Jack Luedke, Times-Union archive, April 1987

Photography has captured some of the best and worst moments in Jacksonville’s history. Jake Godbold, who served as Mayor from 1979 – 1987 and as the city’s top cheerleader throughout his 86 years on earth, provided no shortage of iconic images. However, none captures the essence of the man as well as the well traveled photo of a grinning Jake, as he was almost universally known, holding up a prize catfish while addressing a crowd.

The photograph comes from the eighth annual Mayor’s Fish-A-Thon in April 1987, hosted at Hanna Park. At the time, Jake was reaching the end of his second term in office; Tommy Hazouri would succeed him that July. The Fish-A-Thon was one of several programs Jake started in his first year for senior citizens, whom he dubbed the Mayor’s Older Buddies, or simply “MOB.” The “MOB” was special to Jake. Having grown up in the Brentwood projects, he saw himself as a champion of the little people, the plain folks, the have nots. He was also an avid fisherman, so a fishing tournament for his “MOB” made perfect sense. The catfish Jake is holding in the picture was a prizewinning three-pounder caught by a senior named Johnnie Mae Jackson, a resident of the Twin Towers senior community on the Northside. In the photo, Jake is beaming as he extolls Jackson’s accomplishment to the gathered MOB.

“In everything he did, Jake encouraged Jacksonville both to embrace itself and to dream limitless dreams.”

The picture was shot by Florida Times-Union photographer Jack Luedke, although it doesn’t appear to have run in the paper at the time. However, it so perfectly encapsulated Jake’s spirit that the editors dug it later up for use in stories about him, and they republished it so many times that it has become one of the most famous images of the former mayor. Another politician posing with a fish might have looked bumpkinish. Worse, a suit-wearing pol in such a pose could easily have come off as out of their element and silly; think Michael Dukakis’s infamous tank photo from the following year. But Jake, with his easy confidence, comfort in his own skin, and showman’s smile looks perfectly natural clutching a catfish in a tailored suit.

As the picture suggests, in many ways Jake was a bridge between worlds, or at least the different sides of Jacksonville. He revered his working class roots while challenging the city to think big and move forward, and he led by example. Some days he hosted fishing tournaments for his senior constituents. Other days he worked every possible angle to bring major league sports to Jacksonville, efforts that ultimately paid off when the city was awarded the Jaguars in 1993. Some days Jake handled city business from his favorite table at Fred Cotten’s Landmark Barbecue. Others, he planned out major projects like the Landing, the Southbank Riverwalk, and the Jacksonville Jazz Festival. In everything he did, Jake encouraged Jacksonville both to embrace itself and to dream limitless dreams.

Jake has left a long legacy in the River City. Though not as well known as other of his projects like the Riverwalk or Jazz Festival, the Mayor’s Fish-a-Thon continues today. On March 27 Jacksonville’s seniors should hold up their prize catch as proudly as Jake did that spring day long ago.

Article by Bill Delaney. Contact Bill at wdelaney@moderncities.com.