JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Those who gathered Thursday to honor former Mayor Jake Godbold found it appropriate that a New Orleans-style brass band led the processional into a Celebration of Life at the Prime Osborn Convention Center.
The dignitaries, business executives and old friends from some of Jacksonville’s poorest neighborhoods who attended the service knew as “Jake” loved the music and that one of his many legacies was starting the Jacksonville Jazz Festival.
“The People’s Mayor” served from 1978 to 1987 and never stopped loving and advocating for his city. The significance of the memorial service being held at the grand building that Godbold rescued from being an abandoned train station to become an asset for Jacksonville was also not lost on this crowd.
“He was an ordinary man, but he did extraordinary things," former state Sen. Betty Holzendorf told the gathering. "He made this city what it is.”
Doors of the convention center opened for people to begin to pay their respects 90 minutes before the service that began with Godbold’s casket entering the exhibition hall following a New Orleans’ style jazz band. Local jazz musician Langineau Parsons and four choirs perform. In addition to Holzendorf, speakers included former Mayors John Delaney and John Payton, longtime business leaders Willard Payne, J.F. Bryan IV and Preston Haskell and former aide Martha Barret.
“It was impossible to be in a room with Jake without being infected with by his enthusiasm, his excitement and belief in our city and that passion was magnetic," said former Mayor John Peyton. “It would draw people to the movement.”
Delaney, who followed Godbold in mayor’s office, spoke not only of Jake’s unsurpassed love of the Jacksonville and his sometimes brutal but usually refreshing honesty.
“I’ve long said about Jake that if he were given the choice to live anywhere in the world -- Switzerland, a castle, the Mediterranean Sea -- if you paid Jake a million a year to live someplace else, if you gave Jake the choice between Eden and Jacksonville, he’d pick Jacksonville,” Delaney said. “I don’t think any of us can imagine how wonderful heaven is or that anyone up there would ever really want to leave, but if Jean (Jake’s wife) wasn’t already in heaven, I could see Jake talking to God and saying this: ‘Now God, this Heaven’s a very nice place, but it could use a little improvement. Maybe a big river; maybe some more catfish and bass and redfish; maybe a football team -- and I don’t care if it wins or loses. And I’d really like to have more people from Jacksonville up here -- both the good and the bad. So God, could you please send me back to Jacksonville?'"
WJXT’s Tom Wills, who moderated the service, told the crowd he was a friend of the mayor for almost 45 years.
“Yes, a reporter and a politician,” Wills said."It more than a friendship, it was actually a love affair. It was based on two things: He loved to talk to me. I loved to listen to him. I admit that he was not faithful to me in our love affair. He was a polygamist since I know that many of you have the same love affair with him."
Robert Walters, the first person to the door Thursday waited since 5 a.m. to pay his respects to Godbold. (Photo by Miller Mott, WJXT intern)
Godbold remained in the public eye and involved in civic life for three decades beyond his two terms as the city’s chief executive and most outspoken cheerleader. Since he was still active in civic life and a populist figure in the final years of his life, Godbold’s family and a committee of friends decided to hold a memorial service open to everyone.
Mike Tolbert, a longtime friend and political aide who recently wrote a biography about the former mayor, helped organize the event.
“He approached things with a spirit and a vigor that was incredible to me and it inspired an awful lot of us," Tolbert said.
In a statement, Tolbert said the service “will give everyone in Jacksonville the opportunity to rejoice and participate in the positive spirit he espoused throughout his life. About two years before he passed, I was finally able to get him to talk to me about what he wanted. The joyful program on Thursday, I’m sure, will cause him to smile. It will be a ‘big as Jake’ event."
Even people who don’t remember Godbold can see the impact he had on the city: building the Southbank Riverbank and Metropolitan Park, modernizing the fire department, restoring the Florida Theatre, attracting the Mayo Clinic to Jacksonville, kicking off a massive downtown revitalization called the Billion Dollar Decade that included building the just demolished Jacksonville Landing, starting the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, and putting the city on the radar of the NFL.
“When he became mayor, Jacksonville had an attitude that was not good at all," Tolbert said. "We didn’t like ourselves and he was going to change that. I think that his No. 1 legacy is that spirit he brought to Jacksonville.”
Suggestions for tributes to Godbold included naming the site of the former Jacksonville Landing after him, or even naming the football field at TIAA Bank Field “Godbold Field.”
His friends and supporters say Godbold’s name will live on no matter what is done.
“All of those things he did for one simple reason: (For) the people that lived here, to better their lives and have a better opportunity in their life,” said Rick Catlett, who worked for Godbold during his years in office, remained a longtime friend and is president of Gator Bowl Sports.