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Cedar Key Mayor Eugene “Gene” Hodges, born into a politically connected family, was the heir to that way of knowing how to get things done for the island community and district that he represented in the Florida House from 1972 to 1988.
Hodges' father was a state senator from 1952-62, Senate President and later a lobbyist.
The son, a lifelong Democrat, made his mark in politics by being smart and likable. He used his quick wit the way a carpenter uses a wood plane — smoothing and finely shaping the final debate.
His life was devoted to public service, serving in the U.S. Air Force in North Africa from 1955-58, the Florida Parole Commission, as Cedar Key Judge, on the Cedar Key Planning Commission and the Cedar Key City Commission and Community Redevelopment Agency.
Hodges was also the hero who saved his alma mater after the Levy County school board closed it in 1980, according to “Cedar Key Florida, a History” by Kevin McCarthy. The 32 students were to be bused to Bronson or Chiefland because of the school district's fears of violating Title IX which required equal sports opportunities for boys and girls and decreasing enrollment.
Hodges, a 1954 graduate of CKHS, introduced a bill to provide money for isolated schools like CKHS. The schools were required to have at least 28 students, the school board had to levy the maximum discretionary millage and the students had to score at a level equal or above the state average on statewide tests. Cedar Key High is the only school to meet those three criteria.
Hodges is also a proven rainmaker for his hometown. Two years ago when Levy County was suffering from a drought and water tables dropped so low that saltwater intrusion in wells made the water undrinkable, Hodges, the mayor, had one bit of advice: Pray, Hodges said. Pray and then pray some more for an end to the drought. That was on June 21.
A week later Tropical Storm Debby checked into Cedar Key with more than 10 inches of rain. The rains have pretty much continued since then.
On Sunday, July 6, Hodges, 77, was found by his beloved fish pond at his hunting camp in Rosewood by sheriff's deputies alerted to his absence. The 8th Circuit Medical Examiner's Office has ruled it death by natural causes.
He leaves behind a wife, Annette, two sons, Eugene Randolph (Randy) Jr. (Debbie), of Crystal River and Michael (Anna) of Cedar Key, a daughter Gina Hodges Tovine (Bill) of Clermont, stepdaughter Jamie Naff, adopted son, Bobby Tramell, of Cedar Key, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his parents, Mildred and William Randolph Hodges.
Visitation is Thursday, July 10, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Knauff Funeral Home in Chiefland, with services on Friday at 10 a.m. at Cedar Key United Methodist Church. Burial will follow in Cedar Key Cemetery.
Hodges' son said his father had plans for when he left Tallahassee that did not pan out.
“When he retired, that was his ambition to go get in his birddog and go mullet fishing,” Randy Hodges said. The “bidrdog” was a type of boat created by the Tremblay Boat Works in Chiefland with a high bow and a low stern suitable for pulling in nets. “Then they banned the nets and that pretty much wound up his fishing.”
Randy Hodges was referring to the constitutional amendment that banned use of gill nets for mullet fishing. Just one day after the elder Hodges' death, the Florida 1st District Court of Appeals smacked down a commercial fishing association's challenge to the state enforcement of the ban.
“He mainly stayed out on his pond, Randy Hodges said. “In his last years he tended to his hunting camp out there. It was pretty much his last days. He passed away right where he wanted to be.”
Gina Tovine said the pond was her father's joy. “He was there every day,” she said. But lately he was worried about his fish dying. “He had to get those dead fish out of his pond. He was found with his bucket and net. That's what he was doing. He just would go out there and feed them.”
Tovine said her father was a devoted family man and the family would take trips together. She said they were planning a trip to the Keys in three weeks when he died.
Randy Hodges mentioned that the whole family went elk hunting in Colorado. Seems his father, son and daughter bagged elk, while Randy Hodges came away empty handed.
And the family hunted together in Levy on numerous occasions, spent holidays together and having fish frys.
“He was a better eater than he was a fish fryer,” said Randy Hodges. “He did 'em OK when he did 'em. But they were better done by my grandaddy or my brother.”
Both Gina Tovine and Randy Hodges mentioned that their father's one enduring quality was integrity, followed by his ability to get along with people.
“It seemed like he could correspond with anybody from either level. He could deal with lawyers or regular old mullet fisherman,” said Randy Hodges.
“He had the kindest heart. He couldn't hurt a soul ever. I never saw my dad be harsh,” said Gina Tovine. “He just was a good hearted guy who tried to treat people the way he always wanted to be treated.”
Tovine said she hopes to emulate her father one thing — to support her childrens' decisions the way he supported hers. “He was always very supportive of me even if he didn't agree with my decision. Most of the time I wouldn't know if he didn't disagree with me but he supported me.”
Of his life, Tovine said, “He was a good guy and he made a difference. He made a difference for a lot of people. He left a legacy.”
Among Hodges' honors and distinctions:
• FLAGPAC Agriculturalist of the Decade nomination for 1970-1979.
• Veterans of Foreign Wars Distinguished Service Award 1975.
• Florida Chiropractic Association Legislative Award 1977 and 1981.
• Florida Farm Bureau Legislative Award 1978 through 1981.
• Gamma Sigma Delta Agricultural Honor Society Distinguished Service Award 1980.
• Dairy Farmers Inc. Legislative Appreciation Award 1979.
• Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association Award of Recognition 1979.
• Florida Agriculture Award of Excellence 1982.
• Florida Veterinarian Association Layman of the Year Outstanding Services Award 1982.
• Citrus County School Board 1983 Award.
• Alliance of North Florida Education Employees Excellence in Education 1985 Award.
• Cedar Key Sidewalk Art Festival 1985 Award.
QUOTABLES ON HODGES:
Sen. Bob Graham on Hodge's passing
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, was governor of Florida for most of the time Hodges was in the Legislature and he remembered him as someone who was very effective.
“He was one of those people in the legislature who got along with everybody. He was very proud of his heritage and the Big Bend area,” Graham said in a phone interview.
“He knew the territory and he represented it well,” Graham said. “He was the kind of person who could reach across the aisle and deal with legislators of any background. I was proud to have served with him and he was an important member of the House of Representatives.”
Graham said Hodges' ability to get along with people was important. “That's not a quality everybody necessarily has.” The senator noted that “Some people can function well only with people like themselves.”
He said Hodges had “The ability to establish the confidence and respect of people who had a different background.”
Graham said Hodges' knowledge of how state government functions also served him well in the Legislature. “He brought knowledge and real world experience to every issue he had to vote on or debate. That again was a part of his makeup that caused him to be so effective.”
“I remember he had a good sense of who he was and self confidence.”
City Commissioner Sue Colson on Hodges' city service
"I think he is part of the special people of Cedar Key — a segment that we are losing as time goes on that has a rich history in Cedar Key and that has so much inner strength and dedication to Cedar Key and children and children's needs. He responded to children's needs.”
While the two did not always see eye-to-eye on city matters, Colson said, “He was definitely all (about) Cedar Key.”
“He also hated spending money and was conservative. He didn't like when we spent money but when it came to kids that's a big one he was for, even to making sure the school existed. You could count on him like a rock for that.”