Is Charlie Crist Florida's Next Governor?

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Grassman, who was 25 years old and unaware of Dr. Crist's influence, didn't like the interruption. He yelled, "If he wants Gatorade in the coolers, let him do it!" But Charles Crist did much more than that. The next day, the doctor dispatched a letter to Grassman's boss, calling him "defiant," and Grassman was fired soon after.

Soon afterward, Grassman, infuriated and confused, approached Charles at a local library. "Why can't you be a man and talk to me about it?" he said.

The doctor whirled around, forefinger pointed at Grassman, and said, "I am a better man than you think I am, baby!"

"Dr. Crist crushed our hopes and dreams," says Grassman's wife, Deborah. "This dramatically impacted our lives forever. It was injustice."

More than any other person, Dr. Charles Crist shaped the man who would become Florida's governor 35 years later. His own pugnacious run at St. Pete politics likely heightened his son's ambition and tempered the younger Crist's disposition. During Charlie's time in the governor's mansion on North Adams Street, he listened to his father before other advisers. Nearly every morning — then, as well as now — Charlie Crist called his dad for private conversations to which even senior aides weren't privy. Their closeness conjures a comparison to another successful politician, three separate people close to Charlie Crist say. "There's an analogy I like to make to Charlie's father," Crist's ex-wife, Mandy Morrow, says. "Joe Kennedy."

And just as the Kennedys were born of Irish angst and ambition, the Crists sprang from immigrant origins. Their story is rooted in Cyprus, a small Mediterranean nation split between Greeks and Turks. In 1912, while the nation was falling under British control over the fading Ottomans, Crist's grandfather Adam Christodoulou left for America. At age 14, he arrived in Altoona, Pennsylvania.

Destitute, Adam shined shoes for $5 per month and in 1932 fathered Charles Joseph Christodoulou. Young Charles abandoned his native heritage, shortened his name to Crist, and never learned Greek. In his 20s, after attending Penn State University, he was accepted to Emory University's prestigious medical school and graduated in 1960. He married a demure Irish woman, Nancy Lee, and fathered three daughters and Charlie.

When Charlie was 4 years old, Charles Crist took a medical position in St. Petersburg and moved his family into a columned two-story home along the bay. Nancy Lee — by all accounts a good, decent woman — was intensely shy, and her husband dominated. He inculcated the children with the same restive spirit that, in part, drove him from the factories of Altoona. Two daughters became educators and the third a radiation oncologist.

"One time I got a D, and all my dad said was, 'Fix it,' " recalls Charlie's younger sister, Cathy Kennedy, who lives in St. Petersburg. "You're a Crist, and you do the best." She remembers coming home late at night during high school to find her father awake in the living room, surrounded by literature, reading an encyclopedia.

And then, of course, there was Charlie. Charles brought his son everywhere: to local high school football games and along the campaign trail while running for school board in the late 1960s. Crist Sr. recalls teaching his son about fiscal responsibility and fairness. "We were always social moderates," Charles says. "We were never racists or anything."

But stories printed in the St. Petersburg Times in the early '70s cast doubt on that claim. Crist Sr. served on the school board during desegregation and was perhaps its most controversial and vociferous opponent. In 1970 he appealed a Fifth Circuit Court ruling that had found Pinellas County in violation of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling — all the way to President Richard Nixon and the U.S. Supreme Court. The plea was ignored.

In an editorial that year, the St. Petersburg Times condemned Crist and two other board members for playing "racial table tennis." He "has gone out of [his] way to see that this city becomes a permanent bastion of apartheid," the editorial said, adding that he "deserved" an "expression of disgust."

While the drama saturated the city, Charlie entered St. Petersburg High as seemingly the perfect student. He was handsome, popular, school president, zealous about extracurricular activities — though unfortunately not much good at football. He had an arm but lacked agility and fumbled too much, recalls teammate Steve LeCroy. The football coach, Forrest Page, thought he was a "sissy" and vowed Charlie wouldn't start.

"We didn't get along," Crist recalls, but when pressed about what happened between Page and him, he simply responds, "I don't know."

His son's failure at sports made Charles Sr. extremely unhappy, says Bob Chick, who wrote for the now-defunct Evening Independent. In the spring of 1972, Chick remembers, Crist Sr. invited Page to lunch at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club and attempted to bribe him with a high-paying school district administrative position. The condition: Page would have to start Charlie. The coach later described the meeting to Chick, who scribbled it down for a story in the Independent. The reporter even kept his notes, which he recently unearthed. "I knew Page for many years," Chick says. "And I never caught him saying one thing when it was really another. He wouldn't lie about this."

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Terrence McCoy