‘A Voice for a Community That Didn’t Have One’
Lealman community activist Ray Neri died earlier this month. A memorial service was held Wednesday (Jan. 11) at the Veterans of Foreign Wars where he had presided over meetings of the Lealman Community Association.
Special to TB Reporter
LEALMAN – Many of Pinellas’ powerful political elite came Wednesday to honor a man who spent his life trying to give a voice to the county’s least powerful residents.
Ray Neri, 79, died January 3, 2017. Mr. Neri, who retired in his mid-40s, spent much of his later years advocating for his neighbors in the unincorporated Lealman area. Lealman, located generally between Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg, has some of the poorest residents in Pinellas County.
“He fought for the distressed and the forgotten. He was their voice,” the Rev. Harold Paxton said. Paxton, a former Kenneth City mayor, was a close friend of Mr. Neri and collaborated with him on many projects.
Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long agreed, saying, “He became a voice for a community that really didn’t have one.”
They were speaking Wednesday (Jan. 11) during a memorial service for Mr. Neri.
Mr. Neri, a native of New York, moved to Lealman as a teenager. He served 10 years in the U.S. Navy and, after leaving, came back home to attend the University of Tampa. He started working at Zales jewelry store and worked his way up to regional manager.
But it was after he retired, that Mr. Neri came into his own. In the late 1990s to early 2000s, Pinellas County turned its head toward Lealman with the idea of trying to revitalize the area. County redevelopment officials held public meetings and Mr. Neri attended.
With so much to do, he was hooked. It started with a neighborhood canvas and meetings asking what residents wanted their community to be. As the community came together, Mr. Neri gradually became the leader and the voice of Lealman.
Early community efforts centered on cleaning up the community and on lighting it. Eventually, residents got street lights and garbage service provided by one company rather than a hodgepodge of collection times and companies. Lealman still has the only city-style garbage service in unincorporated Pinellas. Community clean ups, which continued to this day, took more than 100,000 tons of trash and garbage out of the area, not including the regular trash pickup.
Mr. Neri’s advocacy for his neighborhood gained full strength with a battle against annexation. Nearby cities were accused of cherry picking properties with a high-tax value and leaving poorer properties behind to bear the brunt of fire taxes.
Mr. Neri’s advocacy helped convince Pinellas’ Legislative Delegation to pass laws to protect the Lealman area from unwanted annexations. But before the law passed, Neri and residents flirted with the idea of becoming a city or of merging with nearby Kenneth City.
Mr. Neri also successfully advocated for cleaning up and improving a local park and creating a new park out of an unused chunk of land.
His success earned him the nickname “Mayor of Lealman” and Denny’s restaurant, where he frequented, became “Lealman City Hall.”
Had he lived, Mr. Neri would have continued advocating for sidewalks, adequate fire hydrants, a recreation center and a swimming pool for Lealman’s children.
Children were at the forefront where Mr. Neri was concerned. He told former Pinellas County Commissioner Neil Brickfield, now the executive director of the Pinellas Sheriff’s Police Athletic League program, that he loved hearing the sound of children playing.
And he loved talking about his grandchildren. A grandson who drove race cars. A granddaughter who was incredibly smart. His face would light with a special expression when he spoke of them.
His eyes would soften when he’d talk about his wife, Laura. He always wondered how he was so lucky as to be married to her.
Mr. Neri is survived by his wife, Laura; his children, Joe Neri, Perri Zimmerman and Martin Neri; stepchildren, Joseph Schiavone and Shannon Schiavone; and grandchildren, Joelle Neri-Dettera, Nick Neri, and Tori.
The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Pinellas Sheriff’s Police Athletic League, 3755 46th Ave. N, St. Petersburg, FL 33714.
Ray Neri | Lealman | Pinellas Sheriff’s PAL | Lealman Community Association | TB Reporter
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