Last week, Tampa Bay lost environmental pioneer, Jan Platt. The Tampa Bay you see now may not have been possible without the efforts of this visionary woman. As we all remember Jan and reflect on her influence, we wanted to bring back an article that we wrote about her a few years ago. We are proud to be among those to say “Thank you” to Jan in life, for all you did. In her passing she remains an inspiration to us all. The honor was truly ours.
Editor’s note: Jan Platt passed away Friday, Nov. 4. 2014. The Tampa Bay Times wrote an excellent article about her accomplishments. The Bay Soundings story takes a more personal look at the woman who forever changed Tampa Bay for the better.
By Sigrid Tidmore
When Jan Kaminis Platt was born in 1936, she already had sand in her shoes and salt water in her veins. She came by these traits honestly, having a Norwegian whaler for a great-grandfather, a Greek grandfather still working on the Anclote River, and a dad who spent all his spare time fishing in Tampa Bay.
Peter Kaminis wanted to make sure his wife, Adele, and their daughters — Jan and her younger sister, Bobbie Lou — grew up connected to the environment he loved so much. Together they fished, waded and swam all over the gulf and the bay, including all the rivers, streams and lakes in the region.
Something about that upbringing inspired Jan to a special vision and rare determination. She excelled at Hillsborough High School where she was voted “Most Likely to Succeed.” Then she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Florida State University as “Most Outstanding Senior Woman,” president of the student senate and vice president of the student body.
After such an outstanding academic performance, Jan was cruising towards success. Then she learned what every good Greek sailor must: Anyone can hold the helm when the ocean is calm. Jan encountered her first real stormy sea when she decided to enroll as the only woman at the University of Florida School of Law.
“The late 1950s were a very tumultuous time,” Jan recalled. “The same year I started law school, the first African American also enrolled. Our first year we were both subjected to unpleasant harassment from other students and some faculty. After 12 months, we decided there must be an easier way to change the world and left.”
Jan returned to Tampa to teach American history at Plant and Hillsborough High Schools. It wasn’t long before she had taken leadership roles with the League of Women Voters and the Girl Scouts. In 1962, she met and married a pilot from MacDill Air Force Base, William R. “Bill” Platt, and she settled down to raise a family – at least as much as anyone with her energy can settle down.
By 1972, Jan was president of the Suncoast Girl Scout Council and working to organize the Wai Lani Girl Scout Camp in Palm Harbor. It was then she learned that Pinellas County was planning to build a sewage treatment plant right next door that would be dumping volumes of barely treated sewage directly into St. Joseph’s Sound.
Working with Roger Stewart, who later became head of the Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County, Jan generated enough media attention to persuade Pinellas County to treat or reclaim its sewage. It was to be the beginning on many crusades to correct a practice that was severely polluting the Bay.[easymedia-gallery med=”4542″ size=”150,150″]
The Palm Harbor incident rekindled Jan’s interest in working for social change, but her sister’s death placed her squarely in the middle of the action. Jan remembers, “Bobbie Lou was a beautiful, talented artist and musician, loved by so many people. Her passing made me realize that life is short and each of us needs to make a difference now, while we can.”
In 1973, Dick Greco resigned as Tampa mayor and several city council members subsequently left office to run for mayor. This opened the way for Jan to run for public office — and she won a seat on city council. Almost immediately, she started making changes in government, especially the environmental protection laws. After only four years she was elected as a county commissioner for Hillsborough County, where she served 24 years, leaving office in 2004.
Those who have worked with her will tell you Jan is an exceptionally positive person in spite of the fact that she was dubbed “Commissioner NO” by the media for her frequent resistance to developers’ proposals. Growing up, Jan recalls her mother frequently telling her that “No” could be as powerful an answer as “Yes,” if it was well articulated.
“I didn’t want anyone to think I casually voted against their plans. It was important that I be clear about my reasons so we could work together to find solutions,” said Jan.
Her list of accomplishments is legendary, but the creation of three formative agencies mark Jan’s perennial commitment to her beloved Tampa Bay:
- The Agency on Bay Management (founded 1985) During the 1970s and early 80s, competing interests battled over the deteriorating health of the bay. At times, Tampa Bay was a national media spectacle. Jan’s collaborative leadership brought diverse corporations, government and environmentalists to the table to create a cooperative plan using shared interests to set guidelines for environmental restoration.
- The Tampa Bay Estuary Program (founded 1991) Working with congressmen Bill Young and Sam Gibbons, Jan led efforts to have Tampa Bay designated as an “estuary of national significance.” This jump-started federal funding aimed at restoring Tampa Bay through a community partnership. Education, research and public involvement guarantee the continued environmental health into the future.
- The Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program (founded in 1987) Now known as the Jan K. Platt ELAP Program in recognition of her commitment, Hillsborough County acquired $21 million worth of sensitive environmental land over a four-year period. The voter-approved program has since acquired more than $300 million in land across the county. In recent years, the State of Florida has used ELAPP as a template for its Florida Forever plan.
“In 1936 there were only 1,607,000 people in the whole state of Florida. There’s almost that many people just in Hillsborough County today,” she muses. “This kind of increase has a huge impact on the environment. We almost lost it all 30 years ago when we weren’t paying attention. Today we have to be doubly careful or our children aren’t going to enjoy fishing the way I was able to.”
Jan, by the way, still spends time out on the water with her children and grandchildren. Although she’s no longer in public office, she’s still active on the Agency for Bay Management. Her official vocation is listed as “recreational angler.”
That’s because, in her heart, Jan is still that young girl looking out for the sea.
Editor’s Note: Due to the personal nature of this article, Jan Platt asked to be referred to as “Jan” instead of the appropriate journalistic standard of “Platt.”
Sigrid Tidmore has been a professional illustrator and writer in Tampa Bay for 40 years. She is also the director for the nonprofit organization, Community Stepping Stones.
Read the Official Hillsborough County Biography of Jan Kaminis Platt.