I think the first time I saw Larry Siegel was on a Tuesday night. Tuesday was when they held wrestling matches at the armory and I would go occasionally with my grandfather to watch the likes of Eddie Graham and Wahoo McDaniel toss each other around the ring.
Siegel was a presence. Bigger than most of the wrestlers, he would loom around behind the bleachers in his Tampa police uniform, adding authority to the raucous crowds.
He came to Tampa on a football scholarship. It was at the University of Tampa where he also met Maria and began a 59-year marriage.
Siegel, who died Thursday at age 81, might have influenced more young lives around here than anyone I can think of. There must be thousands who were touched in some way by Siegel, whether it was the Police Athletic League (PAL) program he founded in Tampa or the kids he worked with weekly on reading at Cleveland Elementary School.
Dick Rivett was one of those kids. “I really had no idea what I was doing with my life. I was playing in a pickup basketball game in Drew Park. Larry not only pointed me in the right direction, it was because of him I went on to join the Tampa police force.”
My guess is that if Father Flanagan – you know, Boys Town, Spencer Tracy … that Father Flanagan – had become a cop, he would have been Larry Siegel. Siegel taught boxing to the kids at the Children’s Home. He was involved with children at St. Joseph’s Hospital and a half-dozen other causes. He was a senior lifeguard instructor for the Red Cross and worked with young people through the Optimists and the North Tampa Chamber of Commerce, which named him their citizen of the year in 1990.
Rodney Justo is one of Tampa’s top singing talents. These days he leads the band “Coo Coo Ca Choo,” but in my era his band, “Rodney and the Mystics,” backed most of the national touring groups at the weekly shows at the Clearwater Auditorium.
“I grew up literally on the other side of the tracks over by Chamberlain High School,” he says. “I remember going to the Boys Club where they had all these mats spread out on the gym floor and there would be Larry Siegel on his knees, showing us wrestling moves and how to protect ourselves. He was like a big bear.”
But it was the Police Athletic League that Siegel worked so hard on for almost 40 years. He was the person who brought the program to Tampa, who begged and borrowed to get it off the ground and then to maintain it.
When I worked in the sports department at the old Tampa Times I could count on Siegel showing up in the newsroom every week, dressed in his police corporal’s uniform, to hand us the scores and information about what PAL was doing.
Most of the kids just called him “Coach.” It seemed he always was out there on the field or in the gym. At the same time he knew the critical value of education and never missed an opportunity to tutor or encourage young people off the field as well.
Larry Siegel was one of the really good guys and he will be missed.
In memory of true friends to PAL, Larry Siegel Founder and PAL Executive Committee and Board Member and Staley Bryant Jr., PAL Executive Committee and Board member 2003 thru 2007, Officer (Coach) Randy Davis.