The name "George" is synonymous with Coral Gables.
George Corrigan, the city's three-term mayor from 1987 to 1993, may not be akin to Gables' founder George Merrick, but Corrigan had been a steward of Merrick's vision for the "City Beautiful" for, well, most of his 90 years.
Corrigan died Thursday at the city's upscale retirement home, The Palace, after several months of failing health, his daughter Susan Corrigan said.
Born Sept. 20, 1927, at Coral Gables Hospital, and a 1949 business graduate of the city's University of Miami, where he later was honored with a prestigious Iron Arrow Society membership, Corrigan once said, "Coral Gables is a beautiful city. I know it well."
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That bit of understatement, told in 1991 to the Miami Herald when he was running for what would be his final term as mayor but not his last dance with the Gables, captured much of the essence of Corrigan.
He knew the city well. And, though he stumbled from time to time while in office, he pushed to keep the city aligned with Merrick's vision.
"He was a wonderful leader. Everyone loved George. He was popular with people and was kind and good," said historian and author Arva Moore Parks.
She grew up alongside Corrigan, served on boards with him, and, as a teenager, worked at Burdines, where he ran the chain's popular and profitable Dadeland store for many years.
"As mayor he was very good for preservation. He really cared," Moore Parks said, adding that his service on numerous boards, like Coral Gables Community Foundation and Baptist Health, helped define his character.
"I think it is a terrible loss for the community. George has been a part of Coral Gables for 90 years. He was just a good guy and this is a terrible loss for Coral Gables and Greater Miami because he really gave back and that sums him up," Moore Parks said.
Two of Corrigan's achievements in elected office resonate today: He was part of the commission that approved a historic district in the city's black community in 1989. The approval was hailed by community leaders as the city's most important step in recognizing the roles African Americans played in the building of Coral Gables.
"I don't believe it. This is the most wonderful thing that has happened to this city in a long time," activist and historian Leona Cooper, told the Herald at the time. "This is long overdue. It will increase the community's pride in its history."
Decades before it came to fruition with its overdue and over budget unveiling earlier this month, Corrigan pushed for a revitalized Miracle Mile.
"I come from the school where, if you're not making progress on some front, you're getting behind," Corrigan told the Herald in 1990 as the city struggled to come up with ways to revitalize its signature downtown destination.
"He wanted to revamp the Mile in such a way that it would be productive," his daughter Susan said.
Corrigan, perhaps not surprisingly given his nearly 33-year tenure as an executive and manager of Burdines, wanted an anchor store on the Mile. Among other things, he also supported social spaces for pedestrians to gather, and zoning changes to allow for landscaping, signage and outdoor seating for cafes.
As city officials touted the dramatically wider sidewalks, which allow for cafe seating, earlier this month during its unveiling, Corrigan privately blasted the redesign. The new, more modern look wasn't to his liking, his daughter said. He thought the "lighting looked like something out of Alcatraz," she said.
Corrigan, who also led the revitalization of the city's youth center during his tenure as mayor, wanted a more pedestrian friendly Mile, but he was also wed to tradition.
He wanted to pursue the Gables' traditional Mediterranean architecture for the downtown district. "It was probably the best thing that ever happened to us," he said in 1991.
He was appalled when Burger King opened a fast-food franchise on the Mile in 1989. "If I wanted to make an upscale street, I could think of a better use of the property than to put a Burger King there," he opined.
Three years later, in 1992, he was on the losing end of a court battle when a U.S. District Court judge ruled that Coral Gables could tell newspapers where to place their news racks but couldn't regulate how they look. Corrigan wanted a standardized color and had battled the Miami Herald, Miami New Times and Exito! over the issue.
"We modeled this whole program after Beverly Hills as a way to improve the aesthetics in the city," he told the Herald at the time of the decision.
The city would ultimately prevail in 1995, after Corrigan's mayoral tenure, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the municipality could regulate the color of its news racks (they went with subdued beige).
There would be mistakes along the way.
Corrigan clashed with then-Commissioner and current Mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli when they ran against each other for mayor in 1988. Corrigan had to apologize for saying he was more qualified for the position because, "We know that Hispanics don't like to get up early. When we have our commission meetings, he's the last to arrive," Corrigan said of Valdes-Fauli during that campaign, according to the Herald.
Valdes-Fauli, who would become the city's first Hispanic mayor in 1993 when he defeated Corrigan, accepted the apology at the time.
Corrigan also was accused of ethics violations over campaign finances in his bid to recapture his seat against then-Mayor Donald Slesnick in 2007. Corrigan took responsibility, calling it a human error owing to a late start to his campaign. "A haste-makes-waste routine," he told the Herald.
Earlier, in 1993, the Florida Commission on Ethics found probable cause that Corrigan, along with several commissioners and a former city attorney, violated ethics codes by taking free memberships in the Country Club of Coral Gables. His membership in the city's then-restrictive Riviera Country Club was also used against him in several of his campaigns.
Bumps aside in the public arena, Corrigan had already established himself as a community leader before entering politics.
He spent nearly his entire adult career with Burdines, managing its most profitable store in the Dadeland Mall, when he made a late-career switch to banking.
He went from 33 years at Burdines, which was acquired by Federated Department Stores, the parent of Macy's, to the presidency of the Bank of Coral Gables in 1983.
"I certainly don't believe I'm doing the wrong thing," he told the Herald at age 55, even if he admitted to some trepidation at switching careers at that age. "I think what I learned all those years in merchandising will help me in my new job."
He would use his banking background to tackle the Gables' budgets, an area he defined as his key campaign issue in his first race for the mayor's seat against the incumbent Dorothy Thomson in 1987.
But he'd spend the funds when he thought he could make positive changes. He presided over numerous boards, including the Baptist Health Foundation, Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce, First United Methodist Church, and South Miami Hospital.
When the Coral Gables Youth Center was revitalized after his tenure, Commissioner Pat Keon, a chair of the Gables' Recreational Advisory Board, told the Herald in 2013 that Corrigan was essential for the facility's revival.
"George Corrigan was the first to really buy in and we started that process of neighborhood meetings to get that community support to move that project forward," Keon said.
Corrigan, who was twice widowed, is survived by his daughter Susan.
A celebration of life will be held at 11 a.m. May 25 at First United Methodist Church of Coral Gables, 536 Coral Way.
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