Service to be held on November 4
Our own Florida Keys Historian Tom Hambright, who died on October 14 at the age of 85, started getting interested in history at his grandmother’s knee while he was still a toddler. His grandmother cared for him while his parents worked 12-hour days during WWII in the cotton mills of his native North Carolina.
“She was from mountain people and she used to tell me stories about the old days, and it got my interest,” Hambright said in an interview marking his retirement last year. “I could have kicked myself later on, because unfortunately I don’t remember one of them. Anyway, that’s where it started, and in high school, I was the best history student.”
Hambright intended to become a history teacher, but wound up in the military, serving in the U.S. Navy for 21 years with appointments in Key West. In 1981, he retired as a Lieutenant Commander and returned to the island and went to work for the Key West Art & Historical Society as a curator. He joined the Monroe County Public Library’s Florida History department in 1985, becoming the county’s official Historian.
“Tom was always inspired by broadcaster Paul Harvey’s phrase ‘the rest of the story,’ and he loved to uncover the deeper, little-known backstories of the events and players,” said Dr. Corey Malcom, who is now the Florida Keys History Center’s Lead Historian. “We understand the Florida Keys and how our island communities came to be much better because of him. Tom may be gone, but he is unforgettable.”
Thomas Leroy Hambright was born February 23, 1938, in Mooresville, North Carolina, to Robert Lee and Rachel (Sims) Hambright. Hambright graduated from Troutman High School in 1956 and Appalachian State Teachers College in Boone, North Carolina, in 1960.
As Monroe County Historian Hambright guided many people in tracing their roots on the island with the help of his wife and assistant Lynda, who died in 2021. He answered questions from journalists and historians and, as a result, landed in numerous dedications and acknowledgements. He and Lynda compiled an index to the Key West Citizen, an invaluable resource for the island.
In the early 1990s, Hambright oversaw the construction of a new wing on the library with a vault to protect the collection. In 1997, he and Lynda started a newspaper column for the Key West Citizen called “Key West 100 Years Ago Today.” The column was so popular it was expanded to “Today In Keys History,” which still runs in the Citizen and on the Florida Keys History Center website.
A popular public speaker, Hambright gave countless talks on Keys history, but his widest reach was online, through the Florida Keys History Center’s image archive on Flickr. Hambright led a team of volunteers who made high-resolution scans, identified them and uploaded them to the site. More than 23,000 images are online and freely available for viewing and downloading. They have been viewed more than 43 million times.
Hambright was named Monroe County Employee of the Year in 1999. In 2016, the city of Key West declared January 5 “Tom Hambright Day” in recognition of his service. In 2017, the Key West Art & Historical Society honored him with the prestigious Scotti Merrill Preservation Award. When he retired in 2022, the county bestowed the title of Historian Emeritus.
A memorial service will be held on Saturday, November 4, at 1 a.m., at The Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea. Reception following in the Klaus-Murphy Center, next to the church. Interment will take place at Southern Keys Cemetery, Big Coppitt Key with full military honors.