A 50-year snapshot of Lakeland, FL’s mayors

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Lakeland, FL, circa 1970 | Photo via Florida Memory

Table of Contents

Tomorrow, Nov. 2 is the big day — the local election. To celebrate another election season in Lakeland, we’re walking down memory lane and sharing the history of some of Lakeland’s mayors from the past 50 years.

1982-present

Bill Mutz, 2018-present | Bill was the President & Co-Owner of Lakeland Automall, is a father to 12 children, and has served on 21 not-for-profit or business boards.

R. Howard Wiggs, 2014–2018 | Mayor Wiggs was a vice president of marketing for SunTrust Bank of Central Florida, won the Jere Annis Award from Leadership Lakeland, and is a member of the Board of Trustees of Florida Southern College.

Gow Fields, 2010–2013 | Gow was the first Black mayor to be elected in Lakeland, was inducted into the Polk County Public Schools Hall of Fame, and won the George Jenkins Award in 2019.

Ralph “Buddy” Fletcher, 1993–2009 | Buddy was the mayor of Lakeland for 17 consecutive years, owned a printing shop up until 2017, and is regarded for his work on sprucing up downtown.

Willie J. Williams, 1988 | Mayor Williams was the last mayor to be elected internally until the people’s vote was recorded in 1989. Willie was a career pastor, most recently at Bradenton Primitive Baptist Church.

Thomas R. Shaw, 1985 | Mayor Shaw served the City of Lakeland both as Mayor and city commissioner for 20 years until 2003. The Shaw family owned the Shaw House Bed & Breakfast near Hollis Gardens, which was purchased in 2018.

Frank J. O’Reilly, 1983, 1987, 1989–1993 | Frank was a career accountant and is noted as Lakeland’s first elected mayor by the people during his stint in 1989. He also worked as a city commissioner for 8 years.

J. Larry Durrence, 1982, 1986 | Larry was a longtime figure in the Lakeland community as a professor at Florida Southern College, a commissioner, and the president of Polk State College, among a long list of other accomplishments.

Other notable mayors (1971-80)

Carrie R. Oldham, 1980 | Carrie was Lakeland’s first Black female mayor. She was also a school educator, administrator, and district official.

Curtis I. Walker, 1978 | Curtis was a long-time real estate broker, a member of the Scottish Rite, a Shriner, a Mason, an Army Veteran, and a woodsman. Curtis also served as a commissioner until 1982.

Charles A. Coleman, 1977 | Charles was the second Black mayor, behind Dr. John S. Jackson (mentioned below). Charles worked in public education for almost 30 years as principal at Mulberry Elementary, John Fox Elementary, and Lincoln Avenue Elementary Schools. The Northwest Community Center was renamed in his honor 5 years after it opened in 1980.

W. Carl Dicks, 1975 | Mayor Dicks is remembered as one of the longest-serving city commissioners in Lakeland (1972-1996) and had a hand in keeping the city’s electric division in top shape. In 2003, the clubhouse at Cleveland Heights Golf Course was named in his honor.

Dr. John S. Jackson, 1972, 1973 | Along with being Lakeland’s first black mayor, elected internally, Dr. Jackson was also Lakeland’s first black surgeon and city commissioner.

Joe P. Ruthven, 1971 | Founder of The Ruthvens, a warehouse and distribution center company, Joe was a businessman, politician, and philanthropist, as well as the brother-in-law to former Senator Lawton Chiles.

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