By the time the sun set in Gainesville, Monday, Oct. 2, conflicting news reports had announced, alternately, Tom Petty’s death and his ongoing struggle to survive at a hospital in Los Angeles.
It was nearly midnight when the legendary rock star — born in Gainesville October 20, 1950 — died, at 8:40 Pacific Standard Time, according to his publicist.
By the time the sun was up Tuesday morning, a large, colorful mural had been painted on a wall that runs along the east side of SW 34th Street — the busy, north-south corridor on the west side of the University of Florida campus. As a young man, Petty had worked as a groundskeeper at UF, but he never matriculated.
“Love you always, Gainesville No. 1 son Tom Petty. Thanks, Tommy,” the mural read.
The image of a guitar plunged, like an arrow, into a big, red heart in the center of the mural.
Since then, photos of the mural — with rays of morning sunshine glinting through the shaggy, overgrown vegetation that rambles across the top of the wall — have been shared countless times on social media and in news reports about Petty’s sudden death, age 66.
But the identity of the artist who painted the impromptu tribute — on a streetside wall long given over to graffiti — remains unclear, and by afternoon that day, the tribute was completely obscured with paintings of gang symbols.
Ever since, discussion has arisen over how to best memorialize Petty in the town where he grew up, attended public schools and formed his first bands, Epic, and then Mudcrutch, before leaving, in his early 20s, along with the original members of the Heartbreakers, which formed in 1976 — Ron Blair, Mike Campbell, Stan Lynch and Benmont Tench — to seek fame and fortune in Los Angeles.
On Oct. 5, Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe, in a Facebook post hours before a city commission meeting, wrote, “While I fully expect for there to be a discussion of how best to memorialize To[m] Petty at tonight’s meeting, we will not attempt to make a decision. This is an important and lasting tribute and deserves significant community and an inclusive and thoughtful approach.”
Some suggestions posted below the mayor’s comment included recommendations for naming the auditorium at Gainesville High School, where Petty was a student in the late 1960s, in his honor, and naming the local airport after him.
Pegeen Hanranah, mayor of Gainesville from 2004 — 2010, suggested building an amphitheater and naming it after Petty and the Heartbreakers. She also wrote, “I like the idea of naming Northeast Park ‘Tom Petty Park’ since he had a personal connection to it.”
But Monica Leadon Cooper, in an email to Poe about the proposal to name the park after Petty, urged, “Any tribute there should not alter the park.”
“He went there for the solitude and the longleaf pines and other trees,” Leadon Cooper wrote, adding, “He spent a lot of time there with my brother (Tom Leadon) and other members of Mudcrutch.”
In an email to the mayor yesterday, Barry Melton, who described himself as a “local musician and a huge Petty fan,” recommended holding an “annual, outdoor festival concert featuring local and national talents alike.”
On Wednesday, Judy Kramer suggested in an email to the mayor, “have college students create statues that depict all of Tom’s most popular songs.” In her plan, local businesses would bid on the statutes, which would each play a Petty song, attracting, thereby, foot traffic to the businesses and tourists throughout the city.
Liz Draper — of Burlington, Connecticut — in an email Tuesday to the Mayor wrote: “I look forward to attending the venue you choose to honor Tom Petty in Gainesville.”
Amy Hester emailed the Mayor Monday to recommend that Oct. 19 be named “Tom Petty Celebration Day,” to coincide with a planned visit to the city next week from the notorious white nationalist Richard Spencer. “Get as many venues as possible to have bands playing Petty covers or if you can’t find bands, just playing his music, when the Spencer speech is occurring,” she wrote.
Barbara Nordin — of Spring Hill, Florida — suggested a “bronze statue playing his guitar,” and Bob Gooden proposed erecting a statute of Petty in the same downtown location where a Confederate soldier, known locally as “Old Joe,” was recently removed.
John Hurt proposed “an interactive park and museum. Called ‘Dreamville,’” after one of Petty’s early songs, believed to be about Gainesville.
Andrew Nathanson, in an Oct. 4 email to the mayor, recommended renaming the roads that intersect at the busy, northeastern corner of the university — from University Avenue and Highway 441 — to Tom Petty Drive and Heartbreakers Highway.
Jeffery Goldstein, of Miami, emailed the Mayor Oct. 4 with a proposal for The Tom Petty Memorial Gainesville Music History Museum and Music Community Center. Goldstein noted how, as a student at UF in the 1970s, he had been chair of Student Government Productions and a part of The Rose Community Center, which produced “nearly 70 concerts on the U of F campus and various other Gainesville venues.”
“Tom Petty played for us more than any other artist, over 40 times and at some very famous shows,” Goldstein wrote.
Dan Aiken, in an email that he sent to the mayor from his home in Indiana, recalled his years in Gainesville as a baseball player for Santa Fe Community College, in the early 1980s.
“I remember attending a concert by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the UF O’Connell Center on October 8th, 1981,” Aiken wrote to Poe. “In fact, I still have the concert poster.”
Aiken complained that the concert is not mentioned on the UF webpage that describes the history of the O’Connell Center.
Steve Thomas — of Bay County, Florida — emailed Poe Oct. 4 to recommend changing the name of the city’s transit facility to honor Petty.
“Let’s remove criminally convicted Corrine Brown’s name,” Thomas wrote, referring to the former congresswoman, and he urged “renaming it prior to Brown’s sentencing next month.”
“Tom Petty would care about the image of his old hometown,” Thomas wrote.
Meanwhile, Poe — who was not yet born when Petty attended Gainesville High School, although Poe would graduate there in 1989 — says he won’t be rushed into any decision about a memorial for the Southern rock icon.
“We’re going to take our time with that,” he said in a telephone interview Thursday. “We want to give everyone time to grieve. We want to get it right.”
Poe said he has referred the matter to the city commission’s General Policy Committee, where meetings, although usually attended by the entire commission, include “no official action,” but, instead, “a lot of fact-finding and information gathering.”
With October mostly over by now, however, and Thanksgiving interfering with meeting schedules next month, the committee probably won’t take up the question of a memorial for Petty until December or January, Poe said, adding, “A lot of his family is still local, so we wanted to reach out to them, too.”
“Our sheriff is his cousin,” Poe said, referring to Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell.
In this Petty-memorial lull in Gainesville — a city whose median age, 25, is younger by far than any other city in Florida — a popular Petty tribute band, Heavy Petty, based in Gainesville over the past decade, is planning a free concert for what would have been Petty’s 67th birthday, Friday, Oct. 20.
Daniel App, 31 — who says he has been with the tribute band since its inception — wrote to the mayor in an email Oct 3. “We discovered early on that our shows are not just entertainment, they are therapeutic way for people of this community to connect, remember, feel for Tom Petty and the relationship they’ve had with him.”
“We feel the people of this community need us in some way to help them grieve, remember, love and cherish,” App wrote. “There’s such an outcry for a place for everyone to embrace each other and celebration.”
While Heavy Petty usually plays at bars in downtown Gainesville and at the city’s free, Friday night concert series in the downtown plaza, for the memorial concert, they chose Heartwood Soundstage on South Main Street — close to the city’s recently redeveloped neighborhood that Petty wrote about in his song “Depot Street” in the 2015 album, Through the Cracks.
“We ain’t got no money, we don’t have no car. We stay down on depot street, just dancin’ in the park, dancin’ in the park … And we ain’t been to college, we both quit high school. There was way too many people there makin’ way too many rules. So, we got no education, but we don’t care at all cause it don’t mean much on depot street, behind the city hall, behind the city hall.”
Heartwood Soundstage serves beer and wine and plans to open for the concert at 5 p.m. The show is set to begin at 6 p.m. Tickets are available through the venue’s Facebook page.
By press time, calls and emails to Gainesville’s state legislators, Republican Sen. Rick Perry and Democratic Rep. Clovis Watson Jr., — with questions about whether either plan to sponsor resolutions to honor Petty during the upcoming legislative session — had not been returned.
[Photo courtesy Susan Washington]