Losing a Maestro

Guest Correspondence

Sarasota on March 4 lost one of its strongest leaders, most fervent advocates and one its true champions: Former Mayor and City Commissioner Kerry Kirschner. I would like to share a few words about this man, whose impact on the community was truly profound.

As he did with many others, Kerry did much to help and mentor me when I was getting into public service. Truthfully, that’s a pretty significant understatement, so let me admit now that I pestered him many times a day for extended periods of time. The breadth of Kerry’s knowledge of civic issues was completely mind blowing. He knew so much about so many things and I feel he better prepared me to do the job, so much so, I only half- jokingly called him Maestro and I of course, I had tremendous respect for him. 

Kerry had many, many friends. His network flooded all corners in the community. People loved him for his intellect, his knowledge, his worldliness, his confidence, his colossal stubbornness enriched with humor and his ability to disagree agreeably.

I can remember, quite vividly, the first time I saw and heard Kerry Kirschner. It was on the television but not a city commission meeting. It was 1990 and I was sitting on my living room floor on Long Island watching Phil Donahue. You may find it strange that a 15-year old male was home watching Donohue, that is until you hear what the show was about. A debate regarding a ban on T-back bikinis on a public beach in Florida. Ah, see? Not so strange. The beach in question was in Sarasota, the place where my family had opened a restaurant the year before. I didn’t know much about Sarasota other than that I would be moving there soon.

The T-back bikini issue was getting lots of attention, especially after a few people were arrested over it, so Donahue had two City Commissioners, among others, on the show to talk about it. Kerry was Mayor at the time and opposed the ban since he felt the government had no business telling people what to wear. I was really struck by how confidently he spoke and with real conviction. It was clear he was a leader and a strong one. Kerry was a truly excellent public speaker and during my own time on the commission I always enjoyed seeing him across the dais, making his points clearly and confidently and never with vitriol.

Sarasota was a very different place then. Ok, you might be thinking I am about to go into a rant about how downtown used to kind of suck and now, it’s great. Well then, you would be correct. That is precisely what I am about to do. Downtown Sarasota in the late ‘80s was definitely not a high point in our history. Our commercial core needed lots of attention, it needed some big changes and the vision and the willingness to absorb some risk. Usually, that can only happen one way, with strong leadership. Kerry supplied that.

A plan for downtown, The Bayfront Improvement Project, the Community Redevelopment Agency, The Tourist Development Tax. These are just a few things for which Kerry Kirschner was the tip of the spear. On a personal note, I can tell you that the Caragiulo Family, who like many others that came here and were provided the opportunity to thrive, are enormously grateful for his strong leadership that made this city the wonderful place it is now. Kerry loved his city. There is absolutely no doubt about that.

Kerry’s public service continued far past his time in office. There simply isn’t enough time here to go over all the positive things he either initiated, worked on, advocated for or assisted with. Thank you, Maestro. Thank you so very, very much.

Paul Caragiulo is a former Sarasota city and county commissioner.

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