George Meyer was the unofficial mayor of Richardson Place, a shady street in Tampa’s Old Hyde Park neighborhood one block from Bayshore Boulevard and Old Tampa Bay.
By the time he moved there in the 1970s to teach newspaper reporting at the University of South Florida, Richardson Place was known for ancient pin oaks dripping Spanish moss, and aging bungalows with big front porches and a few big, old houses nearby.
The rest of Tampa seemed to be moving as fast as it possibly could to build itself up. Old Hyde Park just took its time no matter what.
Richard Nixon was in the White House and the U.S. military in Vietnam as rental properties in Old Hyde Park began to fill with artists, writers, waiters, waitresses, bartenders, young married couples, college students, college dropouts, old hipsters, and small-time dope dealers.
It was called Old Hyde Park because the neighborhood dates to when its first house in 1882 attracted Tampa residents of the era who liked living between Bayshore Boulevard and downtown where their gentrified friends worked. In the 20th century, the city’s gentry had moored a metallic replica of a pirate ship, called the Jose Gaspar, beside Bayshore Boulevard near Old Hyde Park. They cranked it up every Mardi Gras season to wear phony beards, wave plastic swords, get drunk, and fire off fake cannons.
George and his then-wife Betty, (“My lovely assistant”) fit right in with the students, college graduates and couples living life on Richardson Place, even its old hippies working low-end jobs as they searched for their own lost souls. George didn’t care for the bullyish Jose Gaspar crowd. He liked everybody else.
The George Meyer laugh
Youngest son of two college professors, he was born in a college town—Bloomington, Indiana—raised in a college town—Gainesville, Florida—and now was teaching in a university town where his classroom was always packed with seniors… including, for one academic quarter, me.
At the time, I was working as managing editor of USF’s daily student newspaper, The Oracle. I earned about $12 a week to write a daily editorial for our vast student body, which then numbered about 25,000. I was busy all day with meetings, editing reporters’ stories, and writing my column.
George’s classroom was down the hall. I took his class because I needed credits to graduate. I’d heard he was a funny guy. That, he was. The thing I remember from my first day in class was what everyone remembers: The George Meyer Laugh. It was huge. George laughed at anything and everything – not haw-haw-haw from down in his throat but hah-ha-ha-ha-ha from the top of his big, broad chest and big head. To let it fly, he opened his mouth with a giant grin as if some little kid with a squirt gun was standing in front of him trying to squirt Kool-Aid to the back of his mouth. That laugh was bigger than a Mack Truck honking at a Volkswagen Beetle. It was bigger than a Boeing 747 flying low over your house. Whenever he launched that laugh, he did not roll his head back—he looked straight into your eyes to see if you were laughing, too, to bring you into the joke. In public this made strangers turn their heads to ask, “What’s on earth is so funny?”
Well…He laughed at jokes about traveling salesmen and farmers’ daughters; priests, pastors, rabbis, gurus, monkeys, donkeys, burros, llamas and mules; pink elephants, pink panthers, ladies of the night; undertakers, gravediggers, hearse chauffeurs, flower cars; tales of woe with happy endings, jokes about jokes, jokes about Rodney Dangerfield, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin and Robin Williams; B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King and King Kong; sexy women jokes, sexless jokes, too much sex jokes; can’t get any sex jokes; worm farmer jokes; worm salesmen jokes; bartenders jokes, drunk jokes, sobriety jokes; LGBTQ jokes; and “Yo Mama is So Ugly” jokes—plus anything and everything else about life and the human condition.
If you heard that laugh only once in your life you would never forget whose it was. If you were six years in the Peace Corps and heard it upon returning you would yell “GEORGE!” in recognition. That’s why it was called The George Meyer Laugh. Nobody ever forgot it. It always made you feel good and let you know that you were in good company. You were sitting at the cool kids’ table.
Questions & answers about life
Sportswriter in Jacksonville; AP reporter in Miami; writer-producer for PBS; film critic/book reviewer for two Florida newspapers; and son of two university professors, George was extremely well-read. His newspaper reporting classes at USF were not lectures, and I don’t believe would have been a great lecturer; he was more interactive, and he did lots more than teach “The Five Ws” of news reporting: Who, What, Why, When & Where. Instead, his classes typically were Q&A round robins with everyone expected to participate. He would outline, for example, a serious situation a news reporter might encounter and then open the room to opinions on how to get the facts from reluctant sources and write the story. As the end of class approached, he sometimes would ask every student to write a “breaking news story” about the incident with only 10 minutes of class time remaining. Then, he’d collect all the stories, grading each before their next class together. He was an easy grader, mostly committed to writing hints in the margin offering suggestions and ways to improve the story.
Even I knew that news reporting and magazine writing was not rocket science or splitting atoms. In the age of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, it was a lifestyle that I and plenty of George Meyer students wanted. The black and white bumper sticker on George’s 1960s Ford Mustang reminded everybody that “Journalists do it Daily.”
The Unofficial Mayor of Richardson Place
Being at least six feet tall, with thick, light brown hair, big jowls, a nose almost too big, and big hands with quarterback fingers, George stood out wherever he was—in his classroom, at a party, in a restaurant, on a beach, at The Press Box Bar on South Dale Mabry or Tiny Tap Tavern on Morrison near Richardson Place. George loved people as much as he loved to laugh. And it showed. Students and teachers alike called him “Jocular George.” If you were strolling up Richardson Place on a weekend it’s likely George would be sitting on his porch with the New York Times, the St. Petersburg Times or Tampa Tribune. If he recognized you from USF or the neighborhood, he’d wave you to the chair next to him with a “Hey, what’s going on?” ready for talk on any topic.
He was a great giver of advice that made common sense, and the conversation was never about him, it was always about you. He could find humor in any situation, point it out, and was ready to punctuate anything with that big laugh, or words of wisdom. He was like a big brother to people, always ready to offer a cold beer, listen to you, then find humor or consolation for you both to enjoy with a laugh. He believed in second chances, and that everybody is entitled to getting at least one.
Richardson Place Easter Beer Hunt
George will forever be remembered for many things, in particular the Annual Richardson Place Easter Beer Hunt that he concocted and hosted. Friends of George were notified with an invitation created by Tampa’s timelessly great artist, cartoonist, and graphic designer Charlie Greacen who, for a time, lived across the street from George at the so-called Dillworth Manor, a large two-story house with several rooms that qualified as apartments. Dillworth Manor was reportedly also occupied by a droll, funny, and satirical columnist for the Tampa Tribune named Daniel Ruth. Dan was known to favor excellent, expensive, very old scotch, never the cheaper stuff. A few years later he went on to share a Pulitzer Prize at the St. Petersburg Times when he toiled there as an editorial writer. Dillworth Manor was also occupied by two lovely, well-bred girls—one blond, one brunette—who could have performed crazy chick scenarios on the original Saturday Night Live, and would love doing it. By then I was a featured columnist at The Tampa Tribune, seeing George less often.
The Annual Richardson Place Easter Beer Hunt was an open-air event that emanated from George’s front porch, spilling over the yard down to the sidewalk. Not just George’s friends but anybody from the neighborhood could stop by after adult guests had found most of the hidden beers and any kids on hand, with mommy and daddy’s help, had found candy-filled plastic eggs hidden all over. It was an afternoon of food, fun and frolic. This I know because the inaugural annual event marked the debut of my day-old rock band Sir Jeffrey & The Extremes featuring yours truly and Greg Tozian (Tribune film critic) on electric guitars, Paul Wilborn (Tribune reporter/editor) on electric piano, and Greg’s brother Mark on drums. History is foggy but I do believe Tribune features production editor Mike Kilgore was in the throng as we played the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” badly and then quit before being jocularly booed off George’s porch.
As some people wrote on the “Memories” page of Jocular George Meyer’s obituary, “George was always the life of the party…he WAS the party, wherever he went.” I agree.
I miss you. George, as does everyone who knew you.—Jeff Dunlap – St. Louis, Missouri – August 22, 2021
(Copyright © Jeff Dunlap 2021. All rights reserved.)
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