There is a void in the city after the loss of Bill Gay, who died this week quietly, as he did everything.
Gay never got much fanfare but he was always working behind the scenes to make Jacksonville a better city and help those in need.
He was a leading businessman, active in church and civic groups such as Rotary, and a major fan and supporter of the University of Florida Gators football team. He graduated from UF in 1949.
He also supported politicians who shared his conservative views.
One story tells a lot about him and Jake Godbold, who died just recently.
Gay backed an old friend, Lew Brantley, against Godbold when Godbold ran for mayor.
Godbold won. But the next morning, Godbold put in a call to Gay, asking for his help in carrying out his agenda – and Gay accepted.
Gay was the owner of W.W. Gay Mechanical Contractor. He started the business in 1962 on a shoestring decades ago and painstakingly built it into a major enterprise. Those familiar with his business activities said he always operated ethically and with integrity.
He lived during all that time at the same modest home just off San Juan Avenue near the Hyde Park Golf Course.
I had lunch with him many times over the years and visited in his home. I never heard him boast of any of his many accomplishments. He always made his views on politics and social issues clear, but without rancor and always in a self-effacing manner.
Eye on Jacksonville founder Billie Tucker Volpe also remembers Gay as a humble man.
When she started the Tea Party in Jacksonville, Gay invited her to his office. She was excited to meet him, in part because as a little girl she loved the Christmas decorations the W.W. Gay Co. put up every year, images of Christ’s birth and the Three Wise Men. The company headquarters was at Stockton and Edison streets and everyone driving by on Interstate 10 could see the decorations. When she met Gay she told him about those memories and how they had impacted her and her faith. He was pleased to hear it and encouraged her to continue to stand up for America.
He loved America and was thrilled to hear others were standing up, too. He wrote a check to the Tea Party and she left his office with even more admiration for the man. Gay was a generous giver and periodically would write another check and mail it to the Tea Party office with a short note thanking them for what they were doing.
Wex Paxson, head of Paxson Electric, had known Gay since Gay worked with a local contractor and was one of the two people who gave Gay his start in business. “I had a roommate at Georgia Tech from the Colledge family in Jacksonville,” Paxson said. “We had a little money so we got a line of credit for Bill and put him in business.”
Another civic leader, John Tucker, knew Gay as far back as the 1960s when Tucker was involved with Gay and Paxson in the Gator Bowl activities
Not only did Gay provide financial support for local activities but he also had things in his company’s shop. After he gave a number of metal racks made in his shop to the AA, Tucker tried to pay and Gay simply told him that if he wanted to do anything, do it for the guys in the shop who did the work.
Tucker said he sent many people who needed help to Gay, and they always got the help they needed.
“He lived by the Bible,” Tucker said. “He was the only business guy I ever knew who would see an unfair advantage over a competitor and not take it.”
“He would point out to people the more you give, the more you get.”
“He gave away the love from God he thought he would receive.”
Henry Cook, former City Council member and Clerk of the Court, said he began having breakfast meetings with Gay when Cook was president of the council and Gay backed him when he ran for mayor.
Gay was accessible to anyone and exceedingly generous, Cook said. “You call his office and you get him. You never were screened. He would donate to anything honest and Christian.”
“That is the most honest, honorable man I have ever met in my life.”
The footprint Bill Gay left on Jacksonville is a large one.