on stage or on the radio was often, “”Well, what shall I talk about? I ain’t got anything funny to say. All I know is what I read in the papers.” Oft, the only thing the writer knows is what he reads in the newspapers.
The other day, there appeared in one of our local newspapers an article in which several speakers before the City Commission were somewhat dismissed by referring to them as “gad flies” The term “gad fly has been defined as either any of various large dipterous flies, especially the horsefly, that annoy livestock by sucking their blood, or as a constantly irritating or harassing person.
Every public body has persons who regularly appear before the body to speak and, because of their persistence in speaking on matters with which the public body disagrees, deems irrelevant or insulting, who are dismissed as merely an interruption to the proceedings. For years, one such speaker who appeared before the St. Augustine City Commission was Mary Magdelene G. O’Brien.
Her points which she wished to make were support for the United Nations, the threat of “regionalism,” and finally her annoyance at the City’s insistence in recognition of Columbus’ discovery of America and that the City was founded by Don Pedro Menendez. According, to Mrs. O’Brien, America was discovered long before Columbus and Lief Ericson by St. Brendan and, in fact, the City was founded by the good saint.
Mrs. O’Brien had a standard methodology of speaking to the City Commission. At the time, early in the meeting was a place for “Matters not on the Agenda.’ When Matters not on the Agenda arose, Mrs. O’Brien would get up and launch into the threat of regionalism. Her comments could go on for half-an-hour. Apparently, in order to control Mrs. O’Brien, and her comments about the Threat, the City Commission moved “Matters not on the Agenda to the last item. In those days, the City Commission meetings started at 7:30 often lasted as late as 11:00 p.m. A time limit on Matters not on the Agenda was imposed of three minutes.
Mrs. O’Brien found a way around the restrictions. Whenever the mayor opened the floor for a public hearing on an ordinance, regardless of the subject of the ordinance (most often it would be a zoning matter or a traffic ordinance), Mrs. O’Brien would get up and shaking her cane would launch into her standard complaints about the threats of regionalism. It is doubtful that anyone in the room fully understood what the nature of the threat was. The mayor would at first patiently explain that the comments from speakers had to be limited to matters pertinent to the subject of the ordinance. Rapping the gavel would do no good. Indeed, in those days, the city manager, Flip Kinsey, was a very good cartoonist. As various city commissioners retired from City Service, it was Flip’s custom to present an appropriate cartoon to the retiree. One such cartoon showed Mrs. O’Brien waving her cane as the mayor was banging his gavel. Flip is gone now; he went on to become City Manager of the City of Winter Haven and since has gone to the Great City Hall in the sky.
With regard to the United Nations, once a year on the meeting before United Nations Day (October 24), the City Commission would have Mrs. O’Brien speak in support of the U.N. Mrs. O’Brien could be lengthy. Periodically, on some matter which arose before the City Commission the night before, she would call Flip Kinsey, Mr. Kinsey would lay the receiver of the phone on his desk and every few minutes would speak into the phone, “Yes, Mrs. O’Brien.” A conversation of this nature could go on for a half-hour or more, as Flip conducted other City business.
As Mrs. O’Brien aged, she ultimately had to move into a nursing home. The City Commission one year as United Nations Day drew nigh, knowing how much she loved coming to the City Commission meetings; decided that it would be a nice gesture to arrange for transportation to a meeting. A city official dutifully picked her up, brought her to the meeting, where once again she gave then “What For.”
Regardless of annoyance, very often the so-called “gad flies” may have a valid point. For years, Tampa was harassed by Jim Fair who was a gad fly in spades. He was an Annapolis graduate, member of a prominent Tampa family (the Farrior family) but changed his name allegedly because he did not wish to be associated with them. He was the founder of the “Salvation Navy.” His business was “Jim Fair Can Get It For You Wholesale, Inc.” Jim Fair was always running for office and filing lawsuits, both with little or no chance of winning. One year, however, he accidently won the race for Supervisor of Elections. He fouled the office’s operations up so much, that he was removed by Claude Kirk, Florida’s first republican governor. The removal was sustained by the Democratically controlled Florida Senate. Ultimately, Hillsborough County solved the problem of the endless lawsuits, by having Jim Fair “Baker Acted;” that is he was sent off to the State Asylum in Chattahoochee. The doctors there proclaimed Fair to be sane. He returned to Tampa and recommenced his various lawsuits. And once again, he was Baker Acted and sent off to the State Hospital.
Once again, he was found sane and released. That time, however, Jim Fair took the hint and moved to Tallahassee where he commenced the harassment of the Governor and Cabinet. One of his pet peeves and subject of various complaints was the South Crosstown Expressway for which some of Fair’s property was being condemned. At some point, he complained about some aspect of the Expressway to the Governor and Cabinet. For some reason, one of his complaints about the legality of something that was being done on the Expressway came across the writer’s desk. “My G_ _! He’s right.” But no one paid any attention. After all, Jim Fair was a gad fly.
Mrs. O’Brien certainly did not file lawsuits. In St. Augustine, more like Jim Fair, was a former legal secretary who made a hobby of filing lawsuits against public officials and others who offended her. At one time, she had lawsuits pending against, among others, both the Atlantic Bank and the Barnett Bank for refusing her accounts or bouncing her bad checks, Southern Bell for disconnecting her telephone for non-payment, the entire City Commission, and one of the county judges. The legal secretary had come from Atlanta where she had filed lawsuits against the State Bar of Georgia, a Superior Court judge, and Griffin Bell, later Attorney General of the United States. The legal secretary left Georgia and forfeited bond after she was arrested and jailed for running over a fire hose. From St. Augustine, she moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where she sued a local television station.
The legal secretary also wrote a book, replete with misspellings and typographical errors in which she made fun of local officials. She wrote of one lawyer, who at the time was a surfer that he did not have to fear the sharks, “Professional Courtesy.”
While no opinion is expressed by the writer as to the validity of Mrs. O’Brien’s points as to the United Nations or the threat of regionalism, long before it became popular and when hardly anyone had even heard of St. Brendan, Mrs. O’Brien may have had a point relating to St. Brendan having discovered America in the Fifth Century. Although the saint may not have founded St. Augustine, there is now evidence that the saint may actually have crossed the Atlantic in a large Irish curragh (a leather covered boat), visited Iceland, seen icebergs and large whales, and visited the North American continent.
The point is that while alleged gad flies may be annoying, they occasionally have a valid point which should not necessarily be dismissed out-of-hand, for as the writer’s mother-in-law used to say, “Even a blind pick occasionally find an acorn.”
Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 33 years, is a western and Florida history writer and was former General Counsel for the Florida Department of Transportation. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org