'Final tribute from a grateful state' for Askew

By Dara Kam, News Service of Florida
Published On: Mar 19 2014 08:38:07 AM EDT
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -

In a flag-draped casket topped by a single white rose, former Gov. Reubin Askew lay in state on Tuesday in the historic Old Capitol, the building where the "man of courage" was inaugurated and served as a state legislator more than four decades ago.

A military honor guard carried the body of Askew, who died Thursday at age 85, past a gantlet of dignitaries including three former governors, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet, the House speaker and the Senate president.

Inside the building, dozens of other high-ranking officials who served beside, beneath or around the Democrat, as well as those whose lives were influenced by him either directly or indirectly, paid their respects to Askew's family, headed by his widow, onetime First Lady Donna Lou Askew. The couple's children Kevin Askew and Angela White and several grandchildren were among those in a reception line near Askew's official portrait, placed at the head of his coffin.

"The final tribute from a grateful state," read cards commemorating the 37th governor's lying in state.

Askew was a seminal figure in Florida's modern history whose policies shaped nearly every facet of the state. Education, the environment, civil rights, the judiciary and "government in the sunshine" were among the legacies the former governor, who served from 1971 to 1979, left behind.

“Gov. Askew would be on the Mount Rushmore of Florida,” said Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Republican. “He ushered Florida into the modern era, kicking and screaming at times. But he had the vision and boldness to do it.”

Askew, a prim, devout Presbyterian with a deep Southern drawl, was born in Muskogee, Okla., and grew up in the Pensacola area. He represented the region in the state House and Senate for 12 years before running for governor in 1970 and defeating incumbent Gov. Claude Kirk, a Republican. Kirk, who died in 2011, was the last governor to lie in state. His son Erik represented the late governor at Tuesday's memorial.

Former governors Bob Martinez, Wayne Mixson and Bob Graham, who also served in the U.S. Senate, were all in attendance, as well as former aides Jim Apthorp, Jim Bacchus, Doug Sessions and Guy Spearman; former state Treasurer Bill Gunter; former FDLE Commissioner Jim York; and former Secretary of State Bruce Smathers.

Bacchus, who went to work for Askew at age 24 after covering him as a reporter, said the last promise the man he considered a second father made of him was to deliver the eulogy at his memorial service, which the former congressman will do on Wednesday.

"This will be a challenge. I know what to say. I just don't know that I'll be able to say it. But he coupled that request with another request: Keep it short. There is an irony in that. … All of us through the years tried and failed many, many times to get him to keep it short," Bacchus, who was also Askew's speechwriter, including during Askew's brief presidential bid in 1984.

Bacchus recounted how Askew would approve 20-minute speeches, many of which he wrote himself, then veer from them and instead "transform the 20 minutes of the speech into 30 or 40 and then digress for another 30 or 40 minutes before concluding." Askew grew even more loquacious before he dropped out of the presidential race, Bacchus said.

"He believed that if he could just talk long enough to any one person they would vote for him," he said. "If I keep it short tomorrow, it will be because I simply won't be able to get the words out."

Martinez said he first met Askew in the 1960s and got to know him as "Reubin Who?" --- the relatively unknown Askew's campaign slogan during his run for governor. Martinez, who lost a bid for mayor of Tampa in 1974, said he had given up on politics after leaving the Hillsborough teachers' union a year later and buying the family business, a large restaurant.

"A month after I bought it, he calls me in the middle of lunch. It was a large restaurant, jammed with people. He said, 'Bobby, I need for you to sit on the Southwest Florida Water Management District board,'" Martinez told reporters Tuesday, adding that he argued with Askew but the late governor, a lawyer, persuaded him to take the post.

"Had he not done that, I suspect being mayor and governor and drug czar would not have followed, frankly," said Martinez, who served as Tampa mayor from 1979 until his election as governor in 1986 and was tapped by President George H.W. Bush as drug czar in 1991.

Askew was a "man of courage," said Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, whose great-grandfather Napoleon Bonaparte Broward served as governor in the early 20th century.

"He did not wait for the issues of his time to be right by anyone else's standards but his own. He was not going to tolerate racism. He was not going to tolerate any injustice or unfairness. And he was willing to put people in very uncomfortable positions to see if they would be fully committed to their call to public service," Atwater said Tuesday.

The Florida Senate also honored Askew with a resolution during floor action on Tuesday.

Senators remembered Askew as a calming influence during the turbulent civil rights era who led efforts to institute a corporate-income tax. As governor, Askew shepherded Florida from a sleepy state into a booming, modern tourism hub. He also appointed the first black Supreme Court justice and pushed through a voter-approved open government "Sunshine Amendment" in part to clean up a state government mired in corruption and scandal.

Sen. Gwen Margolis, a Miami Democrat who was elected to the state House during Askew's first term in office, said Askew integrated the Florida Highway Patrol and increased the homestead exemption to benefit homeowners.

"He was probably the most progressive leader,'' she said, adding later, "I was really awed by Reubin Askew. He was an incredible guy."

Describing Askew as a "consummate Southern gentleman," Margolis concluded by saying, "He was a progressive good old boy from Pensacola."

Bacchus, Askew's son Kevin and Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte will deliver the eulogies at a 2 p.m. memorial service Wednesday at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee. On Thursday, Askew will lie in repose at his former home church, First Presbyterian Church Pensacola and will be buried with full military honors Friday in Pensacola.

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