For decades, Bill Kanouff has been a staple in the Tampa Bay LGBT community. The business owner, volunteer, former Pride organizer and activist has always been at the forefront of change in Tampa Bay's march forward. He's always been fascinating and inspiring, but in 2012 Kanouff faced the unthinkable. He literally had to learn how to walk again—and he did so with the same determination he's always had.
That's why Watermark selected him as Tampa Bay's most remarkable person of 2012.
Kanouff's life changed the night of Nov. 11, 2011. That's the night the activist, volunteer, business owner and Tampa Bay staple fought for his life, survived, but lost a leg following a motorcycle accident.
“I was coming home on my motorcycle that night,” Kanouff remembers. “And a car made a sudden left hand turn and ran me over, trapping my right leg between his vehicle and my motorcycle.”
Kanouff was thrown from his motorcycle, over the vehicle, and he tried to brace himself for his impact with the hard pavement.
“I put my arms out, and ended up shattering both of them,” he said. “Broke multiple ribs, cracked my sternum, and punctured both my lungs with one of the broken ribs.”
The Tampa resident and former owner of Tomes and Treasures bookstore was immediately rushed to Tampa General Hospital’s trauma unit where doctors worked to save his life. In the end, they were able to repair most of his injuries. However his right leg had been so badly damaged that it could not be saved, and was amputated.
“The circulatory system that was feeding the tissues in my leg just couldn’t be rebuilt,” said Kanouff.
When Kanouff awoke and was faced with the truths of his situation, he took a breath and immediately began to move forward.
“I’m a very factual person, so I immediately started gathering information as to what my situation was exactly,” he recalled. “I called a friend of mine who works at the School of Prosthetics to find out information as to what replacements were available.”
He immediately began working towards getting healthy and stronger, and making his way out of the hospital.
“I dealt with it very intellectually when it first happened,” he says. “I made sure I had an elastic exercise strap so I could work-out my remaining leg and get it back to normal.”
Kanouff felt in his heart that giving up or letting the accident defeat him would be overlooking and disregarding the most important fact in the aftermath—he was alive.
“The first responding officer to arrive on the scene of my accident called the coroner first, and the ambulance second,” says Kanouff. “The facts are, in my mind, if I were meant to go, I would have been gone. Since I wasn’t gone, I was still meant to be here, so I had to get my act together and go forward.”
A generous spirit
Kanouff has spent his life looking ahead, giving back to the community, helping others, and maintaining a consistently positive outlook on life. For these things alone, Kanouff is an inspiring role model.
The 54-year-old was born and raised in the small farm town of Cambria, N.Y., situated between Buffalo and Toronto. It was here that Kanouff first learned about the importance of giving back to one’s community, and began to understand the sense of accomplishment it brings.
“Community-giving-back, for me, dates all the way back to when I was a kid,” says Kanouff. “My mother used to take us to retirement homes to bring gifts and to sing. The years there wasn’t much money, we would bring apple pies and Christmas carols.”
Kanouff hasn’t stopped volunteering and giving back. In college, he once again volunteered at a retirement home. In 1979 he volunteered for New York City Pride at the 10th anniversary of Stonewall. In 1984 he was part of the march on the Republican National Party in San Francisco.
“I’ve been an activist all my life,” says Kanouff. “It’s part of giving back to the community, the giving of yourself.”
In December 1986, Kanouff moved to Tampa, where he experienced a culture shock.
“I left the farm at 17 years old and went into the city, and from there moved to San Francisco, then back to New York, then Tampa,” Kanouff explains. “I was tainted by having lived in those two progressive cities, and I felt there were a lot of things lacking in this area, like a positive healthy intellectual atmosphere for the gay community.”
One of his biggest steps in establishing this was his purchase of Tomes and Treasures bookstore in Hyde Park, a business he operated for nearly two decades.
“The store was getting ready to close, and they just couldn’t find a buyer,” Kanouff said. “I realized the importance of a gay bookstore, so I ended up taking it over, expanding it, growing it, and making it cost-effective.”
In addition to his business ventures, Kanouff was involved in the founding of Equality Florida as well as being on the board of Pride Tampa Bay and the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. He was a founding fundraiser for the Ybor Youth Clinic in 2011.
In his 26 years in the Tampa Bay area, Kanouff has been an integral part in the growth of the LGBT community, and he now looks on the progression with pride and happiness.
“When I was chair of the Gay Pride Parade in Tampa, Jane Castor used to walk a beat and she would help coordinate all the lesbian officers to help with the gay pride march. Now she’s the chief of police,” Kanouff said. “I mean, as a community we have progressed leaps and bounds in the last 20 years, and the city has become much more progressive and much more welcoming.”
Taking new steps
For many, the passing of a calendar year is a routine event. But for Kanouff, 2012, will always be one of his most challenging, even if he won't admit it.
While he found minor frustrations in re-learning how to do certain things, like walk on an electronic, prosthetic leg that continuously learns his motions and habits, the strong-willed and independent Kanouff also had to learn that it was ok to ask for help.
“It was a complete shift for me to have to ask people for help,” he said. “But it was really good in my own personal growth to have to do that because no one is an island.”
With his positive attitude pushing him forward, and with the help of his friends and family, Kanouff dove right back into life. Within two weeks of being released from the hospital, he was back in the gym on a new leg.
From our media partners at Watermark