JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jake Godbold, Jacksonville’s colorful and sometimes controversial mayor from 1978 to 1987, died Thursday at age 86.
Godbold’s son, Ben, said his father died of a heart attack.
“It was all very sudden. He was on his way to pick up breakfast and had a heart attack. The firemen told me he did not suffer at all,” he said. “I appreciate everybody’s outpouring of their condolences. I really do. This is obviously a very hard time for my family. We are really going to miss him.”
Godbold’s wife of 57 years, Jean, died in 2013. Godbold’s health had been in decline recently, but those closest to him were still unprepared for his death.
Godbold had plans to meet longtime aide and political advisor Mike Tolbert and others for lunch. Tolbert had just written a biography, titled, “Jake.”
“Jacksonville just lost its best friend, and so did I,” Tolbert said.
Tommy Hazouri, who was elected mayor after Godbold’s two terms, called him “a mentor to all of us.”
“He was a mayor who never gave up his mayorship,” Hazouri said. "I think that if you talk to the former mayors who are (with us) today, including our present mayor, he will say that he always provided input and opinions about issues because he loved Jacksonville. No one can disagree with that.”
Jacksonville’s current mayor, Lenny Curry, released a statement that he was "very saddened to hear of Mayor Godbold’s passing and my thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
“Jake Godbold’s years of public service in Jacksonville will be remembered for decades to come,” Curry said. “I have long admired his love and dedication to our city, specifically his support of our senior citizens. His work to help expand small business in Jacksonville was only matched by his passion for big projects in downtown."
City Councilman Matt Carlucci’s father, Joe, was a friend, colleague and contemporary of Godbold.
“He was like the last political link to my father,” Carlucci said. "He and I were very close and I loved him very much. He was Jacksonville’s greatest patriarch and statesman and will be missed forever. The last few years I have loved him like a father and he treated me like a son. I express my sincerest sympathy and love to his family that he so loved.”
Martha Barrett, who worked for Godbold when he was mayor and went to serve two terms on the Duval County School Board and held leadership roles at several corporations, was one of his long-time friends welcomed at the family home Thursday afternoon.
“He was a wonderful boss. He was a wonderful friend," Barrett said. "He was good friends to so many people, and he loved the city.”
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Godbold was elected to Jacksonville City Council in 1967, re-elected after the consolidation of the city with Duval County, and was serving as City Council president when Mayor Hans Tanzler announced he would be resigning his position for governor. This outspoken, self-made man found himself mayor.
With a coalition of blue-collar and black voters, Godbold upset the political establishment with his election in 1979 and re-elected in 1983.
The community came to know “Jake” for his street-savvy and tell-it-like-it-is style. He formed public and private partnerships, restored crumbling landmark buildings and worked tirelessly to build up Jacksonville’s self-esteem in his own unique way.
He initiated the efforts to secure an NFL team, started the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, initiated the construction of the Jacksonville Landing and the Southbank Riverwalk and saved the Union Station train terminal by turning it into Jacksonville’s convention center.
The Mayo Clinic opened in Jacksonville during the Godbold era and he convinced Michael Jackson to perform three shows at the Gator Bowl in 1984.
During his time as mayor Godbold initiated a number of brick-and-mortar projects to revitalize the city’s failing downtown.
His “creative” use of bond financing meant eight years of capital construction projects by the city.
“We had a tremendous downtown development period,” Godbold once said. "I believe they referred to it as ‘The Billion Dollar Decade’ -- a tremendous amount of new construction.”
During his final years in office, the U.S. attorney’s office investigated accusations of improprieties during the city’s period of rapid expansion. No favoritism or other wrongdoing was ever found, but four of the mayor’s associates did serve time for unrelated offenses.
“I’m sorry about that. It caused a horrible time in my life,” Godbold said. “It turned out OK, I still believe in the justice system. I believe in the FBI. I believe in the federal attorney’s office, but it was a bad time.”
Despite the way his second term ended, Godbold remained popular and when he ran for mayor again a decade later he responded to those who questioned his integrity.
“I will not back up to any man, you or anybody else when it comes to integrity. I am very proud of being a family man, being a good citizen, paying my taxes,” he said at the time.
Godbold got 49% of the vote in 1995, losing a close race to John Delaney, who became the city’s first Republican mayor since Reconstruction.
“Even though we ran against each other, we buried the hatchet and we said we both want what’s good for the city. Let’s get on the same page. So I really got to love the guy,” Delaney said. “The fraternity of mayors is pretty small and each of them contributed in their own way, but Jake was a bigger-than-life personality and still probably the most high-profile mayor we’ve had.”
Goldbold never ran for public office again, but continued to work tirelessly for various causes for the public good, including prevention of domestic violence in memory of his murdered sister-in-law, Barbara Ann Campbell.
Of his years in office and beyond, one memory may have stood out above all the others: Trying to convince the Baltimore Colts to relocate to Jacksonville.
"Colt Fever almost accidentally, and it turned out to be very, very important to Jacksonville," Godbold said. "At the time we were making it happen, I had mixed emotions about whether or not we ought to do that."
Neither Godbold nor anyone else would have predicted that more than 50,000 people would turn out in the old Gator Bowl in August 1979 to try to convince team owner Robert Irsay that “We want the Colts.” It wasn’t in the cards at the time, but the event got national attention and set the stage for Jacksonville’s winning the Jaguars franchise 14 years later.
“I went to the White House about three or four days after this happened. They came in and I was going to talk to them the People Mover project and they said, 'No, no. Before we talk about anything, we want to know how in the hell you got over 50,000 people ... to come down and say, ‘We want the Colts.’ It kind of put Jacksonville on the map.”
Never one to keep his opinions to himself, Golbold weighed in on political and issues. Alvin Brown, who was a student at Edward Waters College when Godbold was mayor, would later attribute his support to allowing Brown to beat the odds and become Jacksonville’s first black mayor.
"I had a 1% chance of winning and Jake said, “You got a chance just like anybody else.' And so, for him to help elect the first African-American mayor in this great city speaks volumes for him,” Brown said. “I’m very thankful, I thank God I had a chance at a relationship.”
In the last year, Goldbold made a heartfelt plea to save the Jacksonville Landing and spoke out about the JEA’s unpopular and ultimately aborted effort to sell itself to a private company. In November, Godbold was using a walker when he attended a meeting of a special City Council committee and told the members: “We could stop it here today.”
Of all the tributes he received after leaving office, having a fireboat named in his honor may have been Godbold’s favorite.
“It’s a big thrill to see this boat with my name on it, you know, going up and down the river," he told News4Jax a few years back. "I love the river, I love the fire department, I love Jacksonville, so it is a great partnership.”
One of Godbold’s first priorities in elected office was to help the city’s outdated and underpaid fire department become a modern, professional, state-of-the-art unit.
“To be associated with a group like these men and women here at this fire department is just an honor and I’m very proud of them," he said.
Godbold was proud to have grown up in public housing yet rose to hold the top office in the city.
“To know that some kid that lives on the Northside raised in a project can grow up to be president of the council and mayor of the city of Jacksonville,” Godbold said. “I think these young boys coming up today and these young girls coming up today, all they got to do is look at me and say, ‘Hell, if he can do it, we can, too.’”
If one thing stands out above all the rest about Godbold, it was his love of people -- all people, and especially the people of this city. His legacy can be summed up with this: he was always thinking of others.