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IN MEMORIAM: Larry Marthaler built bridges in community

Former Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau Executive Director Larry Marthaler dies at 81.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. April 6, 2016
Larry Marthaler, pictured in front of the New Pass Bridge in 2008. Marthaler developed a plan to ferry passengers between Longboat Key and the mainland when the bridge became stuck in open position in 1983.
Larry Marthaler, pictured in front of the New Pass Bridge in 2008. Marthaler developed a plan to ferry passengers between Longboat Key and the mainland when the bridge became stuck in open position in 1983.
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The New Pass Bridge opened for the last time as a drawbridge Oct. 17, 1983, when it became stuck in open position.

Suddenly, for drivers who used the bridge to travel between Longboat Key and Sarasota, a 10- to 12-minute drive took more than an hour as they traveled through Bradenton Beach, across the Cortez Bridge, on Cortez Road and along U.S. 41 to reach their destination.

Larry Marthaler, then one year into his 16 years as executive director of the Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau, made the drive twice and said to himself, "There has got to be a better way."

He thought back to his time in Saigon, Vietnam, in the 1970s, when he sold airline tickets for Pan American World Airways to soldiers going home on leave. Ferryboats were a standard part of transportation there. 

Within 48 hours, Marthaler had worked out a plan with Le Barge Tropical Cruise to ferry passengers between Longboat Key, City Island and the mainland, with Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) buses carrying passengers to stops.

Suddenly, frustrated commuters were starting their days with a cup of coffee on board the Le Barge and ending it with a beer while heading home. Within a few days, live music was added to the boat, and some passengers felt such camaraderie that they stuck around for a second beer at the Old Salty Dog when they disembarked.

"It was a nice little party on the boat," Marthaler told the Longboat Observer in 2008. "There was a common inconvenience."

The bridge reopened exactly two weeks after it became stuck with its north and south spans welded together. Nearly one year later, Marthaler received the Golden Gavel Award for "Outstanding Community Service" in recognition of his novel solution.

"He wasn't going to let it go being a problem no one solved," said former Longboat Key Vice Mayor Dave Brenner, Marthaler's neighbor at the Islander Club.

Marthaler, a former Longboat Key resident who served as executive director of SCVB from 1982 to 1998, died March 29 in Nashville, Tenn., where he had moved recently.

Born Feb. 1, 1935, in Chicago, Marthaler graduated from the University of Illinois in 1957 and began his 16-year career with Pan-Am the following year. He was stationed in New York, Denver, Miami, Chicago, South Vietnam and Atlanta.

Marthaler first visited the Sarasota area when interviewing for a position at Florida Airlines, where he worked from 1975 to 1982.

"We were knee-deep in snow while he was stationed in Denver, so it didn't take much to sell us on a move to the Sarasota area," said his wife of more than 40 years, Mary.

He spent his 16 years as SCVB director working tirelessly to promote Sarasota County as a world-class tourist destination.

Marthaler led a successful campaign that persuaded voters to pass a tourist development tax in 1988, after the measure failed twice.

"He must have gone from the Rotary Club to the Kiwanis and all over," Mary Marthaler said of her husband's effort. "He made a lot of speeches."

In fiscal 2015, TDT funds generated more than $19 million for beach renourishment, arts and cultural activities and tourism promotion.

Marthaler also created the Sarasota Circus Ring of Fame at the center of St. Armands Circle Park in 1988 to showcase Sarasota's circus history. The Ring of Fame currently honors 125 individuals and groups for their contributions to the circus and inducts new members each year.

In 2014, Marthaler received a plaque for being the founder of the Ring of Fame.

Brenner thinks of Marthaler's vision back in 1983 for the ferry when it comes to today's traffic woes.

"I suspect that if he was around now, he'd be promoting his ferry," Brenner said.

Marthaler is survived by his wife, Mary, of Nashville, and brother, Kent, of Evanston, Ill. The National Cremations & Burial Society is responsible for arrangements. A memorial celebration of life will take place at a later date in Sarasota.

Donations can be made to the Circus Ring of Fame Foundation, P.O. Box 17591, Sarasota, FL 34276 or the Alzheimer's Association.


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