My mother was born in Tampa in 1895. Shortly after her birth, the family moved to Punta Gorda. In 1898, there was an offer of free land for homesteading in Dade County.
My grandfather and grandmother gathered their brood of six and started out in a horse and wagon. Their route took them north of Lake Okeechobee, then to West Palm Beach and then south along the coast to Miami.
This arduous journey across unpaved prairie and forest took three weeks. The 20 acres they homesteaded were between Northwest Third and Fourth avenues and 11th and 13th streets in what is today’s Overtown.
My mother only went to school through the third grade. In 1904, one of her classmates was a little girl named Bessie Burdine, whose father owned the general store. My mother’s teacher at the time was a young woman fresh out of teachers college, Lillian McGahey.
Forty-two years later, Miss Lillian taught me math at Miami Edison High. Her brother, Ben McGahey, went on to own the largest Chrysler-Plymouth agency in the county.
My mother married in 1911 at age 16. My grandparents and their children lived on the little farm for 18 years. My grandmother sold it in 1917 for $1,800, or $90 per acre.
My father came to Miami in 1923. In 1926, the great hurricane struck with massive loss of life. The Prinz Valdemar, an iron-hulled schooner, was picked up by the storm surge and deposited on the east side of Biscayne Boulevard around Fifth Street. It was retrofitted with large tanks and served as the county’s aquarium for the next 25 or so years.
In 1927, my mother was widowed. Her husband was lost at sea bringing back a load of Scotch from Bimini. She was left with two young daughters and no marketable skills. My father was her husband’s best friend, and they were married in 1929. I was born in Victoria Hospital in 1930.
My father and mother’s first husband worked for the biggest bootlegger in the Southeast. He went on to become the mayor of Miami Beach. My father continued to work for him after the repeal of Prohibition. We lived in a succession of houses. The one on Michigan Avenue was quite elegant as well as a house on Meridian Avenue that had a tennis court.
Although my father speculated at times in buying and selling real estate, we never owned a home. As the Depression deepened, our family lived in houses that were more modest. That’s a nice way of saying we lived in one dump after another. (My mother used to joke that we moved every time the rent came due.)
In 1941, when I was 11, our family moved to the Edison Center area. I enrolled in the sixth grade at Edison Elementary and graduated from Edison High in 1948. When I was 12, I had a Miami Daily News route.
One of the boys who worked out of the same station was Ralph Renick. Ralph had a special bicycle. As I recall, it was made by Rollfast and had a small front tire that allowed it to accommodate a built-in basket where Ralph could put his papers for delivery. The rest of us had to make do with a wooden basket placed on the handlebars of our regular bikes that made them highly unstable when loaded with papers.
His brother Dick and I were good friends. Ralph and Dick attended St. Mary’s High School, about 10 blocks north of Edison High. During high school, I used to deliver 250 Miami Heralds every day before school.
One Sunday in November 1944, I was riding my bike on 79th Street on my way to do some fishing on the causeway. I stopped at the railroad tracks for a very long troop train to pass.
A 1942 Lincoln Continental pulled up alongside of me. I looked in the back seat and there was a little man who seemed to be swallowed up in a camel’s hair overcoat. He leaned out the back window and, in a rasping voice, said, “How ya doin’ kid?”
I saw the scar on one cheek and knew immediately who it was.
I replied, “Doing fine, sir.”
It was Al Capone.
In 1948, I went to work for the telephone company, and in 1950, I spent a year as an installer on Miami Beach.
Most of the mansions had fairly elaborate multi-line systems that needed constant maintenance due to the saltwater. The Firestone Estate was located where the Fontainebleau is today, just north was the Dodge Estate, where the Eden Roc now stands.
During the summer months, the hotels closed due to lack of business and the fact that many did not have air conditioning. The American Legion scheduled its convention in October 1948, which necessitated the early opening of the hotels housing delegates.
I was a helper with a PBX installer-repairman when a call came in to proceed immediately to the Roney Plaza Hotel. When we arrived, we were ushered into the Presidential Suite. After being frisked by Secret Service, we were instructed to hook up the “hot line” for Mr. Truman, who was the featured speaker for the convention.
Before wireless technology, the president required a direct land line to Washington wherever he went. As I sat on the floor installing the telephone set, I glanced up and saw a pair of sturdy legs attached to a pair of sensible shoes standing next to me. It was Mrs. Bess Truman. She was a lovely and gracious lady without a trace of pretension who introduced herself to all those present, both great and small.
In 1951, I joined the Army. In reality, I joined one day before I was due to be drafted. In November 1952 at Camp Stewart, Ga., our unit was out in the swamp conducting its Army Training Test before deployment overseas.
During mail call, the company clerk said, “Telegram for Lt. McCormick.”
Back then, telegrams were usually the bringers of bad news. The wire was from my father. It read, “After 27 years, we finally did it.”
He went on to give the score for the Edison-Miami High annual Thanksgiving Day game. It was the first time Edison had won in more than a quarter century.
Telegrams went out all over the world that night.
Richard H. McCormick, DVM, was born in Miami’s Victoria Hospital in 1930. He graduated from Edison High School in 1948 and Auburn University in 1965, and practiced veterinary medicine in Miami for more than 45 years.