Austin 3:16: A Chapter Closes

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Austin 3:16: A Chapter Closes

“Old geezers like me can give you some history. Even if we didn’t do much, we can tell you what happened.”—Ed Austin, April 2006

Ed Austin (1926-2011) died on Saturday morning, April 23. For him, the Good Friday was the last of many. His exit from the stage automatically changes the city he helped put on the map forever, and throws into stark relief the differences between two generations of political leadership. As they say of so many institutions, “They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” Oh, if only we could!

Austin effectively controlled the State Attorney’s office for a quarter-century before unseating Tommy Hazouri in 1991. He was the last Democrat to win that spot, and the first Republican; his post-election party-switch almost single-handedly shifted the polarity of regional politics forever. A former varsity footballer for the Duke Blue Devils and Army Airborne veteran,Austin’s short-but-sweet reign was a key step forward for the city, with major investments in public infrastructure and the arts, plus the arrival of the Jaguars. His “River City Renaissance” led directly to the Delaney/Peyton “Better Jacksonville Plan”, both of which were widely criticized but needed doing. It would be hard to find anyone (outside the Tea Party) who would undo the last 20 years.

Despite all of Austin’s vast accomplishments throughout a long career in public service, he deserves to also be remembered for what he achieved in retirement. Barely a year[?] after leaving City Hall, a brutal car wreck killed his wife of 34 years, Patricia and left him fighting for his life; he survived only because he was Ed Austin. It was a blow that would leave most people crippled, both physically and spiritually, but the zeal with which he seized the subsequent days inspired many people who may have never even met him. His robust physique and go-getter mentality was the subject of countless stories that bordered on the mythic. The classic photo from an old Daily Record showingAustin in his late-‘70s, holding a massive marlin out at shoulder-height, shirtless, was itself a symbol for the city’s toughness and resiliency. Seniors, in particular, saw in him a future beyond what the convention wisdom implied for them.

For most of the citizens he served so well for so long, Ed Austin’s last stand in political life was taken alongside another legendary former mayor, Jake Godbold, when they appeared together in a TV spot for Audrey Moran, who somehow failed to make the runoff to succeed John Peyton this year. Coupled with an overall sub-30 percent turnout in the primaries, Moran’s defeat—and by extension the rejection of those good ol’ boys’ sage advice—was a stunning rebuke to that generation that gave all to make this the Bold New City of the South; now we’re stuck arguing about how much of that legacy will be dismantled, as those elders who remain watch it come around them.

Unlike many local powerbrokers, who long ago decamped to those plasticine outposts of urban sprawl, Austin walked among the common man. Sightings were long a regular feature for residents of Riverside/Avondale, where he lived most of the last half-century. You’d see him at The Fox, having breakfast, and other restaurants for lunches and dinners. You’d see him ducking out of Riverside Liquors, double-fisting handles of high-end bourbon; “I figured I’d get two; they say there might be a storm this weekend.”

The last time I saw him was just a few weeks ago; he was at Publix, buying a Times-Union. He could have gotten a subscription, gratis no doubt, and had it dropped right at his front door as most 84 year-olds would likely do. But I sensed he enjoyed the activity, the interaction, the multigenerational props he received. He was slightly hunched, but so tall it was hard to tell, and his handshake was like a vise-grip.

Even to the end of his life, running the most mundane errands, Austinconveyed credibility and a sense of command presence that no local politician of the present or future can ever hope to convey themselves. His loss should be taken as an opportunity to reevaluate the state of our city and reassess our commitment to the mission, vision and values that he and his peers, now mostly gone, projected onto the virtual blank slate that was Consolidation-era Jacksonville. There’s another saying: “Those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it”, but that is not true in this case. We have ignored our past, to our great and enduring detriment, but our doom is that it will not be repeated. Men like Ed Austin will never walk this Earth again, unfortunately. RIP

 sheltonhull@gmail.com; April 24, 2011

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