November 29, 2020
Cesar Odio, who managed Miami during some of its most turbulent times, dies at 84
 
 
By Howard Cohen
 

Cesar Humberto Odio, who managed Miami during some of the city’s most aggressive growing pains in modern times, has died at 84.

Odio’s son Carlos said his father died early Saturday morning at his Key Biscayne home. 

Odio, who served as Miami’s assistant city manager during the Mariel exodus in 1980 and then as city manager from 1985 to 1996, had a rare and aggressive tumor — a neuroendocrine carcinoma — “that was only discovered three weeks ago,” his son said.

The cancer battle would be one challenge, in a life filled with many, that he could not defeat in the end.

TWICE AN EXILE TO MIAMI

Born in Havana on Jan. 30, 1936, as the eldest of 10 children, Odio exiled twice in Miami. The first time, in the 1950s, he had fought against the Batista regime alongside his parents. He left Cuba for Miami as a 24-year-old father of two with his first wife.

His first job in the Magic City? Washing dishes.

Odio returned to Cuba to run a subsidiary of his father’s trucking business. But when his parents were arrested and jailed for a decade for plotting against Fidel Castro, Odio left for Miami, once again in exile, in 1960, his family said.

Soon he would join Maule Industries, a cement company run by a friend from his first exile: the late Maurice Ferre, who would have his own long, storied run in Miami politics as the city’s first Puerto Rican mayor.

The exile experience gave Odio an empathy characterized his long tenure in public service, his family and colleagues said. This trait would counterbalance a public fall from grace that found Odio incarcerated for a year in federal prison for blocking an FBI probe into corruption at City Hall in 1996.

“Cesar was a player in various chapters of both the Cuban exile story and Miami,” his family said in a prepared obituary. “Maurice Ferre — his contemporary and colleague in both the private and public sector — has been called a ‘father of modern Miami.’ Cesar was more akin to a coach, focused on personnel and preparation, and seeing his team through both wins and losses.”

Odio’s former colleagues say that that is one meaningful way in which they will fondly recall him.

‘THIS WAS A CUBAN THING’

Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez was Miami’s first Cuban-born mayor. His first eight years in that office, starting in the mid-1980s, coincided with Odio’s run as city manager.

When the Mariel boatlift happened in May 1980, Suarez met up with Odio at what was then known as Tent City, an area under Interstate 95 in downtown Miami that temporarily sheltered hundreds of Cuban refugees who had arrived by Castro’s boats.

Odio worked for Miami for more than 16 years, including 11 as its city manager. During his time, Odio, the Miami Herald reported, “became one of the best-known exile figures in the country.”

He organized aid for thousands of Cuban refugees after the Mariel boatlift, helped quell riots in Miami in the tumultuous 1980s and in a federal prison where Cuban detainees fought over living conditions. 

“The thing that made him remarkable was he was the best manager to be in a crisis,” Suarez said of Odio. “On that issue I remember I was not mayor. I was a frustrated aspirant of the city commission and had lost one of many elections and I went to Tent City by the expressway to see some friends of mine who were there as volunteers. Bleeding heart liberals on immigration — and he was that, too, by the way. And watching César as assistant city manager, and all the volunteers, and the spirit, the spirit of giving, the spirit of treating these folks as the most important people in our community, was really heartwarming.”

Odio would later say his family experience and the jailing of his parents in Cuba under Castro inspired his actions.

“I felt that I had an obligation to help my people out. I knew my people. This was a Cuban thing,” Odio told the Herald in 2005. “Every turn that I took was with one thing in mind: Let’s get this problem solved.”
 

HELPING IMMIGRANTS

Later, when Odio was the city manager and Suarez the mayor, Odio displayed that compassion again. This time, for a group of about 125 Nicaraguan nationals who were crammed into a two-story home on 12th Avenue in Little Havana, Suarez recalls.

Odio went to Suarez to seek his “endorsement” to move these Nicaraguans into Bobby Maduro Stadium to shelter and receive food and medicine.

“These are not decent living conditions,” Odio told the mayor, Suarez remembers. He wanted an OK to move them.

“It wasn’t an approval, it didn’t get voted on by the commission as a whole, but he wanted my green light to move them to a city facility,” Suarez said, “My only caveat was, ‘Make sure you notify the government you are doing this because you don’t want to seem like an accomplice to violating immigration laws.’”

Odio felt he had to tell Suarez he didn’t know if he could do that. There was this matter of urgency. Suarez supported Odio, who would have to take the blame if the Feds balked.

Ultimately, the move went forward and Suarez and Odio earned approval to use parts of the stadium to also shelter about 125 homeless Miami residents temporarily.

“These are some of his positives,” Suarez said of Odio. “He did it with a great, loving and embracing heart. Classic César Odio. He was a hands-on guy, a compassionate man. He had his flaws — we all know about it — but in these two instances he showed that his heart was in the right place.”

HURRICANE ANDREW RECOVERY

Frank Rollason, Miami-Dade’s current director of Emergency Management, came up under Odio and maintained a friendship. The two saw each other for the last time on Wednesday night at Odio’s home. They both knew it would be for the last time. “It was good for him. It was good for me,” Rollason said.

“To me, he was a great administrator. He was city manager for over 15 years, which says a lot when you look at the cycling of managers,” Rollason said. “He was a good mentor and a good friend.”

Odio appointed Rollason as the manager for hurricanes and recovery for Miami after Hurricane Andrew devastated South Miami-Dade in August 1992.

“I was the fire marshal at the time and he said, ‘I want you to take over recovery from Hurricane Andrew.’ I said, ‘I don’t know anything about FEMA’ His reply was, ‘Get a book!’” Rollason said.

“I got a book. And I did that for over seven years,” Rollason said. “He was just a good person who looked out for you and cared about you.”

Two months before Andrew, in June 1992, a Miami Herald editorial opined, “Mr. Odio has proven to be a natural leader, adept at rising above the cumbersome politics inherent in his position, eager to get out from behind his City Hall desk and into neighborhoods that need to know someone pays attention to their concerns.”

ODIO’S TENURE AND FALL

During Odio’s tenure, Miami scored the Miami Heat basketball franchise, first Summit of the Americas, visits from Pope John Paul II and Queen Elizabeth II.

A champion rower and coach, Odio co-founded the Miami Rowing Club and, in retirement, coached Barry University’s Men’s Crew team.

There were turbulent times, too, during his time in Miami office.

Four years after earning applause for his work in helping rebuild Miami after Andrew, Odio was the first to be nabbed in the FBI’s Operation Greenpalm investigation into corruption at Miami’s City Hall in September 1996.

Odio was indicted on charges of scheming to skim $12,500 a month from an insurance company that was doing business with the city. Odio resigned and served a year at the federal prison camp at Eglin Air Force Base in Pensacola. He was released in October 1998.

LIFE AFTER POLITICS

Odio worked on rebuilding his reputation, joining his brother Javier at Tropical Development consulting on construction projects in South Florida. He also coached rowing, mentored young athletes, and enjoyed family time.

“After his retirement, César embraced his role as a giving patriarch, a loving husband and a doting grandfather known as Beto,” his family said in a statement. “We are proud of the work he did at the city of Miami for 17 years. He was a problem-solver who believed deeply in the power of government to help people, when led by public servants who put solutions ahead of politics.”

A “super Democrat,” his son Carlos said. Odio’s “treatment of refugees from Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua, of undocumented farmworkers at risk in a storm, and of poor Miamians left without food after Hurricane Andrew, to name a few” derived from Odio’s belief, his family said, “that all people deserve the same welcome and care he felt his family had received in this country.”

SURVIVORS AND SERVICES

Odio’s survivors include his wife, María Antonieta Prío; children Julia, Maria Cristina (Kiki)), Carlos, and Sarah; 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his son, Barry University basketball coach Cesar Odio Jr., in 2016.

The family plans a celebration of life at a date to be determined.