He once received an honorary knighthood from the King of Spain.
A bridge in St. Augustine was named in his honor.
President John F. Kennedy shook his hand four days before Kennedy was assassinated.
Those who knew Michael Gannon look back fondly on his remarkable life, one that saw him become a priest, pilot and professor. An author, talk show host and foreign correspondent.
A husband and mentor.
It was a nearly nine-decade life, one that ended Tuesday morning when the longtime UF professor died of natural causes at the age of 89.
“His life was kind of like Forrest Gump,” said Steve Orlando, a UF spokesperson and friend of Gannon. “I mean, he just did everything.”
It was 1968 when Gannon boarded a plane bound for Vietnam.
War was raging, and Gannon figured he would spend his summer vacation absorbing the horrors of war.
As the war heated up, students fearful of the draft would seek advice from Gannon. Wanting to be able to better advise them, Gannon decided to see what was going on for himself.
To get to Vietnam, Gannon applied for a press pass with the Florida Catholic, a newspaper that covers most of Florida. He photographed and interviewed people during the war for pieces published in the newspaper and the Gainesville Sun. From hospital wards to orphanages to the war field, Gannon conducted interviews and came to believe the war in Vietnam was immoral.
“I think when he came back, it was always in his mind that he was teaching a lot of students who might very well soon be the next causalities in the war,” said James Cusick, a curator at the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History who met Gannon as a graduate student in 1985.
Seeing the war had a large impact on Gannon, Cusick said. He took on the de facto role of mediating between UF’s administration and students during anti-war protests.
“He interceded numerous times when it seemed like the demonstrations would get violent or where there would be police action against them,” Cusick said.
At one 1972 protest, Gannon was hit with a police baton after stopping an officer from throwing tear gas at students.
During the demonstration, students had taken refuge in Krystal Hamburger, a restaurant formerly located where the Chipotle on West University Avenue now sits. Gannon feared if an officer threw tear gas into the building, it would incite panic and cause the students to crash through the restaurant’s glass storefront, harming or killing them.
He grabbed the officer’s arm and told him to stop, and a second officer responded by hitting Gannon with his baton.
Gannon addressed a crowd inside the University Auditorium.
His baritone voice served as comfort in the wake of the 9/11 terror attack.
“When he began to speak in that deep, booming voice, it was amazing,” Orlando said. “It had a calming effect on everybody.”
Gannon’s voice, a practiced, radio-smooth tone perfected during his time as an announcer for the South Carolina Gamecocks, has been preserved in recordings of his history lectures.
Steven Noll, a UF professor with the history department, met Gannon as a graduate student in the mid-1980s. He remembers Gannon’s “unbelievable” voice.
“Michael Gannon could hold an audience still by just reading a phonebook because his voice was so amazing,” he said.
Gannon impressed him, Noll admitted, adding that he currently uses one of Gannon’s books on Florida history to teach his own class.
“(He was) somebody who was much more worldly, and somebody who doesn’t remind you of an academic even though his academic credentials are fairly impeccable,” Noll said. “That’s what made him so good, is he could talk in both worlds.”
Ask his wife, and she’ll say a life as full as his shouldn’t be mourned.
It should be celebrated.
Haugen said Gannon was always curious, always busy and always dedicated to serving the generations of students he taught over 36 years at UF.
She hopes others remember him for that.
“We are not going to mourn a very fine life. A life filled with laughter, friends, good works, justice,” Genevieve Haugen said. “So we will celebrate his life.”
Contact Romy Ellenbogen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @romyellenbogen