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Silhouettes profiles Holly Gregory

Holly Gregory

From Silhouettes, by Tiffany Razzano
Originally published Jan. 20, 2023

A native Midwesterner, Holly Gregory was born and raised in a small town. “A little bitty town in Illinois that is still exactly the same,” she said.
Her father, who grew up on a farm, was a corrections officer, and her mother, a teacher. “In fact, she was my fifth-grade teacher. That’s how small my town was,” the Bay News 9 evening anchor said. “Everybody knows everybody, and you’re probably related to about a third of them.”
As a child, Gregory didn’t show an early interest in journalism. Instead, she participated in Future Farmers of America. “I didn’t grow up thinking I was going to be a reporter,” she said.
Through the FFA, she became interested in farm reporting and “it evolved from there,” she said. “I’m a communicator and I was like, ‘I can do this. I like being on air.’ At the time, it was very much agriculture based.”
She studied radio and television at Butler University in Indianapolis before moving to New York City for her last two years of college. There, she attended Marymount Manhattan College. “I’d been in the Midwest my whole life and I had no idea what I was in store for,” she added.
Her professors all worked in the field with “great connections” and through one of them, Gregory was able to land an internship with journalist and television host Geraldo Rivera. His office was across the street from the CBS building, where he also filmed. “It was eye opening and interesting and crazy,” she said.
She spent so much time in the CBS building that whenever she had a free moment, she’d walk down to the CBS local news studios and introduce herself to the staff there. “I made some friends – you’d never be able to do that today,” she said. “I found some people to take me under their wing.”
Through these friendships at CBS, staff members helped her put together a professional-looking newscast reel in the studio. “I had this beginner TV tape that was the slickest thing you’ve ever seen in the No. 1 market,” Gregory said. “I’d sit at the desk doing what looks like what is a real report.”
She also worked part time at the New York Post as what was referred to one of “the copy kids.” This was before computers and email were prevalent in the office. “I would run hard copy around to the editors,” she said.
With her experience with the Post and Rivera and her slick demo tape, she applied to entry-level broadcast jobs all over the country, ultimately accepting her first full-time position at WGEM in Quincy, Illinois.
“New York was where I really got the news bug,” she said. “It made me realize this is what I want to do and also that I can’t start on camera in the No. 1 market.”
Gregory spent four years at WGEM before moving on to WHO TV, an NBC affiliate in Des Moines. “That was like reporter bootcamp,” she said. “Our news director, he didn’t pull any punches; you better get it right.”
There, she had the opportunity to cover the Iowa caucus, which is how she “got the bug” for covering politics.
Not a fan of divisive arguing, she quickly established a philosophy that was “a little different from other political reporters,” she said. “I’ve always been a general assignment reporter. I’ve always been more rounded and then I do politics. I’m more like your average person who does politics. My philosophy is to let them talk.”
Then, her husband’s company transferred him to Chicago for “a job he couldn’t turn down,” she said.
This was an opportunity for her to take the next step in her career, as well, but left her with some insecurities. “Am I able to make the job from Des Moines to the No. 3 market in the country?” she said.
For seven months, she knocked “on every door in” Chicago, Gregory said. “I’d talk to anyone who would give me the time of day to get my foot in the door.”
Then, on Christmas Eve, she received a call from a news director at CLTV – what she calls “the Bay News 9 of Chicago at the time.” The station had three staff members call out sick. “They told me, ‘We need somebody,’ and I said, ‘I’m your girl,’” she said.
She spent six years with the station, which eventually sistered with WGN-TV in that market.
“There’s no place like Chicago for covering news. It’s a trip,” Gregory said. “Until I came to Florida. That’s a whole different trip.”
In 2009, her husband was transferred to Tampa. During the family’s first three years in the area, she focused on raising their three young children.
But she missed journalism and knew she wanted to get back into it the field, taking a job as anchor/reporter with Bay News 9. “The rest has just been history here,” she said. “It was a fantastic move here, career wise.”
Since moving to Florida, she’s covered a range of stories that grabbed national attention – from the infamous Casey Anthony. Julie Schenecker and George Zimmerman trials to the Seminole Heights serial killer to the Republican National Convention to Hurricane Michael’s devastating hit to the Panhandle.
“You name any big story over the decade, and we’ve done it,” she said. “With Bay News 9, we go. If there’s a big story in the state, we’re going.”
Hurricane Michael is probably one of the more memorable stories she covered. “I was there for the duration – before, during and after,” Gregory added. “I’ve never done work like that since, as far as hurricane coverage. Calling it ‘unbelievable’ doesn’t do it justice. You just have to be there to see what it’s like. These were real stories and we got to talk to real people.”
She also covered Hurricane Ian’s recent battering of the Fort Myers area. “But after the fact,” she said. “It’s about getting these stories on TV and making people understand what happened.”
Over the past decade, as she’s covered the news, she’s seen firsthand how much the region has grown – “the population and the changing of how Tampa looks and home values,” she said. “When I first came here, everything had a foreclosure sign in front of it, it seemed like. The economics…have changed drastically since I first got here. Now it’s a bigger, more bustling, more developed city.”
Even with all these changes, she still loves her work and can’t imagine being a journalist anywhere else. “There’s still that openness, that certain something you can’t quite put your finger on about covering Florida news,” she said. “Everybody seems to be coming from everywhere else. It’s a melting pot within a melting pot and everyone has a story.”

Silhouettes profiles Beth Garcia

Beth Garcia

By Tiffany Razzano
Published Feb. 16, 2024

Born in St. Petersburg, Beth Garcia moved with her parents, who both worked in the dental field, to Ocala when she was about seven years old. Her mother had family with property in the area, so they moved to be closer to them.
After graduating high school, she went on to attend Florida State University in Tallahassee. There, she was a marketing major and she worked part time in a real estate office while taking classes. It wasn’t long before she started working for a title company and eventually met the state manager for First American Title, moving up to work closely with him for about 12 years. She frequently traveled the state as part of her role with the company.
Garcia met her future husband while working for First American Title. After they married, the couple moved to Tampa – where her husband is from – in 1990. “My husband is a Tampa native. He’s been here his whole life,” she said. “His parents, grandparents, everybody lived here and worked here.”
When they relocated to Tampa, her husband left First American and bought a title agency in Englewood, which is in southern Sarasota and Charlotte counties. While he ran that company for a number of years, when the market got bad, Garcia took over its management and he went back to work for First American.
The commute from Tampa was difficult, about an hour and a half one way, she said. “But I had a good office manager. Going down there was an adventure and traffic isn’t getting any better.”
They closed down the business last year after Hurricane Ian pummeled Southwest Florida. “It was just not good down there,” she said.
Now, she works for a developer as a project manager on “a couple of historical projects,” she said. “I oversee product selection, like lighting and finishes.”
Garcia added, “I always had a background in design and decorating for other people. I put that to use now and it’s more fun than the title side of things.”
She’s also dedicated to the nonprofit group The Chiselers, which works to preserve, restore and advocate for the University of Tampa’s H.B. Plant Hall.
It was an easy decision to get involved with the organization; her father-in-law, husband and niece all attended the university. “I’ve had a long history with the university and the building and it’s just always been so incredible and impressive to me,” she said. “When I was asked to join The Chiselers, I jumped on that. I wanted to be involved in preserving that building. It’s one-of-a-kind.”
It “takes a lot of work,” Garcia noted. “Even when you have just a house, that’s hard to maintain, and this is a quarter-mile long historic building.”
Since joining the group in 2017, she’s worked her way through different departments, many associated with the organization’s infamous Chiselers Market.
This year’s market takes place on March 9, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thousands of new and gently used items, including plants, jewelry, kitchenware, books, art, furniture and more are available to purchase.
She’s helped in ust about every area of the market, including the furniture department and working in the warehouse to sort and price items. Garcia moved on to join the executive committee and currently serves as president.
She looks forward to this year’s market as it’s the group’s primary fundraising event and there’s a lot of work to complete at Plant Hall.
In addition to the market, there’s a special ticketed event, The Minaret Mixer, the night before, held this year on March 8, 6 to 8 p.m. Guests get a sneak peek at the items for sale the next day at the market and even have the opportunity to scoop them up early. There’s also an auction held that evening. Tickets to this event are $150.
“It gives you a preview of what’s for sale and even if you don’t buy that night, you have the lay of the land for Saturday morning or you can even snap something up that Friday night,” she said. “We have amazing finds at that market. I never go without bringing something home. I have a house full of Chiseler items.”
It’s not too late for those who have items to donate to the sale to contact the group and arrange for them to be dropped off at the Chiselers’ warehouse.
Sales from the market have raised as much as $170,000 in underwriting funds for the building, while the mixer usually brings in another $150,000. The two events usually raise anywhere from $250,000 to $300,000 each year.
“This is our major fundraiser,” Garcia said. “Right now, we have three projects in play over there.”
The Chiselers are matching $200,000 – the other $200,000 coming from the university – to install new “historically appropriate” composite decking on the west veranda that will be essentially maintenance free.
They also raised another $80,000 in matching funds to pay for an implementation plan. “Just to see what projects we want to do next and in what order,” she said.
The group has partnered with the state to pay for the replacement of the music room roof. Both the state and the Chiselers will spend $500,000 each on that project. “They’re replacing all the metal on top of the big dome on top of the music room. It’s very labor intensive work,” Garcia said.
The group has also partnered with Hillsborough County to fund the Hazel Ward Lounge. This project costs about $400,000 split evenly between the Chiselers and the county.
Next year the university will tackle “the big ticket items.” The balustrades, concrete decorative railing around both verandas, need to be replaced, according to Garcia. It will cost about $350,000 for each veranda.
The east veranda is also in need of roof repair and new terrazzo flooring, a $2.6 million project, she added. “So, we’re looking at about $3 million that we need to gear up for.”
In addition to the annual market and mixer, the Chiselers also host a walk each year that raises up to $70,000. But they’ll likely need to introduce a third, new fundraiser, most likely a gala in May during historic preservation month.
“That’s on the table right now but nothing is in stone at this point,” Garcia said. “There are definitely moving parts. We need to change it up and raise as much money as we possibly can.”

Silhouettes profiles Dontrel Hall

Dontrel Hall

By: Tiffany Razzano
Published January 12, 2024

Hillsborough County educator and YMCA staff member Dontrel Hall has a new title to add to his belt: children’s author.
The Pompano Beach native was a student-athlete growing up, which offered him many opportunities, and ever since college, he hoped to one day write a children’s book series to help inspire and motivate other young athletes.
His parents were both “very active” and supportive of his goals. Hall grew up playing football and his mother, a nurse, always stressed that academics came first. Meanwhile, his father, an entrepreneur who owned janitorial and detailing companies, was “a huge football fan” who encouraged his son’s athleticism.
It was the perfect combination for him as a child and he saw the importance of focusing on both facets of his life. This helped him as he went on to play football in college at the State University of New York in Morrisville, then a two-year junior college, and later at Concordia University, a Division 3 college in Wisconsin, just south of Milwaukee.
“Where I’m from in Pompano Beach, Florida, so many people play football, but they’re never able to make it out of high school (to play) because of eligibility – their grades, their SAT scores, ACTS, NCAA clearinghouses, maybe they didn’t get their high school diploma,” Hall said. “There are some phenomenal athletes but they never make it because they put football ahead of academics.”
Even as a college student himself, he knew he wanted to influence young people to make better decisions. “I had this idea of writing a book and had all this material written down, but I didn’t know what to do with it,” he said. “I was in my college dorm and would start writing poems, little materials, events that happened in my childhood, stuff like that, but I didn’t have any true direction on how to publish a book.”
He created a character named Dynasty who had experiences similar to his growing up as a student athlete. “I wanted to bring to the forefront that no matter how good you are athletically, if you’re not good academically, you’re just someone who was good in little league or good in high school,” he said, adding, “It’s called student athlete, not athlete student. School is first and athletics are second. So many superb athletes think they’re going straight to the NFL, but when the report card comes out, the academics don’t match the athleticism.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business, Hall played professional arena football in Greenville for the South Carolina Force. After a few years, he decided to get into teaching after his family and former teachers encouraged him to work with children.
He returned to Florida and worked at football camps and other community events before he started working at the YMCA of South Florida. There, he taught and oversaw after-school sports activities and eventually was named a site supervisor at YMCA Summer Camp at the TigerTail Recreation Center. “It was a very unique camp,” one that offered canoeing, rock climbing, surfing, speed boating and other fun activities, he said. “I was blessed to have a director at the time who believed in me and gave me the position.”
At the same time, Hall was also hired as a business education teacher at his former high school in Pompano Beach. There, he taught mostly college readiness to teens.
With some experience under his belt, he decided to put his resume out to other schools in Florida and landed at an AMIkids location in Tampa in 2017. The nonprofit organization works with “at-risk kids, alternative kids,” he said. “Some kids may have court orders; some needed credit recovery. All different types of things.”
Today, he works for Hillsborough County Schools and is a teacher at Giunta Middle School in Riverview. There, he teaches electives in topics like business, careers and research, and career technology.
He recently earned his master’s in educational leadership from Grand Canyon University with a goal of becoming a school principal for the district. “I’m always trying to elevate myself so I can do better,” Hall said.
He also continues to work for the YMCA. Since moving to Tampa, he’s worked at the Central City, South Tampa and, now, the New Tampa locations. He’s been in New Tampa for the past two years.
He started as a site supervisor for basketball when he first moved to Tampa, running practices, games and community events. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they stopped holding practices, focusing just on noncompetitive games, and even got rid of referees, briefly, he said. “Once they cut the referees, I was doing games and reffing, anything they need me to do. They call me a jack of all trades.”
He also never forgot his dream of publishing a book. During a reading at his school during Black History Month in 2020, he began wondering how he might be able to get Dynasty’s adventures published.
Hall connected with a children’s book illustrator who previously read at his school through one of his coworkers. This led him to Cocoon to Wings Publishing, the company offered him everything from literacy coaching to help identifying and communicating his audience and vision.
His first title, “Reach for Your Goals,” was released in November. The book features a number of themes he thinks are important for young student athletes, including setting better study habits, preparing themselves for their academics, and setting and working toward goals.
“It’s important that kids learn these things,” Hall said. “You can do the football stuff, you can go to the gym, you can play basketball, but in your off time, you guys need to prepare for Florida state tests, prep for the SAT and ACT, get the grade point average where it needs to be so you can get to the level you want to be at.”
He plans to write more books about his character, Dynasty, and start his own nonprofit organization that will focus on providing student athletes with the educational tools they need for success.
“I’m a former student athlete myself. I played football and basketball my whole life,” he said. “I can relate to the kids so much. I went to the YMCA myself, the Boys and Girls Club year-round. It’s embedded in me, and I know that if you didn’t get the scores you needed to get, you didn’t get the diploma and you couldn’t play (sports) beyond that. For me, being one of the few able to do a little bit with my talents, I’d like to help even just one or two kids or whoever it is, just help somebody reach their full potential.”

Silhouettes profiles Omar Garcia

By Tiffany Razzano
Published March 10, 2023

The son of Cuban immigrants, Omar Garcia is the first generation of his family born in Tampa. His older siblings were also born in Cuba and came to Florida with their parents.
By 1957, his father was working in Tampa as a chemical engineer. Eventually, his parents purchased a home in the Baycrest area.
Garcia attended Christ the King Catholic School and graduated from Tampa Catholic High School. But he wasn’t the best student, he said. “My grades weren’t the best…They weren’t stellar.”
He took difficult courses in high school, but “I just did enough to pass,” he said. “I graduated with a 2.0.”
His parents considered sending him to trade school to become a welder. “Just so I’d have a career,” Garcia said. “But my mom said, ‘Absolutely not. You’re going to college.’”
So, after high school, he first attended Hillsborough Community College, which prepared him for his higher education. There he took what’s considered a “weeder class” – thermodynamics. “If I got an A, I automatically moved to classes at (the University of South Florida,” he said.
He earned that A and went on to attend USF, graduating with a civil engineering degree and honors.
From there, he joined the U.S. Navy, becoming a civil engineering corps officer. He served from 1995 to 1997. During this time, much of his work was with the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion handling construction contracts in Puerto Rico. “The Fighting CBs. Just like the John Wayne movie,” Garcia said. “We went out and made rapid runway repairs.”
After leaving the Navy, he switched gears, attending the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School to earn his MBA. “I’ve done a lot of different things in my career circuit,” he said.
After graduating from UNC in 1999, “the internet was just blowing up,” he said. “I really saw a huge opportunity.”
For several years he worked at Nortel Networks, which offered high-speed cell networks around the world, as a sale operation manager. “Cell phone use was in its infancy, at the time. We’re talking about Bluetooth in 1999,” Garcia said.
He was in charge of web enabling some of the company’s partners. “I still remember the day one of the girls on our team said, ‘You need to check out this new search engine called Google,’” he recalled.
For a while, he worked in England, just outside London, but field changed when “dot-com imploded” after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the Twin Towers. Though he considered a move to Silicon Valley, he came back to Tampa.
Once back in Florida, he launched a real estate company, Aventa. While he didn’t want to be “branded to any particular ethnicity, he also felt that the Hispanic community was underserved in the real estate market at the time.
Garcia had always enjoyed “the tangible side of real estate” and was inspired by his mother’s work in the field. He grew up watching her flip homes in the Tampa area. “Like they do on HGTV, but my mom was doing it in the early ‘70s,” he said. “My mom was buying and fixing whole houses in the 1970s. Taking these homes with antique finishings and making them new again. So, I was always kind of into this starting from something old and making it new again. It’s called adaptive reuse.”
Aventa did well in its first couple of years, but by 2006, he began to see that the real estate market as a whole was having some issues. “I didn’t feel comfortable telling first-time homeowners and buyers, ‘Hey, you should buy this house,’” he said. “I felt the market was going to turn.”
At the same time, he was going through a divorce and wanted to switch gears. So, he took a construction management position in Iraq and, later, Afghanistan. “It was like what I did in Puerto Rico, but for a private company,” he said.
There, he met his current wife, who’s from Turkey, and they had daughters. “It works out well. They’re loud and Cubans are loud and very passionate,” Garcia said.
When his dad fell ill, he moved his family to Tampa. He took a position working in a company focused on crude oil and U.S. Army Corps of Engineer projects in Afghanistan, serving as director of emerging markets.
Then, he started looking into how mobile phones could be used during field maintenance works and found a way to use QR codes to track equipment and projects. The QR codes are put on containers and other equipment used in the field and are tracked by GPS. If anyone came upon this equipment, all they’d have to do was scan the QR code to know who it belonged to. After perfecting this technology, he launched a company, SHOOTRAC.
Around the same time, he was buying, fixing and flipping properties on the side. Eventually, he had to make a choice – move to Silicon Valley to grow SHOOTRAC or find another career path.
Garcia had the opportunity to purchase a 136-unit apartment complex in West Tampa, and decided to scrap his software company. “I didn’t want to travel,” he said. “When you do startups, it’s the hardest, most intense thing in the world. You’re up at 1 o’clock in the morning. You’re sleeping for four hours a day. You’re all in. You live, breathe and do it every day.”
When he purchased the apartment complex, he launched a new real estate company, Urban Core Holdings. “We felt that there would be a move to the urban core,” he said. “Driving a car is a hassle and expense. So, we felt that movement would be to the downtown urban core of the city.”
The apartment complex wasn’t an easy job, he added. “It was horrible – gangs, drug dealing and a massive amount of deferred maintenance when we bought it.”
But they put the work into it, changing the water lines, updating the roof, redoing apartments. Eventually, it drew attention of University of Tampa students and when he and his partners sold the complex in 2020, more than 40 percent of the tenants attended UT.
“What I realized from that was there was an unmet need for housing for UT students,” Garcia said.
His company didn’t target one particular product or demographic. Instead, they wanted to be experts in an area. “And that area is a five-mile radius of downtown,” he said.
They next purchased 220 Madison, a 90,000-square-foot office building that had been foreclosed on several times. “It failed as an office building, but it’s probably the most central location in Tampa,” Garcia said. “We said, you know what, let’s make these micro apartments.”
The 136-bed project has been 100 percent occupied since the day it opened in August 2019. It’s leased mostly to college students – the majority attending UT with some from USF living there as well.
And Garcia is seeing the downtown growth he anticipated. “There’s development of the outer ring of downtown. We’re starting to see that periphery developed,” he said. “Now, it’s working its way to the center. Across the street from our building is $2-, $3, $4 million housing. It is exactly what we thought would happen, that people would want to live in the urban core; they’d want to walk to restaurants and shops. And while we expected the trend to happen, what we did not contemplate was the speed it would happen in Tampa.”
Garcia also has several other projects in the works, including the conversion of the Bustillo Brothers and Diaz Company cigar factor in West Tampa into housing, called CigarLofts. And he’s working on another student housing facility near UT in a 1900s-era hotel building. He’s also working on the South Tampa development, Interbay Commons, which includes 30 townhomes and 50,000 square feet of commercial space.
He’s also a big supporter of expanding mass transit and alternative transportation options in the Tampa Bay area. He even rides his bike to work. “I encourage people to get out of the car business,” he said.
In his free time, he regularly plays pick-up soccer games in South Tampa. “The players are 16 to 72 years old. That is my social group,” he said. “We talk smack. We fall. We push. And we do it every week, twice a week. And the players are from everywhere – Jamaicans, Algerians, British, Venezuelans – hardly any Brazilians – Central Americans, South Americans, military guys, humans.”
He’s close with his family, who still lives here, as well as his wife and daughters. “All my family is here. I love my family. I love what I do. I wouldn’t change anything,” he said.

Silhouettes profiles Randi Zimmerman

By Tiffany Razzano
Published Aug. 22, 2022

Taking on the general manager role at WMNF earlier this year, Randi Zimmerman’s career has come full circle – and she couldn’t be happier about it. After all, Tampa Bay’s community radio station is where the educator and journalist got her start on the air. Now, she’s ready to guide the station as it continues to grow and connect with listeners throughout the region.
“This job hits all my buttons. I’m this weird combination of people person and a numbers person,” she said. “So, I get to talk to people. I get to be technical. I get to work the board. I get to hug people and hearten people and elevate their stories and I get to run the numbers. And I was handed this station that’s in really great shape, that is doing amazing things, that needs, basically, just a little bit more help to get over into that next generation.”
A native New Yorker, Zimmerman was raised in Kew Gardens, Queens and graduated from the Bronx High School of Science. As a teen, she was interested in science and theater, especially the technical aspects of producing shows. “I was one of those AV nerds. But you can’t make money in theater, even in New York, right? So, I went to learn about producing television and radio and then went into producing commercials. Then business, public relations, stuff like that,” she said.
She spent about a decade working in New York after high school “in advertising, public relations, cable television. I worked at Lifetime before it was anything, when we were still pushing buttons, instead of, you know, having an actual remote control.”
In 1990, she moved to Florida. She had family in the state – a great aunt in Brooksville and her grandmother on the East Coast – and was also drawn to its affordability. “I wanted to be able to afford to buy my own home,” she said. “I wanted that opportunity, which wasn’t going to be available to me anytime soon living in New York, working in television and radio.”
Zimmerman didn’t know what to expect when she landed in Tampa but found it to be “a city on the verge, getting ready to become something big.”
She added, “And that seemed very exciting to me to be at the beginning of things.”
At the same time, the Tampa Bay area was also “basically one big small town,” she said, “which is also kind of cool.”
When she first moved to Tampa, she worked in the corporate world, but decided to go back to college to become a science teacher. Living in Safety Harbor at the time, she first attended St. Petersburg Junior College, then the University of South Florida.
At USF, she met Nell Abram, a journalist, DJ and volunteer at WMNF. As they got to know each other, Zimmerman shared her background in commercials, public relations and radio production in New York.
Abram told her, “Well, come to my community radio station where we need some professional skills.”
“So, I started in the news department here because of Nell Abram. Just met her in a class,” Zimmerman said.
She was already familiar with WMNF. As a “news junkie,” she’d already discovered the station not long after moving to Florida after learning that it aired “Democracy Now.”
“It was like, ‘This is great. My people,’” she said. But she couldn’t quite figure out the station’s schedule. “It wasn’t always talk and sometimes it was music. And sometimes it was polka music and sometimes it was rock music and sometimes it was blues music. It took me a number of years to really figure out what was going on.”
Once she began working with the station, it clicked for her. “I knew the station, but I didn’t really understand the station until I was here,” she said. “And then I was hooked. I just did everything. I volunteered doing news. I would do fund drives and answer phones and stuffed envelopes. My mom raised me to be very politically active anything. So, it was great having a cause.”
Zimmerman immediately saw the potential in WMNF’s newsroom. “It was really clear that the newsroom could foster all of these wonderful voices,” she said.
Though her previous experience in radio and television focused on technical production, at WMNF, she shifted gears to broadcast journalism, taking on the role of headline news anchor in 1998 and embracing her role in radio activism. Being on air is “a necessary evil,” something she’s still not fully comfortable doing decades later. “But I have to get on air. Not because I like it or I’m enamored by it, but because I’ve got these great stories,” she said.
Sheila Cowley, who was an engineer at the station at the time, once told her, “You’re not really a journalist. You’re really a storyteller.”
“And that’s absolutely true. I’m really a storyteller,” Zimmerman said. “I write poetry – for myself – I do all that stuff. So, just this idea that here, I’ve got this microphone and because I have a microphone, people are willing to talk to me. And I love people. I think people are just really interesting and we often ignore just this heroic stuff that goes on all around us all that time that is not talked about. And here I had this opportunity to turn on a microphone to record people and elevate their stories to something that everybody could relate to.”
In the newsroom, she was given the chance to experiment. “I got to be creative and develop not just straight on interviews, but longform radio documentary, half-hour pieces, and that was very fulfilling,” she said.
She did live field coverage of the 2000 election and also lent local perspectives to news coverage of stories with national and international interest, with a focus on social justice, for Florida Public Radio, Pacifica and BBC. During her time with WMNF, she also collaborated with Mitch Perry and Abram as a founding co-anchor on the WMNF Evening News. In 2001, Zimmerman was honored by the station for her work with the award for “Exceptional News and Public Affairs Programming.”
Outside WMNF, she also worked as the first headlines editor for Free Speech Radio News, an international syndicated news program.
While working in journalism, educating others was also remained important to her. She recruited and trained younger community members to produce news and public affairs for WMNF. She also developed a course, Practicum in Broadcast Management, for the University of Tampa.
She also worked as a substitute teacher in Hillsborough County before landing a position as a science teacher at Brandon High School.
By 2005, she was ready for a change, though. When her spouse was accepted into an MFA program at Pratt Institute in New York City, Zimmerman got a New York City Teaching Fellowship. She taught for the New York Department of Education while earning a master’s degree in middle childhood education with a focus on science from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.
In the classroom, she was known for leaning on her creative and communications background to engage students, such as having them perform plays about rocks and minerals. She also coached young science teachers in Title I schools, helping them understand how to interact and communicate with a diverse student body.
She went on to work as an education researcher with Rutgers Graduate School of Education in 2013.
Zimmerman returned to Florida in 2018. The reasons for making her way back to Florida are simple, she said – “snow and taxes.” She also knew it would be an easy transition, as her family “already had a community here,” between her spouse’s relatives and her WMNF friends and colleagues.
Eventually, she reached out to the station about volunteering. She didn’t want to go back on air but knew she could use her skills and experience to improve training documents and policies for reporters.
Weeks later, Rick Fernandes, then the general manager, quit. Zimmerman was slated to be part of the hiring committee tasked with finding his replacement. “I printed out the job description…and I’m reading through the papers and I’m like, I can do all of this,” she said. “I asked my friends what they thought about me applying for the job and they said, ‘We think you’d be perfect.’ So, I (applied) and I got it.”
One of her biggest focuses since taking on the position at the end of February has been “bringing community back into community radio.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many volunteers weren’t allowed into the station. “To keep everybody safe…(we) had to not let a lot of people in,” she said. “Unlike other not-for-profits, this isn’t just stuffing envelopes. It’s not a typical volunteer job. We’re called community radio for a reason, right? People lost their community and it hurt their feelings and it’s been very hard for some of those folks to come back. So, we have to make extra efforts to make people comfortable about coming back to the station. COVID is still going on.”
The station has also focused on doing more outreach events and connecting with the community in person. (And yes, “Heatwave is coming back,” she said.)
Additionally, there are specific audiences the station has never been able to reach. “There are a lot of communities that never felt very connected to WMNF, so I’m working very hard to reach those people as well,” Zimmerman said.
At the top of her list are St. Pete residents. The station has been hosting more events at the Palladium and other venues in St. Petersburg to connect with those living there.
The station is also now working closely with nonprofit groups to offer them free podcasts and teaching them how to produce these shows. WMNF is also reconnecting with the Pacifica network to offer some of its local program to them. “Florida is one of the hotbeds of the country,” she said. “People are very interested in what we would think of as local politics, but people are trying to figure out what makes us tick. So, we have this opportunity to really expand our national audience with the good stuff that is happening here. We have top-notch journalists doing incredibly good shows.”

Book Review: “Tragedy to Triumph – The Story of Tom’s Heart,” by Janet W. Mauk and Pete Radigan

Beyond His Years
by Gene Siudut

In the mid-‘90s, Pete Radigan had a big heart.
Too big, in fact. His severe cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart, developed into Stage 4 heart failure. Pete had two options – a heart transplant or death.
Pete, like me, is a New Jersey guy. Also like me, he is a volunteer basketball coach at the New Tampa YMCA. I’ve been coaching against Pete for a few seasons. Mostly to his benefit, as I had a run of consecutive defeats to his teams until the past year or so, when my teams started coming into their own.
I remember the first time I coached against him. He walked with a bit of a limp and was bent over as if he had back problems. He certainly had a frail demeanor, but once the game started, his voice boomed across the court toward his players, the refs and anyone who would listen.
Immediately, I knew this was no frail man. He didn’t have a surplus of physical energy but whatever emanated from his insides was that of a man half his age. I didn’t like that Pete was making a good living off beating my teams at the onset. There weren’t many coaches who had a winning record against me, and Pete was making me look like a novice.
The problem was I couldn’t help but like him.
A coach needs to be an example of sportsmanship, dignity, respect and all those other wonderful coach-speak terms. And in this developmental league, winning is not as important as developing youth, but there are some coaches you just want to beat. Pete was one of those guys because he seemed to know the game so well. I liked him personally, but I wanted to shake his hand after a game and wish him better luck next time.
I think out of our first nine meetings, I only beat him twice, which irked me, but I knew my guys were developing nicely and I’d be ready for him in the near future. But that chance appeared lost when Pete disappeared for a while.
What I discovered was Pete became very sick. I knew he had general bad health, but I never knew exactly what his ailments were, only that they seemed to debilitate him.
There was even a point when we were told his situation was dire and did not know if he would make it through. Before that, all I wanted was for him to return so I could beat him. My thoughts quickly evolved to just wanting him to be able to leave the hospital.
By grace, doctors and good fortune, Pete made it out of the hospital and eventually was able to return to the sideline. I didn’t know a whole lot about his physical ordeals, but soon after his return, I was made aware of a book written by him and Janet Mauk called “Tragedy to Triumph, The Story of Tom’s Heart.”
Immediately, I was intrigued and again, a little jealous. There I was, a writer for a newspaper for 15 years who always wanted to write a book. And there was Pete. Not only was he a better basketball coach then me. He was also a published writer. I had to get to the bottom of this.
Well, you can forget about me writing any kind of book because whatever stupid observations I have in this world are insignificant compared to the life lived by Pete, his co-author Janet, and through both of them, Janet’s son, Tom.
“Tragedy to Triumph” is the story of a big heart, but not the one enlarged by Pete’s disease. The heart given to him through the tragedy of the death of 16-year-old Tom Mauk.
And it was given.
A motorcycle accident robbed Tom of his life, but through organ donation, he was able to help seven other people survive. The question of organ donation was asked of Tom’s parents, who gave that permission. They would find out that six months before he passed, Tom had remarked to his friends that if anything ever happened to him, he would want to be an organ donor.
Thankfully for Pete, who was very near to the end of his life without a transplant, the gift of life arose from Tom’s tragedy. However, that tragedy and transplant are just the beginning of this tale.
“Tom displayed perception beyond his years …”
On the surface, the sentence reads as complimentary. A deeper look, however, is the soul of the bitter-sweet story of Tom Mauk, who literally and figuratively lived beyond his years.
As a child of divorced parents, Tom lived the back-and-forth life many children in his situation experience who take residence in two homes. He lived with his mother most of the time but felt he needed his father in his life and made the decision, unprovoked, to pack his bags and tell his mother he was moving in with his dad.
While it was just 34 miles away, Janet was not going to take this lying down. She wanted to fight the decision, but her legal counsel let her know that a judge would likely abide by the wishes of a 13-year-old unless there was something egregious that could be proven in court.
Being a God-fearing woman, Janet trusted the Lord in the process and granted Tom his wish. Tom sensed his mother’s pain over the decision and on the way to church one Sunday, Tom told his mother, “Mom, I’m going to my father’s because I need to be with him, not because you are a bad mother.”
As readers, we know Tom’s physical life would meet with a tragic end just three years later. But this is how the book starts. It grabs you and lets you know this isn’t some sappy story about a kid who had no idea how his decisions affected people positively or negatively.
The gift of Tom’s organs brought beauty to a tragedy and his mother’s recollections of him gave that gift a face. There is a brutal honesty when discussing his struggles as a teenager and her struggles as a parent. And not to be forgotten is the simultaneous dire consequences that were assuaged when Pete received Tom’s heart.
When I first met my wife almost 15 years ago, one of the attractions we had to each other was our love of reading. She was an English/literature teacher at the time and we talked for hours about writers and books we loved and hated.
Since then, I’ve barely read a book. I read so much at La Gaceta, I want to get away from the written word during my free time, but I still make the attempt when the mood strikes. This has led me to start at least five books simultaneously that I haven’t made it past the first 20 pages.
This book, however, is not one of those. For the first time in my adult life, I read a book cover-to-cover in one sitting. I couldn’t put it down and for anyone who knows me, that should be endorsement enough.
I don’t want to give too much of the book away, but worth noting is the mandate this book carries. The obligation not just to register as an organ donor, but to make those wishes known.
As with anything people don’t fully understand, there is a lot of bad information out there about organ donation. Some common misconceptions include:
1. Doctors don’t work as hard to save the lives of organ donors
2. People believe they are too old/young to register to be a donor
3. Can’t have an open-casket funeral
4. People in bad health should not register to be a donor
5. Rich/famous people go to the top of the national transplant waiting list
Naturally, none of the above statements are true. When speaking with Pete about the misconceptions, he felt that a lot of it comes from the lack of conversations people have about death.
“Talking about organ, eye, and tissue donation is hard because it’s a discussion about what you want to happen if you die,” Pete told me. “My answer to that is simple. Seventeen people die each day waiting for an organ transplant, and one organ, eye and tissue donor can save and heal more than 75 lives. Federal law says, any eligible death, anywhere in the country, your family is going to be asked about organ, eye and tissue donation. At the worst moment of any family’s life, wouldn’t you want to know what that one last wish was? So I would say to everyone, whether you decide to be an organ, eye or tissue donor, make the decision and share the decision”
I asked Pete if he felt any obligation to Tom for the gift of his heart, as in taking care of it while also making the most of his life. He said he lives his life to the fullest every day but added he doesn’t dwell on if he’s doing too much or if he needs rest, nor does he worry about how much time he has left. “You can’t really live life that way. I truly live for the day and live, truly live each moment, each day,” he said.
But not far from his thoughts are Janet and he knows she already appreciates the good care he takes of Tom’s heart and through that care, Tom lives on.
There is a lot of good information about how to approach conversations about organ, eye and tissue donation, how to get registered and pretty much everything else you would want to know. Two good places to start, however are Donate Life America’s websites, DonateLife.net and RegisterMe.org.
Janet and Pete are especially thankful to their sponsor Biomatrix, a specialty transplant pharmacy, Donate Life America and many others who supported them through this journey.
In basketball, all I want to do is beat Pete every chance I get. In life, however, I want nothing but success for Pete, which means getting as many people to become registered donors as possible. It would also be nice to see his and Janet’s book on every coffee table in America. To make that happen, please go to Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, or right to the source at www.tragedytotriumph.net.
Gene Siudut can be emailed at gsiudut@lagacetanewspaper.com

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