By Bob Andelman
(Originally published in Tampa Bay Life, 1990)
Don Mains is a little edgy.
Not that he doesn’t have good cause. Waiting by the phone for the White House to call would be enough, and that’s precisely Mains’ situation at 4:30 this Tuesday afternoon. In less than two hours, he’s expecting a call from Barbara Bush’s staff to let him know whether he has been chosen as the First Lady’s advance man.
The kissing game began three weeks ago — shortly after the St. Petersburg man organized Union Station in the nation’s capitol for one of Bush’s 11 inaugural balls — and Mains’ personal and professional lives have been on hold ever since. He has shuttled to Washington weekly for interviews and conversations.
“They’re talking to me about assistant director of presidential advance,” he explains. “But my specific responsibilities would be as director of First Lady advance.”
Mrs. Bush took him along on a trip to Denver when she visited a food bank. On the way back, he sat alone with her in a private cabin for a visit.
“She was bragging about her new granddaughter — her 11th — talking about going to Japan,” saya Mains. “It was a chance for her to scope me out; it went real well.”
Ten years ago, Don Mains was a nobody, one more northerner whose destiny carried him to Florida in search of that ever elusive Something Big.
Even he couldn’t have dreamed of the life that would unfold before him, from launching Vision Cable and a Greek Republican congressman to launching the Hall of Fame Bowl and a president of the United States.
Back in the days when he was trying to fit an entrepreneur’s knack into the brave new world, Mains read in a local newspaper that the Clearwater Chamber of Commerce needed a tourism director and in typical bravado, decided he was right for the job although he had absolutely zero experience. He didn’t have a car either, so he rode his bike to the chamber’s offices and hid it in some trees.
“I told them I would raise the money to pay for what I wanted to do,” he says. It was an offer the chamber couldn’t refuse and Mains had a job.
Downtown Clearwater was a no man’s land a decade ago, straining under the weight of the Church of Scientology’s unwelcome, growing presence. Retail stores were leaving in droves for the suburbs. There was still plenty of automobile traffic — all passing through to the beaches.
Like a sponge, young Don Mains — part P.T. Barnum, part young Republican and part carnival barker — soaked up all he surveyed.
The downtown merchants wanted to sponsor a festival on the order of St. Petersburg’s International Folk Festival (SPIFFS), something that families would attend and yet be more in step than music to clog by. While entertaining two British journalists during the parade for another Clearwater festival, Sun ‘n Fun, Mains was inspired.
“They saw a dixieland band and said, ‘That’s American!'”
Jazz become the manner of connecting the genteel hoi-polloi of Belleair, south of downtown, with the rhythm and blues of impoverished Greenwood, to the north. Clearwater Jazz Holiday was born and the ascension of Don Mains’ star had begun.
Wed. 10:15 a.m. “I spoke to them last night,” says Mains, some irritation showing in a voice that has been getting much rest. “No, I haven’t heard yet. They were going to talk to Mrs. Bush this morning or on the plane to Japan. I’ll either hear something today or when they get back next.”
If Republicans have a God of their own, James Baker put the fear of Him into the presidential candidate’s advance team last summer. You are the front lines, he told Don Mains and others; George Bush will either shine or be embarrassed by what you do. Usually, the team did well by their man. But every day meant a new town and a new challenge.
“I coordinated a speech in a park outside of Detroit at Lake Erie,” says Mains. “The local people wanted to demonstrate the lake was back. They wanted the vice president to fish. So I thought about getting him a fishing license. But we got consumed with the details of the event and I heard he wasn’t going to fish.
“Three or four weeks later, I’m reading Erma Bombeck and she says, ‘How can you believe in a president who fishes in a three-piece suit and doesn’t have a license?’
“I had nothing to do with the three-piece suit. But the license was my responsibility.”
Cary Stiff was Mains’ main partner in crime during the early days. If Mains was the father of the Jazz Holiday, Stiff was its mother.
“Who got us in the most trouble?” she asks rhetorically. “Him. He would stretch the truth and I would swear to it.
“At that time, I was a broker downtown. We started tossing around some ideas and came up with Jazz Holiday. He was trying to appeal to the European tourists; I wanted to do food and music,” she says.
The Clearwater Chamber of Commerce had no budget for jazz in those days, so if Mains and Stiff wanted to put on a show they were going to have to raise the money in the community. Today, both Mains and Stiff — who is now marketing director for the Chi Chi Rodriguez Foundation — could pick up the phone and tap any number of high rollers. But in 1980, Mains was a 24-year-old kid just out of Penn State who didn’t matter and didn’t know anyone else that did, either.
He decided to track down Bronson Thayer at home and make the jazz pitch. Spotting Thayer’s car roll in about 11 p.m., Mains stuffed the following note in a plastic bag, put it under Thayer’s windshield wiper and ran.
The note read:
“Dear Mr. Thayer,
This is the closest I want to come to bothering you at home. … I just wanted to see if I could get a 15 minute appointment with you sometime tomorrow. If it goes longer than that, feel free to throw me out. … ”
“Sure enough,” says Mains, marveling at the memory of his own now-legendary tenacity, “9 a.m. the next morning I get a call and he gave us $2,000.”
In Star Junction and Ford City, Pa., Mains grew up an introvert, daydreaming and reading all the Hardy Boys books he could find. “Frank and Joe were my best buddies,” he says. “I’d go off on each adventure with them.” Later inspirations: the autobiography of Ben Franklin and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
His father was a high school baseball and football coach; mom organized community support to buy a scoreboard. If he was disappointed that Don was too scrawny or too nerdy to play for him, Coach Mains — who was the first in a line of coal miners to go to college — took pride in his son’s inventive nature and broad ambition.
“I did backyard carnivals for Muscular Dystrophy. I was president of my class, I did the prom,” he says. At Penn State, he organized homecoming and was the “mike man” for cheerleaders at football games. “(Coach) Joe Paterno could be a variation on my dad; they’re very similar. When I was a freshman I got this call — it was Joe Paterno. Wanted to know how I was doing, if I needed anything.” Their acquaintance — passed down from Coach Mains to his son — came in handy when Mains was being interviewed as a general manager candidate years later for Tampa’s fledgling Hall of Fame Bowl and again when Mains hit the campaign trail for Paterno’s friend George Bush.
Paterno was one of many father figure/mentors who influenced Mains through his adventures. Charlie Bohart at Vision Cable, Congressman Michael Bilirakis, Joe Zapulski at the Hall of Fame Bowl, Steve Studdert with the Bush campaign and others have had a chance to direct the rising star.
“I really believe a mentor is important,” says Mains. “I’ve often looked for employers who become coach. I want to be the star quarterback.”
Every successful man makes his mistakes and Mains’ are as monumental as his hits.
On the heels of Clearwater Jazz Holiday, he had another idea. To this day, he swears by it, although his friends best remember “Celebration of Light: The Indomitable Spirit of Man and Woman” — 14 days of “living, laughing, loving and — as “Mains’ Folly.”
“That was pretty weird,” even Stiff admits. “He didn’t get me on that one.”
“I put together this great prospectus,” Mains still enthuses. “Because of the success of Jazz Holiday, I had a lot of people listening to me, but no one would sign on the dotted line.”
He envisioned a natural symphony of wind chimes ringing across Clearwater, solar power demonstrations and New Age self-awareness seminars. The centerpiece and publicity-getter would be a hang glider trip from Clearwater to Chicago, “20 cities, eight states, six capitols, fly over the Indy 500, that sort of stuff,” he says.
When all the sponsors he approached turned thumbs down, Mains almost caught a breath of reality.
“I had three options. One was kill myself. One was forget about it. One was fund it myself. Sell my condo, do it myself. I quit my job; I had tunnelvision. My friends thought I was going over the deep end. I went from Glory Boy to the Fool on the Hill.”
After a phenomenal personal effort failed to motivate public interest in a “Celebration of Light,” Mains took a job with fledgling Vision Cable as program director. But even then, he wouldn’t completely give up the idea. When former Good Morning America host David Hartman was in town, Mains turned an interview into a plea for support of his hang glider trip. He later tried to convince one of Clearwater’s wealthiest widows into backing him by telling her he would be Christopher Columbus to her Queen Isabella.
As Mains puts it, “I figured if you’re trying to create a festival to celebrate the indomitable spirit, you’ve got to become one.”
Vision Cable’s public access channel eventually caused him to set aside his celebration. His video crews took cameras into places they never went before; for example, residents of Clearwater who had never seen government in action before were glued to their TV sets when Mains televised the city’s controversial hearings on the Church of Scientology.
From TV, Mains jumped into the political arena as press secretary for first-term Rep. Michael Bilirakis (R.-Tarpon Springs). They shared a similar background; both hailed from western Pennslvania and Bilirakis knew of Coach Mains’ reputation.
But Washington didn’t agree with Mains. “I was one of many and couldn’t jump in and do any major projects,” he says.
Near the end of his second year with the congressman, Mains was intrigued by the Hands Across America hunger project organized by rock stars. It was intended as a follow-up to the “We Are The World” recording sessions. Mains came up with a complementary program called Hands Along the Shore. The idea was to form a human link up and down the Florida gulf beaches and across the waterways. It was an ambitious attempt that was dogged by ridicule, dissension, delay and bad weather. Mains needed 20,000 people to make it work; 7,000 participated.
“The thought was good,” says long-time Mains admirer and Clearwater Mayor Rita Garvey. “It wasn’t a flop but it wasn’t as successful as Don would have liked. He takes risks. And that’s not bad.”
Bilirakis’ name was the one out front on Hands Along the Shore and he took a lot of the heat when the idea failed. Mains left his position with the congressman shortly thereafter, which he says was coincidental because he had already accepted a position with the Tampa Sports Authority (TSA) as general manager of the Hall of Fame Bowl. (Bilirakis did not respond to a series of interview requests made to both his Washington and Clearwater offices.)
“Don showed up one day,” says Joe Zalupski, executive director of the Tampa Sports Authority. “He had a creative bent; he did his homework. He came over, made a pitch and we hired him. He was a tireless worker.
Promoting a major college football game was right up the start-up man’s alley, combining his childhood background in the game with his fully matured huckster’s instinct. “He was never at a loss for ideas,” says Zalupski. “Some were off the wall; some worked very well. It was not, did he have ideas. It was sorting through all the ideas he had. No one could fault him for lack of enthusiasm or pure diligence. He was the right person for the right time.”
The TSA wanted a show and Don Mains gave it to them for two years. They, in turn, gave him an appropriate nickname.
“Remember the guy who did the Statue of Liberty show, David Wolper?” asks Zalupski. “We called Don, ‘Little Wolper.'”
Fri. 9:10 a.m. Mains’ answering machine is on. Mains is out of town for the weekend.
Meanwhile, at 8:45 p.m. on Friday, Mains’ friend and inaugural cohort, Max Lynn, a certified financial planner in St. Petersburg, is proudly announcing, “He got the job. Don’s going to Washington.”
“I can’t think of anyone who’s gone as far as fast as he has,” says his buddy Cary Stiff. “He’s a political animal. He loves strategy. I told him, Don, you belong in Washington. I knew somebody, somewhere was going to see that talent. I’d like to see him stay, but it doesn’t shock me that he’d go to Washington. I knew he’d be happiest there.”
Even as the second Hall of Fame Bowl was in full swing, the Bush for President bandwagon was keeping tabs on Mains. When it was over — keeping with his tendency to start something, see it through infancy and then move on (“Don has always been interested in being the spark, never the engine,” says a friend) — Mains exited the Fame Bowl for a chance to work on George Bush’s advance team. He had some prior experience in the position; whenever Bush came to Tampa Bay, Mains had entertained the advance teams.
“I introduced them to grouper (and) to young people in Clearwater,” he says. “They appreciated that. Then they invited me to submit my resume to the vice president.”
Mains got his feet wet on vacations from the Bowl, going to campaign stops ahead of the vice president, checking out facilities, photo opportunities, sound bites and local color. Once Bush captured his party’s nomination in New Orleans, Mains became a permanent part of the team.
“In Midland, Tx., at the beginning of October, I was in charge of a rally at the airport. Midland was the first place Bush went when he left the service (after World War II). I went through old newspapers and found these old pictures and headlines — Bush as boss of the year, Bush with the Little League team, Bush named envoy to China. I had them blown up for display at the rally.
“Air Force Two was late,” he continues. “I picked up a microphone and went behind a wall. No one knew who the voice was but everyone heard it. I got the crowd real fired up, channeling their enthusiasm. The reason it was so important was there was a question about whether people thought George Bush was a Texan. I started the crowd — 5,000 people — by whispering, ‘We want George.’ Then I’d say, ‘Let’s get louder, let’s make the windows on Air Force Two rattle!’
“The Vice President came out, threw his arms out and the roar was amazing. He appreciated it because it was his friends and neighbors. It gave him energy.”
Once again, Don Mains had created a niche for himself. From that day on, whether Bush was making an appearance with Arnold Schwarzennegger or in Fresno, Ca. at a Sun Maid Raisin plant, Mains was called on to get crowds excited.
“The day before the election, in St. Louis, I fired up the crowd. Instead of ‘We want Bush,’ I ended it with, ‘We want President Bush.’ He saw me on the mike, slapped me on the back and said, ‘So you’re the one making all the noise!'”
After that, the mike man from Penn State had one more introduction to do.
When all the election returns were in and George Bush was ready to claim victory, someone handed Mains a 3×5 card and pushed him on stage. From the podium, he became the first person to introduce “the next president of the United States and Mrs. Bush.”
Finally, the phone rings. The White House is on the other end and it’s official.
Don Mains, a 34-year-old bachelor from St. Petersburg, is named the first director of advance for First Lady Barbara Bush, becoming the third man from Pinellas County to land a position in the new administration. (Real estate developers Mel Sembler and Joe Zappala were named ambassadors.)
“I head up tomorrow,” says Mains, finally showing signs of excitement after a full month of discussions and mystery about the job. “I’ll travel three or four days a week. Sometimes I’ll travel in advance and return with Mrs. Bush.
“She’s going to make a mark,” he says. “I just get to carry her pencil.”
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Copyright 2018 by Bob Andelman