The death of Michael Gannon earlier this week in Gainesville, Florida, ended nearly 60 years of keeping St. Augustine in the national spotlight as the United States of America’s first permanent settlement of European origins.
He died peacefully in his sleep Tuesday morning, according to his widow Genevieve Haugen. He was 89, at the time just weeks away from his 90th birthday.
He was so protective of St. Augustine’s 1565 founding that he often provoked the residents of Jamestown, Virginia, and Plymouth, Massachusetts, with his now famous quote: “By the time Jamestown was founded in 1607 and Plymouth in 1620, St. Augustine was up for urban renewal.”
He further staked a claim that his research proved true that the First Thanksgiving in the United States was not with the Pilgrims but with the first settlers settlers of St. Augustine on Sept. 8, 1565, when they held a Mass of Thanksgiving followed by a communal meal with the Timucuan Indians in the vicinity of Mission Nombre de Dios and The Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. Among his lasting visible accomplishments in the city was the construction and oversight of the 208-foot Great Cross at Mission Nombre de Dios to celebrate the city’s 400th anniversary in 1965.
Gannon who held a Ph.D., in history from the University of Florida, was decorated by King Juan Carlos I of Spain in 1990 for his research efforts as a Knight Commander of the Order of Isabella de la Catolica.
St. Augustine City Manager John Regan said Wednesday night that he thought of Gannon as he crossed the Bridge of Lions on his way home. “I looked over at the cross at the mission and I reflected on Dr. Gannon and his impact on some lives and our community,” Regan said. “Not only was he our foremost historian but he was such a kind person and a mentor to so many people. “He was a giant of a man that you can see his impact in the symbolism of the Great Cross.”
Susan Parker, Ph.D., was a longtime friend. “While well known for his historical publications, Michael Gannon brought that history to the citizens, not just to read, but to celebrate, as well,” she said.
He was involved with and often spearheaded almost every landmark anniversary in Florida, with special attention to St. Augustine. He served on commissions for St. Augustine’s 400th (1965) and 450th anniversaries (2015). For Florida’s 150th anniversary of statehood (1996) and the 500th anniversary of the landing of Juan Ponce de Leon (2013), Gannon brought together two dozen scholars to publish histories of Florida for both events. His own book, “The Cross in the Sand,” appeared in 1965 to memorialize the early history of the Catholic Church in Florida.”
The Fort Sill, Oklahoma, native arrived in St. Augustine in 1941 from Washington, D.C., with his widowed mother, Mary Lee Gannon, and two brothers, Patrick and Vincent (Peter). He graduated from St. Joseph Academy but not before he held sports reporting and editing jobs at The St. Augustine Record and broadcasting assignments at WFOY Radio. He later was the voice of the University of South Carolina Gamecocks sports radio shows on WIS in Columbia, S.C. During summers while attending college, he also worked for Marineland of Florida as an announcer and a diver.
Ordained a priest in 1959 for the Diocese of St. Augustine, Gannon was director of Mission Nombre de Dios during the time leading up to the 400th anniversary of the city in 1965. He moved on to Gainesville and was director of the Catholic Student Center. He later resigned from the priesthood in 1976 but continued as a history professor and a former dean of UF’s college of Arts and Sciences.
Prior to the 400th anniversary, Gannon met John and Peggy Bailey at his mother’s home on Palm Row. Bailey would go on to be the city’s Mayor during the 400th anniversary. The Baileys went on several trips to Spain leading up to the 400th with Gannon and other local residents. “He was a great ambassador for St. Augustine,” Bailey said. “He knew the language and he had connections with the Royal Family and throughout Spain.”
“He was a true friend,” said Peggy Bailey, with an emphasis on the word, “friend.” “It was such an honor to know him.”
Gannon’s legacy also extended to the civil rights movement of the 1960s in Gainesville and St. Augustine.
Historian David Nolan, who has written and given talks about the movement for many years, said in an email to The Record that: “In the aftermath of the 1964 demonstrations, Father Gannon was one of a small group of whites, including Episcopal priest Stanley Bullock and Minorcan leader X.L. Pellicer, who met to see what could be done to bring the racially-divided community back together. One of the things they did was to put a historic marker on Fort Mose, the pioneer free Black settlement that served as the northern defense of St. Augustine beginning in 1738. That marker, with text written by Gannon and former mayor Kenneth Beeson, is thus not only a marker, but also a historic artifact of an early effort to heal the Ancient City.”
Gannon’s work on behalf of St. Augustine’s history is manifested in the University of Florida Historic St. Augustine Inc. initiative. UF now manages and operates some of the state’s oldest historic buildings on behalf of the state.
Ed Poppell, UF liaison for UFHSA, said, “Mike was very passionate for many things but his love for St. Augustine and his love for UF were a combination he proudly called his own. Mike spread his passion for the UF/St. Augustine partnership like only he could do. It was magical. He with a few of his scholarly colleagues made it impossible for UF or Dr. Bernie Machen (UF president) to refuse the opportunity of partnering with the city of St. Augustine and the state’s historic properties. His approach to historic authenticity and historic interpretation was infectious and everyone who knew him understood his expectations. His legacy is truly a treasure we shall never allow to be forgotten.”
Gannon’s legacy is in safe keeping in P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History, Special & Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Library where it is open for public access.
James Cusick, Ph.D., is curator of the collections and helped Gannon organize his collection last year before he donated it to UF. The Gannon Papers, Cusick said, detail his life’s work, his many books and writings, and his family’s history. The collection, Cusick said, benefits the entire state and UF.
“He was a behind-the-scenes person in many ways. “I am not sure a lot of the research around the UF would have gotten done if Mike hadn’t been one of the people pushing for it. I am also not sure a lot of records that we obtained would have gotten done if he were not directly involved in it,” Cusick.