Edmond “Eddie” Gong grew up in a Miami that was much different than the metropolis it has become. He was determined to help shape its growth.
Born to Chinese immigrants who owned small grocery stores in the Overtown area, Gong, a product of the Miami-Dade public school system and a Harvard-educated lawyer, was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1963, served until 1966, and became a state senator in 1966, reelected through 1972.
“My dad was an amazing guy,” said his son E.J. Gong. “Being Asian American in Miami at that time he grew up was a lot different than today. The world was different. But my father was able to succeed because he was always optimistic and worked hard at getting along with people and seeing the best in situations.”
Gong describes one of his father’s campaigns in the streets of 1960s Miami: The family secured a double-decker bus from England and drove around the city waving “Vote for Gong” banners. “Can you imagine?” he said, chuckling. “Dad was a feisty campaigner. He had a lot of heart.”
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The Miami Herald’s editorial board endorsed him. Years later, when he was a member of the Florida Senate in 1972, the Lakeland Ledger called Gong “one of Dade County’s most popular politicians.”
Gong, the first Asian American elected to the Florida Legislature, died May 19 at age 84. He saw himself “as a typical American boy, except that my last name is Gong, and my parents are from China,” Gong wrote in an article from the 1955 book Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present. “I speak Cantonese and English with a southern accent and am equally proficient with chopsticks and jukeboxes. My background is a blend of the wisdom and teachings of the East and the new spirit of America. I am the first generation born in the New World.”
Gong, who was born in Miami on Oct. 7, 1930, was determined to honor his heritage and succeed in the subtropics.
“I’ve known Eddie since he came to the Legislature ... and he was one of the finest men I’ve ever met and had the greatest level of integrity,” said Tallahassee attorney Wilbur Brewton.
In a 1999 letter to the Miami Herald, activist Roxcy Bolton honored Gong during Women’s History Month. “It is time to acknowledge the help and support that a few men in the community gave during the early days of the women’s movement. Without their help we would not have accomplished some of the things that we did,” Bolton wrote.
“For the Chinese, it’s all about the next generation and laying the groundwork. His father did it for him, and he most certainly did it for me and my siblings,” his son said.
A visiting dean from Harvard was among the first to recognize Gong’s gifts. At a time when Harvard admitted primarily New England prep school students, Gong’s charisma, academic achievement and extracurricular activities earned him entry into the Ivy League school. He earned his bachelor’s degree in business there and graduated cum laude in 1952. He also spent two years at Harvard’s law school.
Gong, as a teen, had already been elected governor of Florida Boys Nation by his peers and national president of the civic training and leadership organization. At that time, he met President Harry Truman in the Rose Garden. While completing law school at the University of Miami in 1960, Gong did reporting for the Miami Herald.
This is the man you would have met had you run into Gong in the years before he became a politician, when Robert F. Kennedy appointed him as an assistant U.S. attorney with the Department of Justice. Or, later, as a successful businessman, banker, real estate investor and lawyer who lived in Coconut Grove:
“He would rather dance than eat and his favorite dish is Italian spaghetti,” Gong, a 2000 Distinguished Community Service Award recipient from The Miami-Dade County Asian-American Advisory Board, wrote in Chinese American Voices.
“Although he achieved fairly good marks at Harvard, studies are definitely not his forte. To him, there is nothing greater than the feel of a well-hit tennis ball, or a close, wide-open football game, or the ‘cool’ music of Dave Brubeck. He’s extroverted, likes crowds, and loves parties. Add a Joe College crew cut, tweed sport coat, a pair of dirty white bucks, throw in a line of Air Force jet chatter, and we have met.”
Gong had five children with his late wife Sophie; their eldest son, Peter, died in 1978. Gong is survived by his wife, Dana, his four children, Frances, Madeleine, Joe and E.J. Gong, and five grandchildren.
Services will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, 5690 North Kendall Dr., Coral Gables, with burial at Woodlawn Cemetery North, 3260 SW Eighth St., Miami.
Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.