Use of N-Word causes Gulfport man to lose volunteer CERT gig with city

click to enlarge Worthington and his wife, Gulfport Vice Mayor Christine Brown. - Cathy Salustri
Cathy Salustri
Worthington and his wife, Gulfport Vice Mayor Christine Brown.

In the wake of a story that ran last month in Creative Loafing about Gulfport's evolving attitudes on race, Gulfport Fire Chief Jim Marenkovic — under orders from city manager Jim O'Reilly — has called for Louis Worthington's resignation from the city's volunteer community emergency response team (CERT). 

CERT members have training that allow them to assist emergency personnel during hurricanes and other disasters. Worthington, as well as his wife, brother, children and friends, all serve on CERT. Worthington and his wife are also trained firefighters.

Worthington, who used a racial epithet in an interview with this reporter, maintains he did so to clarify what he considered a distinction in class, not race. After the story appeared, the union representative for Gulfport's fire department, Gerard Grady, and firefighter and longtime colleague Brian Campbell both emailed Marenkovic complaints and had asked for Worthington's resignation from CERT. 

Before the city made the request for his resignation official, Worthington tried to deliver a letter to the firefighters, asking for the chance to work out the issues with the men. He asked his brother, Bob Worthington, the head of CERT, to deliver the letter.

The city refused to accept the letter, telling Worthington they did not want to create a public record, according to the Worthington family.

That week, Marenkovic made a formal request that Worthington resign.

We asked O'Reilly, the city manager, why he would not honor Worthington's request to talk about the issue with the two men.

"Unfortunately," O'Reilly said, "I cannot speak to specific employee issues in regards to the firefighters. Due to circumstances that could not be resolved — that did not pertain to Mr. Worthington — the city took what it deemed as appropriate action."

O'Reilly said he preferred not to disclose the "circumstances that could not be resolved."

The fate of Gulfport CERT — one of several throughout the Tampa Bay area — remains uncertain, as at this point the Worthington family constitutes the bulk of the organization. City officials do not know if the rest of the family will continue to volunteer on CERT.

Although the city would not accept Worthington's letter, we have published the text of it here. You can also read Worthington's subsequent letter of resignation and the firefighters' complaints.

Here is the text of Worthington's letter, which the firefighters had not seen prior to this post:

January 26, 2015


I appreciate the opportunity to address the article in Creative Loafing.

The intention of that article and the only reason I agreed to sit down with Cathy was to talk honestly about how Gulfport was when I was growing up and the changes that I have seen with regard to race. When I was a child, Gulfport was a sundown town. Today I can sit with my daughter’s boyfriend, who is black, and judge him on the quality of his character rather than the color of his skin.

When I said 'like me' in the article, it was in response to the sentence just before it. '…unless they were raised as racist.' I was raised in a time where it was normal for races to live apart from each other. Seventy years ago that was the way it was, today we look back and call it racist. I think it's too bad that anything else was taken away from that, and I certainly never intended to suggest that I think all black people are that word.

When I used the N-word in the interview it was when we talked about the people that make the headlines for throwing babies out of a car window on the interstate, stealing to support a drug habit, killing police officers and the like. I don't think of a black person as the N-word. I was using the term to describe the class of people, not color which is explained in the article. I can understand how it would look bad and be harmful when taken as a single sentence.

You know that I love Gulfport and I don't want to see it set backward any more than any of you do. After 50 years of working with the fire department it should be clear that the fire department matters to me. I don't want to see anyone upset and I don't want anyone thinking that when I come around, I am thinking anything ill of you based on the color of your skin. I am not.

Before this gets worse, I would really like to sit down and talk to you. I understand I've upset you, and I want you to know that was not my intention. I think things were misinterpreted and taken out of context, but this is nothing we can't solve by sitting down and working it out as colleagues.

I would ask for the opportunity to sit down and allow you to judge me on the person you know, not two sentences in a newspaper article.

View document "WorthingtonResignation.pdf"View document "WorthingtonComplaints.pdf"

About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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