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A cynic might deem it fitting: In 1927, Gissendanner was born on the grounds of a Leon County prison in Tallahassee, where his father, Elton Sr., was in charge of roads and prison labor — in essence, he was desk manager of the chain gang. Gissendanner's mother, Emma Lou, was a second cousin of future president Jimmy Carter.
The family moved to the sandy, sweltering pinelands of rural South Georgia when Elton Jr. was still in diapers. His dad bought some property, and they set to harvesting peanuts, tobacco, corn, and cotton with the help of a family of black sharecroppers who lived on the property.
"It was the Jim Crow-est," Gissendanner says of the time and place, though he didn't learn the term until after high school.
When Elton Jr. was eight years old, his father was stricken with Lou Gehrig's disease, an affliction that paralyzed him for four years before death. The industrious man, once a county commissioner, suddenly found himself unable to support his family in the midst of the Depression. So mom sold the farm, took work as a schoolteacher, and rented out her kids for agricultural labor at 50 cents per day. Elton Jr. began working part-time stripping turpentine from pine trees and threshing cotton.
Like many folks of his era, Elton views work as a privilege, which might be why he'll never retire. And perhaps because he grew up without an active father, he was later aloof with his own kids. "He never really had a father," son Buddy says, "so I don't think he understands the role."
The elder Gissendanner was a good son, though. He and his three brothers cared for their impoverished mom until her death in 1976. After serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps (which would become the Air Force), he earned a veterinary degree at the University of Georgia. In 1951, he married Frances, who worked at a nearby creamery, and they moved south to Miami. Says Gissendanner: "I thought I was on my way to fame and fortune in the Magic City."
He started his own practice, the Biscayne Animal Clinic in North Miami, then a barely developed suburb. Soon he had met virtually every resident. Then 35 years old, he parlayed his small-town notoriety into politics, running for city council in 1963 — and being appointed mayor of the town for getting more votes than any of the other council members.
The next 15 years would bring a pendulum swing of victories and losses that had him and Frances bouncing back and forth between South Florida and Tallahassee. In 1967, he was elected to the House of Representatives. Then he lost a congressional race, reclaimed North Miami's mayoralty, and was defeated in a bid for lieutenant governor.
As North Miami mayor, Gissendanner had his first taste of scandal — an aperitif, as it turns out, before the main course to come. A Dade County Grand Jury named him a co-conspirator in a bribery plot involving two other North Miami officials. But the statute of limitations had expired, and the charges melted away.
In 1970, he took over as chairman of the Interama project, an outlandishly ambitious plan for a permanent fair of the Americas on undeveloped North Miami acreage. It was designed by seven of the world's top architects in a Jetsons-style futuristic motif. The centerpiece was to be a 1,000-foot tower surrounded by water and accessible only by tunnel. Plans called for 15 million visitors a year — if only the federal government would pick up the tab.
Five years into Gissendanner's chairmanship, the 25-year-old project — supported briefly by President Nixon — was finally scrapped with nary a shovel having scraped soil. "It was certainly the most ambitious stretch of Gissendanner's career," says Paul George, historian at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, "but it did not come to fruition."
A small miracle, though, was quietly birthed by the famous flop. Gissendanner soon became involved in two projects that salvaged the Interama land for good use: the Biscayne Bay campus of Florida International University and Oleta River State Park.
Snatching opportunity from failure was typical of the then-51-year-old Gissendanner. A charming self-promoter, he had become a ubiquitous character in Florida politics. "He was always available for a good quote," recalls Susan Neuman, a former Miami Herald city beat reporter who would become good friends with Gissendanner. "He was always up-front and honest — and high-energy. He was never still."
"He was all over the landscape at that time," George says. "He was everywhere, it seemed."
Then came a fateful alliance that would indirectly lead to his downfall. In 1978, close friend Bob Graham made him the Miami manager of his successful gubernatorial campaign. After Graham took over in Tallahassee, he appointed Gissendanner executive director of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), a mammoth state agency that oversaw parks, fisheries, state land purchases, and the ports. This was the big time: The $76,000-per-year job put Gissendanner in charge of 1,955 employees and an annual budget of $154 million.
Interestingly, he took a seat vacated by a felon. His predecessor was Harmon Shields, who would be convicted of seeking $235,000 in kickbacks in connection with a state land purchase and spend a year in prison.