St. Petersburg native Roy Adams remembers a bustling downtown of green benches, department stores and people dressed to the nines for afternoon strolls through Williams Park.
He remembers the Bayfront Center, and the Florida Theatre, and the rotting jazz-era corpse of the Pepto-pink Vinoy hotel, all but abandoned by the 1970s. Once, working for the city, he ran across the dirt floor of the formerly-elegant ballroom, chasing pigeons out the windows (“The Vinoy looked like Alcatraz,” he chuckles).
In a way, Roy Adams is St. Petersburg’s own Forrest Gump. As a Red Cross volunteer, he was on the scene at Fort DeSoto in 1980, as divers retrieved the bodies of those killed when the Sunshine Skyway Bridge collapsed after being struck by an errant freighter.
Roy Adams is 60 years old, and he’s never lived anywhere but St. Pete. He’s worked for Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital since 1992, spending his first 18 years there as Volunteer Director. Today, he’s MVP on the hospital’s busy public relations team. Which is a good thing, because Roy Adams knows just about everyone in his hometown.
All the while watching his beloved city change, right before his eyes.
“The city economic development group, the Chamber of Commerce and others that I know, they’ve worked real hard,” Adams says. “They’re all doing a great job. But St. Pete evolved when it was ready to evolve again. I don’t think there was any one thing. It wasn’t baseball, even though we were happy to have it. And maybe we still will.”
(He’s a “glass-half-full” kind of guy.)
Adams recalls a failed attempt by the City to turn Central Avenue into a one-way thoroughfare, a sort of pedestrian mall with huge landscaping planters as traffic obstacles. “When they force stuff on St. Pete, it doesn’t seem to happen,” he shrugs.
“But downtown kind of came back on its own. Just about every one of those condo buildings is full. In the ‘80s, you couldn’t have put the One Tower downtown.”
Adams is grateful for the foresight of St. Pete’s founding fathers, especially St. Petersburg Times publisher William Straub, who pushed for city ownership of the parkland along the waterfront, to keep it out of the hands of developers.
“That vision goes back to the ‘20s,” comments Adams. “Who knew? I’m more happy than not that we’re going where we’re going. Actually, seeing where we’ve come from, it’s kind of exciting that it’s hard to find a place to park.”
He is, however, concerned that St. Pete’s boom might be a double-edged sword – that young professionals attracted to the area’s Innovation District might not be able to afford living here.
“When I grew up here, if you had no money, you lived downtown. Now, you’ve got to have too much money to live downtown. I want to be a big cheerleader for our city – come to St. Pete, it’s a great place – and I wouldn’t discourage anybody from coming here.”
The public relations team provides the link between Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and the media – be it local, regional, national or global.
“For many years, we were a small staff, so we were pretty much what I would call reactive,” Adams explains. “When media would call, they’d have a medical story they wanted, or an issue to talk about, we’d go out and find the doctor that specialized in it. We’d find a patient that fit what the doc was working with. And we’re still known for that. They like it because we can package their story for them.”
It was known simply as All Children’s Hospital until 2016.
“As more media opportunities have come up, and as we became part of Johns Hopkins, we became a little more aggressive about going out and pitching. We know we’ve got this or that great doc, or this wonderful program – but we forget the world doesn’t know! Plus, it’s a benefit out there to families that may need it. So we’re much more proactive now.”
According to Public Relations Manager Danielle Caci, Adams is the “heart and soul” of the team; they call him the “Mayor of Johns Hopkins All Children’s” because he’s such a familiar, and positive, presence.
Adams often coordinates visits from visiting celebrities, performers and sports teams, leading them on guided, room-to-room tours of the pediatric wings. He loves to see the kids light up.
“Whether he’s brightening a patient’s day with a surprise visit from a Rays player, Chewbacca or a mermaid (the list goes on) or setting up an urgent story on a trending health topic for a reporter, he works diligently and always with a smile on his face,” Caci enthuses.
His secret may well be this: “His relationships throughout the bay area have also helped us better connect with the community, as we share news about pediatric health care and offer experts for comments on these stories.”
He was always drawn to public service, even at a young age, although it took him a while to discover his calling.
He’s a lifetime member of First Baptist Church, who went to Lealman Middle and St. Pete High School (graduating with the class of ’76). “I lost my parents at a very young age,” Adams says. “I was very blessed to have people in this community who raised me. I had a stable home to go to, I had a good education. I was very lucky, because in today’s world I could have gone adrift.”
In high school, he began working as a Red Cross volunteer; eventually he became friends with the woman who handled the organization’s public relations. “I said ‘This is cool! Your whole job is to get the Red Cross in the paper? To get people to write about Red Cross?’ Now, I was always a media junkie; as a kid, I had my own radio show at home.
“So I started calling the media with them, ‘We’ve got this 89-year-old guy that teaches swimming, he’s pretty cool ….’” At the time (the mid 1970s), the St. Petersburg media corps included the Times, its afternoon edition the Evening Independent, and three or four “Mom and Pop” network affiliate TV stations.
Roy Adams, personable and persistent, made sure they all knew who he was. And that they all knew what Red Cross was up to.
After his 1981 graduation from the University of South Florida with a PR degree, the organization gave him a fulltime job. Nine years later – after brief stints at a radio station, with the City, and with the founders of Enterprise Village and the Stavros Institute – he connected with All Children’s Hospital, where he’s now been a fixture for two-and-a-half decades.
A past president of St. Petersburg Rotary (William Straub, incidentally, was the first), Roy and Paula, his wife of 36 years, still attend First Baptist Church. Their son Tyler is a digital media specialist for Hillsborough County.
He is just about interchangeable with St. Petersburg. “Growing up, I never had a desire to not live here,” he says. “And look how it’s changed!
“Part of me’s excited about downtown, and part of me remembers when you could walk around on Sundays and there was nothing going on. I’ve been fortunate to be able to make a living by staying here – I had some opportunities back in my Red Cross days. And when you’re young and moving up, you’re always looking for the next thing.
“I just always had stuff open up for me that allowed me to stay here.”