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- 2013 - December - 23rd -

By Max Marbut, Staff Writer

Have you ever wondered what life was like in Jacksonville half a century ago? It was a different era of history, culture and politics but there are often parallels between the kind of stories that made headlines then and today. As interesting as the differences may be, so are the similarities. These are some of the top stories from this week in 1963. The items were compiled from the Jacksonville Public Library’s periodical archives by Staff Writer Max Marbut.

• In what remains the fire that claimed the most lives in Jacksonville history, 21 people died and 65 were injured when the Roosevelt Hotel was filled with smoke and flames.

While the fire was contained in the second-floor ballroom just off the main lobby, the victims were guests on the upper floors of the 13-story building along Adams Street. It is now The Carling apartments.

The death toll exceeded that of the Great Fire of 1901 that razed most of the city, but took only seven lives.

The majority of casualties were caused by asphyxiation, but one woman fell to her death after climbing out of a window on a makeshift sheet rope to escape the smoke that rose through the hotel. Assistant Fire Chief J.R. Romedy died of a heart attack while fighting the blaze.

Fourteen guests were plucked from the roof by eight Navy helicopters from Jacksonville Naval Air Station, Cecil Field Naval Air Station and Mayport Naval Station. The victims were taken to ambulances waiting in the municipal waterfront parking lot.

There were 479 guests registered in the 300-room hotel, along with about 20 permanent residents and hotel officials, said William H. Johnston, president of Hotel Roosevelt Inc.

Among those hospitalized was Donna Axum, Miss America 1964, who was in Jacksonville to participate in activities connected with the Gator Bowl football game, which was played on Saturday before the fire.

“I thought of Dallas and the assassination of President Kennedy. I was there, too. Then I thought of the sinking of the Titanic. I don’t know why. I guess it was just the hopelessness of the situation,” she said at a news conference at Baptist Medical Center seven hours after she was taken to the emergency room with smoke inhalation.

Mayor Haydon Burns, who also was commissioner of the police and fire departments, said it was quite likely there would have been no casualties if guests had followed instructions from police officers and firefighters.

Police were using loudspeakers to urge hotel guests to remain in their rooms with doors closed and their windows open.

Burns said a team of city fire marshals had inspected the hotel the week before the blaze and found it complied “to the letter” with all safety regulations.

• The full-scale replica of Fort Caroline in Arlington was about 70 percent complete and would be open for visitors Feb. 1, said John R. DeWeese, superintendent of the national memorial along Fort Caroline Road.

It was noted that the replica being built by the federal government was scheduled to be finished by the end of December.

However, the contractor, H.W. Caraway, had more trouble with northeast storms than Jacque LeMoyne had with the native inhabitants of the area when he erected the original fort in 1564.

Before work on the structure could begin, the contractor had to fill the marshland and build a 300-foot retaining wall between the fort and the river.

Then the storm season arrived.

“See that sandy shore out there? We call that Caraway Beach. That represents about 1,000 cubic yards of sand which we dumped in for fill and the (storm) washed out,” said DeWeese.

The construction costs totaled $87,793.

• Two days before Christmas, the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle drive was running about $1,200 behind 1962’s donations, said Col. Howard Stout, Salvation Army area commander.

He said about $5,300 had been dropped into the kettles, compared to $6,500 by the same day in 1962.

“The needs of people have been greater than in previous years,” Stout said.

• The University of North Carolina combined a crushing ground game with pin-point passing to overwhelm the Air Force Academy, 35-0, in the most lopsided game in the 19-year history of the Gator Bowl.

A capacity crowd of 50,018 watched the Tar Heels, co-champions of the Atlantic Coast Conference and favored by 1.5 points, defeat the Falcons.

• A plan to use the entire $2 million federal airport appropriation for construction activities for the proposed city airport was approved by the City Commission on the recommendation of Airports Commissioner Louis Ritter.

The funds, granted through the Federal Aviation Administration, were to be split between land acquisition and construction costs.

Ritter recommended that condemnation proceedings be launched for the 4,500-acre airport site about six miles northwest of Imeson Airport, which the new landing field would replace.

Ritter said attempts to negotiate the purchase of the property had proved to be fruitless. The property involved numerous owners and was valued by city appraisers at $3.2 million.

The key to building the new airport rested with a proposal to issue certificates of indebtedness for between $8.5 million and $9 million, based on the anticipated sale of Imeson Airport. The matter was to be considered by the City Council in January 1964.

• The Charles Turner family in Orange Park had not gone into the turkey business, even though a big gobbler had lived in their backyard since Thanksgiving.

Getting a live turkey for Thanksgiving dinner seemed like a good idea to Turner and his wife, Anne, because their 3-year-old son Chuck had expressed a desire to see the bird they would eat for Thanksgiving.

Brother-in-law Jim Wilkerson saw the value of the idea and agreed to donate a live bird to the Turners.

That’s when the problem started.

Chuck decided the turkey was a wonderful playmate, so when the scheduled hour of the execution arrived, the boy looked at his father with pleading eyes and said, “You’re not going to kill Gobble Gobble, are you?”

Turner said the family decided they never would eat the bird, which roosted each night in Anne’s flower beds.

The bird had a habit of gobbling loudly every morning at about 6 a.m., which woke the Turners’ 5-month-old twin daughters, Anne and Elizabeth.

Turner said he thought nature could take its course and allow the turkey to eventually depart from the family home.

“Well, the turkey’s wings are growing pretty fast and we’re just hoping that one day he’ll fly away,” he said.

• The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers set a peace time spending record in the Jacksonville District in 1963 with $107.7 million in federal funds going for military and civil works construction, navigation work and real estate.

District Engineer Col. H.R. Parfitt said the 1963 spending topped the 1962 figure by $4.2 million and nearly doubled 1961 expenditures.

Parfitt said the district spent $23.9 million during 1963 acquiring land for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s manned lunar landing program on Merritt Island.

He said $33.2 million was spent for civil works construction and $67.1 million for military construction, including NASA and Air Force work.

A separate Army Engineer district was created July 1 to handle space construction at Cape Kennedy and Merritt Island.

About $1.3 million was spent to repair storm damage in Duval and St. Johns county beaches.

• Circuit Court Judge Marion Gooding was elected president of the corporate board of trustees for Baptist Hospital of Jacksonville.

Gooding, a leader in Baptist Memorial Hospital activities for several years, succeeded Jewell Davis as board president for 1964.

• Santa Claus was in jail in Jacksonville on Dec. 24, and it wasn’t likely he’d be out in time for Christmas.

Robert D. Cole was playing Santa at a food store when he was arrested for nonsupport. When detectives walked into the store and arrested Cole on an outstanding warrant from Nebraska, Santa told them, “You are the meanest men in the world.”

Cole was dressed in his red costume, whiskers and boots and had a child sitting in his lap when the police arrived. A crowd of children stared in horror as Santa was handcuffed and led off to jail.

“We just did our duty,” said Duval County Detectives D.R. Coleman and C.R. Cody.

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