Mike Yakes is well-known around Gulfport as the soft-spoken mayor. He’s served since 1990, and says he's humbled.
“I’m proud of Gulfport, and the small businesses here,” he says. "My job as an elected official is an extreme honor, especially for so many years," he says.
Yet his other roles - single dad, grandparent and great grandparent also fills him with pride.
“Being a father is everything to me,” he says, getting a little misty-eyed.
Last Tuesday, Yakes, 67, was out walking Beach Blvd., flanked by grandson Dominic, 10, and great granddaughter, Mariah, 13. Despite the high heat, he was all smiles.
“I grew up in Gulfport and this is home,” he says, “Now I get to spend time with my favorite people in the same town.”
Married more than two decades, Yakes lost his wife, Darlene, in 2008. That left a still-tender wound, but being with family is a healing balm, he says.
He capably juggles duties as mayor and shuttling grandchildren to activities, shifting from policy and budget decisions to homework and Little League practice.
He says he wouldn’t trade it for the world.
“I’m proud of the trust I have in them, and of their judgment,” he says.
Yakes lists the accomplishments of each of his brood. From honor roll selections to recreational activities, to career choices for the older ones, he has admiration for them all. Clearly, being a parent is in his blood.
He’s also quick to credit his wife, who is never far from his thoughts. Though Yakes has no natural children of his own, he takes his job as father, grandfather and great grandfather to 13, seriously.
“It was eye opening to see how much Darlene handled,” he says. “She took care of the herd, so that I could be mayor.”
Grandson Dominic, 10, enjoys the jokes Yakes tells. The two banter incessantly about the Tampa Bay Rays - and baseball in general.
His great granddaughter says he is, “just nice to be around”. Yakes responds by kissing Mariah on the head.
Deep Roots, Deep Connection
Born in 1943, Yakes' father was a builder and a carpenter. He can't say enough about his homemaker mother, from whom he likely inherited the love of family. One of five children, he is disarmingly forthright, in an old Florida kind of way. He even tells you about his sister Linda, who jumped off the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in 1997.
“You really never get closure,” he says.
Yakes exudes warmth and compassion. That has served him well as a parent.
He shares loving details about his other siblings - Jay, Diane, and Barbara, his affection evident.
Yakes started his career working for the state of Florida in 1961. He stayed for 38 years.
“I did everything imaginable,” he said. “From removing dead animals in the roadway, to painting guard rails, to being an equipment operator, to maintenance supervisor, to a safety and health manager with statewide responsibility, I got to see a lot,” says Yakes.
“Part of my job was loss prevention,” says Yakes. “That was good background for serving on the city council and as mayor.”
Reflecting on his tenure as a state employee, he says the changes in building codes and environmental regulations were good changes for the state. Population growth during his adolescence, took him by surprise. Yet he remains proud of Gulfport.
“The flavor hasn’t changed much and there’s still a lot of local pride,” he says.
Yakes recalls the tragic 1980 collision of the United States Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn, an array of hurricanes, and has personal memories of those who shaped recent Florida history, including Gov. Lawton Chiles.
As a young man, Yakes developed a keen interest in public safety and the environment.
A Florida Waterman
At his core, Yakes is a simple man with a love of fishing, NASCAR and baseball.
"And I still believe in a government by the people and for the people," he says, emphatically.
But all talk turns to fishing, and Florida's network of rivers. A waterman at heart, he relishes the slice of old Florida he can still enjoyat the St. John's River, Lake Apopka and his beloved Withlacoochee River.
A Florida native, he went to the same schools in Gulfport his grandchildren now attend, not far from the Gulf of Mexico. That’s a source of personal pride for Yakes. A bit of a homebody, he plainly states that the best place to eat dinner is his own back porch.
There are other dimensions to Yakes. He once raced late model stock cars, built by his older brother, Jay. By all accounts, the duo fared well. It’s a thought that makes Yakes proud.
“It’s kinda cool that he raced those cars,” says Dominic, patting his grandfather on the back.
Modest by nature, Yakes gently guides the conversation in a different direction.
“Listening is an important part of my job,” he says. “Being a dad is also about listening."
Yakes says it's at sleepovers and Little League games where he hears his grandchildren's friends talk about sports and what's needed in Gulfport.
"That's valuable information, " he says.
Local business owner Mary O’Malley walks by and gives Yakes a big hug. Without prompting, she praises his devotion to fatherhood.
“He’s the ultimate dad, with kids of all ages and generations,” she says.
Yakes is polite, but offers insight instead, on his grandchildren, who are quietly hamming it up for the camera.
“It'’s really nice to see the love and respect the children have, and that each one is their own person,” Yakes says.
But they’re quick to share their own thoughts on their grandfather.“Warm,” says Mariah.
“Always there for us,” says Dominic, “and may I borrow your pen?
Then he leans over my notebook, and underlines the word always. Twice.
Correction: In the original version of this story, Patch indicated that the 1980 collision of the Coast Guard Cutter Blackthorn was with the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. In fact, it collided with the tanker Capricorn and her anchor ripped through Blackthorn's hull. The tragedy let to the loss of 23 Coast Guard crew members. Patch sincerely regrets the error.