It is hard being from Gainesville. If you tell anyone you’re from Florida — itself not a great opening line — invariably they presume you’re from Miami. I get to point out that Gainesville is actually quite far from the Gold Coast. I explain it’s nearly the geographic center of the state: six hours from Miami and closer to Atlanta. It’s hard to imagine a place in Florida that isn’t near a beach, but Gainesville is an hour from either coast; it’s possible to watch the sunrise over the Atlantic and catch the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico.
My brother likes to point out that there are only a handful of poisonous snakes in the US, and most were indigenous to our backyard in Gainesville: eastern diamond-backs, water moccasins (“cottonmouth”), coral snakes, and copperheads. It’s no wonder I hated going outside. Cottonmouth cytotoxic venom is so gnarly that it eats away at flesh. When I was little, the redneck kid up the street kept an alligator chained to their swing set. A typical high school date was to park down at Lake Alice and toss marshmallows at the free range alligators hanging out there, and trying to scare your girl.
It’s not all venom and gators; I was thrilled at age 8 to prepare for the opening of Walt Disney World outside of Orlando. It wasn’t close, a few hour drive, but having a quasi-local Disney theme park was a big win for childhood. Disney World was a go-to venue for family and, later, dates all the way through high school. Even before they built Space Mountain.
For years it seemed like the biggest thing to come from Gainesville was Gatorade. Phoebe Cade’s dad was a nephrologist at the university, and he had invented the green stuff for the University of Florida football team (the “Fighting Gators”) when we were young, but it got tastier and more popular as we grew up — and by middle school, the Cades were famous and Gatorade was everywhere.
One of the great things about living in a college town was the array of free concerts that would show up at the bandshell by Lake Alice. If the band was really big, they’d play at Florida Field. I wasn’t a big Tom Petty fan when I got to GHS. When my high school paper had an article on the musicians who were GHS alums, Tom Petty (class of ’68) was just the most recent: There were a couple members of The Eagles who I didn’t know by name. I was more impressed that Steven Stills had graduated in ’65.
Benmont Tench was the keyboard player in The Heartbreakers. The Tench family lived in our neighborhood. Judge Tench was a distinguished local figure and my parents saw them at Christmas parties. The way my mom described it, Mrs. Tench was somewhat embarrassed that her son had dropped out of Tulane to join a band with his friends. The band — at the time called “Mudcrutch” — rehearsed in their garage, much to the chagrin of neighbors. This was before my time. Petty and Tench were a few years older than my older sister.
“Damn the Torpedos” released at the beginning of my junior year, and was on the radio every day. It was in that season that our best friend Dave was diagnosed with leukemia. We’d visit him in the hospital when we were allowed, and it was always a big deal if we’d run into Petty in the cancer ward, visiting his mother who was also sick. As bleak as those days were for me and my friends, it made those visits a little lighter, and always made Dave smile. Petty was awesome and he soon replaced Gatorade as our coolest local export.
A City Mourns
In October 2017 I was visiting my mom, and I landed in Gainesville the weekend after Petty had suddenly died. The city was in mourning, and I felt a heavy melancholy that trip. He was always a source of pride for Gainesville; over my short visit I was surprised to see the extent of the local response: there were proposals to rename parks and streets, and murals were already painted along University Avenue. From the news:
After consulting with Petty’s family and friends, the city asked residents and his fans to choose from multiple options: renaming a city street, park or facility; adding a statue to a park or facility; hosting an annual concert or music festival; proclaiming his birthday as “Tom Petty Day,” or dedicating October to his musical legacy and celebrating the local music culture.
Residents got creative with the write-in option during the survey period. Phillips said someone suggested that every elevator in the city only play Petty’s “Free Fallin’.”
It’s been a few years now, but the loss is still palpable. The UF band plays “Won’t Back Down” after the 3rd quarter of every Gator football game; it’s become a new tradition. The murals persist on University Avenue. I pass by the houses where the bandmates used to live whenever I’m in town. I asked Linda, my childhood friend, what she remembered about these events. Her note was perfect.
To me, Tom Petty feels like the glue that binds all people from Gainesville together. He’s like a secret we all share. Even though I didn’t get into his music until college, it became something that I felt I really understood, just because of his Gainesville roots.
When he died, I felt it very deeply and personally. I think a lot of people did. It still makes me feel sad and nostalgic when I think about him.
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