Miami-Dade County

Janet Reno’s early years in Miami: Peacocks, bare feet, stubborn independence

Janet Reno greets friends and supporters during a celebration of her 64th birthday at her home in Kendall.
Janet Reno greets friends and supporters during a celebration of her 64th birthday at her home in Kendall. AP

This story was originally written when Janet Reno ran for Florida governor in 2002. Reno died early Monday at age 78.

Long before there was State Attorney Janet Reno, or U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, or even aspiring Florida governor Janet Reno, there was "Janny."

Oldest child of two competing newspaper reporters. Proud owner of a pinto pony named Tony. Voted "most intelligent'' at Coral Gables High, class of '56.

She grew up tall, rangy and usually barefoot, a Florida farm girl with alligators in the bathtub, peacocks screaming in the yard and a single Reno family rule to follow: Tell the truth and don't cheat.

READ MORE: Janet Reno dies at 78

From her mother, Reno learned determination. From her father, kindness. And from her rambunctious Reno siblings — four children living in the house their mother built at the edge of the Everglades — she developed a thick skin and a taste for new frontiers.

It was a childhood shaped by strong opinions and sharp wit, big personalities and stubborn independence.

And it was the perfect background for a life in Florida politics.

"I have a picture of her in my mind when she was just a girl, standing so stalwart and determined," says Miami historian Helen Muir, who at 91 can remember the day Reno was born. "I think that at that moment she looked like exactly what she was, and still is."

The image of Reno's marooned-in-the-tropics upbringing has become South Florida legend over the years, a tale whittled and polished in countless political speeches into one enduring symbol: the house.

The Reno ranch. The old homestead. The built-by-hand, hurricane tested, un-airconditioned, rambling Cracker-style house that served as the launching pad for Reno's career and remains her emotional touchstone.

Once located as far west as her mother could build without hitting swamp land, the house now sits — unchanged and unbowed — in the heart of Kendall in suburban Miami, a leafy oasis at the end of an unmarked driveway. Ungainly on the outside, an unruly jumble on the inside, it was sturdy enough to weather Hurricane Andrew with the loss of just one shingle. (The lost shingle is nailed to the wall by the kitchen, enscribed: "Andrew, Aug. 24, '92.")

As political metaphors go, this one is priceless.

And these days, a little threadbare. In eight years as attorney general and 15 as state attorney in Miami, Reno has summoned up "the ranch'' as proof of her Old Florida roots until the house has become virtually indistinguishable from the woman herself.

"Mother built it, and Daddy helped with the heavy work when he came home from work at night," Reno says whenever she's asked about the house. "That taught me that you can do anything you put your mind to, if you have some time."

The Reno house

Drive down the unmarked dirt track, around the corner from the funeral home just off Kendall Drive. Park anywhere in front of the low-slung house, unpainted except for teal-colored wooden shutters.

Step onto the famous screened porch, site of so many Reno gatherings, and take a look around.

Instantly, it becomes apparent: The house is no political confection. No spinmeister, no image maker, no consultant could possibly dream this up.

Not the haphazard bookshelves groaning with volumes of Florida history. Not the family scrapbooks scattered on the desk, showing a young, slim Reno in black-and-white, standing barefoot with pants legs rolled up and pickax in hand. Not the manatee bone in the corner or the ship's porthole in one wall or the saggy furniture or the rips in the screen on the porch that runs nearly the length of the house.

Certainly not the color photo of a smiling Elían and his father, sent to Reno after the boy's return to Cuba and propped up next to her computer.

"There's a lot of history here," says Mark Reno, Janet's brother, who lives in a chickee hut in the backyard, screened from the main house by a thick grove of gumbo limbo and live oak trees.

As he speaks, he gestures down the long porch, taking in the lush, green back yard that covers almost four acres. The tract was originally 21 acres, portions sold off to pay for the Reno children's college educations, including Janet's from Cornell University and Harvard Law School.

He has been taking a group of reporters on an informal tour of the house during a party for Reno's 64th birthday. By the end of the party, Reno will be in the backyard playing volleyball in a dress competing against guests half her age.

"Have you seen this?" Mark Reno picks up a family photo album filled with shots taken by an old Brownie camera, showing Reno children against a backdrop of palm trees as they work on the house.

"See this one? That's Janny," he says. "And that one is Maggy, and there's me. Looking at these, you can chart the progress of the house."

And with it, Reno's own path.

‘No lying or cheating’

The story of the house is well-known in South Florida:

▪  How Reno's tough-willed and idiosyncratic mother, Jane Wood Reno, built the place almost single-handedly in the late '40s — digging the foundation, laying the bricks, wiring the walls — and teaching her four children the power of determination and hard work.

▪  How she paid for the building, $25 at a time, and learned constructions skills at the same time by writing house-of-the-week feature stories for the Miami News under the male pseudonym Hal Hand. The topic depended on her needs. House needed wiring? She wrote a story involving an electrician. Woodworking? The next story would include a carpenter.

▪  And how she built her house to last, teaching her children not to fear the ferocious hurricanes that are so much a part of life in Florida, but to respect them.

"Nobody was ever panicked when they talked about hurricanes when we were children," remembers Maggy Hurchalla, Reno's younger sister and a former Martin County commissioner for 10 years. "They just talked about 'em as a fact of life in Florida. So we grew up with that attitude."

They also absorbed the can-do style of their mother who made the decision to build the house with no construction experience.

"We had outgrown the house we were in, so she decided we needed a new one. She did it all except pour the slab," Reno says today, "because that was the one thing she thought that if she made a mistake, she couldn't fix it."

Reno says she helped shingle the roof and she could still get up there and fix it if necessary. "But I don't put myself in the same category as my mother."

Those who doubt the oft-repeated tale of the construction meet with blistering response from Hurchalla.

"Now that just makes me mad," Hurchalla says. "I was there when Mother dug the foundation. I was there when she wired the house. I helped lay the bricks. We all did. I'm an eyewitness, and I know it's true."

She says the Reno children's uninhibited upbringing has been exaggerated over the years — but not by much.

While the Renos weren't alligator wrestlers, as some have reported, they were taught by a family friend how to to put alligators to sleep, she says.

"You just put them on their backs. We all know how," Hurchalla says. "Even Mother. But you only do it with the small ones."

And brother Mark did bring home every animal around, she confirms.

"No lying or cheating — those were the rules. But no one told Mark he couldn't keep a skunk as a pet," she says. "We did tell him he had to bathe before he could come dance with us."

Another story that's true: Their mother did put peacock eggs into duck nests, hatching the brightly colored birds as a surprise for her children. Descendants of the peacocks, all named Horace, still roam the grounds today.

The children all went to after-school cotillion classes to learn manners and ballroom dancing.‘‘They were very elegant people there, and here come the Renos, trying to pull on their clothes," Hurchalla laughed.

In school, Reno was active, an honor society member, president of the debate club, member of the Girls Athletic Association. In her graduation photo, she is pictured in pearls and a scoop-necked dress. Her sister Maggy says Reno taught her to walk in high heels.

She excelled in the sciences and would later major in chemistry in college.

"I remember thinking her mother would probably like her to go into medicine," said former teacher Vera Porfiri. "But she was also an excellent debater, and it was no surprise she eventually went into the law."

As children, the four Renos — Janet, Robert, Maggy and Mark — were each other's best friends because they were far from any neighbors and the nearest store was five miles away. As adults, they have remained close.

Reno says her sister is her best friend, a down-to-earth reminder of what's real in the sometimes deceptive world of politics.

"I would call my sister in the middle of some great furor in Washington and she would say, ‘nobody's interested in that down here, they're interested in this, this and this,' more human issues, not political rhetoric," Reno said.

The Reno siblings delight in taking each other down a peg.

Says Hurchalla: "It's pretty much impossible to embarrass us, because whatever the tale is, we've usually already told it ourselves."

Coming home

In Washington, Reno envisioned exactly what she would do if she were home: "Walk onto the porch, put on comfortable clothes, walk barefoot through the woods and then sit on the porch to read and ponder," she says carefully, each word measured and weighed.

She is clearly at ease here, sitting under a slowly spinning fan on the porch in a long, loose dress, cool brick underfoot, surrounded by a comfortable clutter of books and momentos piled high from a career that has taken her from Miami to Washington and back again.

On this morning, the Reno house is still waking, even the famous roaming peacocks keeping their peace as the household recovers from a late night on the campaign trail.

With a few weeks to the primary, Reno's campaign for governor is about two clicks from full throttle, and a campaign staffer naps barefoot on a couch while another clutches a cup of coffee.

The former attorney general has pulled up a chair, squarely lined up to the dining room table and, leaning back, is relaxing for a moment on the long screened porch that serves as both living room and dining room. A light breeze filters through the screens and flutters papers on the table, and the morning sun filters through the gumbo limbo tree behind her.

Most of the chairs at the table are mismatched, scarred from use. One, though, stands out for its stark formality: the black arm chair Reno used as attorney general in Washington, with the U.S. Justice Department seal stitched into its high back. It sits in the open air, exposed to the elements like everything else on the porch.

Reno owns the house now, inheriting it after her mother died in 1992/ of lung cancer.

When her mother began to fail, Reno took her on a series of trips, including a road trip in an RV. In the end, her mother died here, "in my arms," Reno says.

Across the room, a book written by Reno's mother sits on the shelf. The Hell with Politics: The Life and Writings of Jane Wood Reno.

What does Reno remember most about her mother? "To live life to the fullest."

The Reno place has an easy air to it, as though remnants of the many parties it has hosted remain in the bricks and timbers. The trampoline that has bounced generations of children still sits in the back corner of the yard, and next to it, the volleyball net is up and ready.

A scientific-looking device mounted on the wall turns out to be "Janny's junior high science project," a barometer that actually worked, back when it had mercury in it. A painting shows Janet paddling down a river in a canoe, while a large framed picture shows Mark, tow-headed and prepubescent, poking his finger into the mouth of turtle.

In Reno's bedroom, with the carved wooden bed that once belonged to her grandmother, the surfaces not covered in books and mementos (a paperweight says: Never, never, never, never quit) are draped with clothing and suitcases and other evidence of her time on the campaign trail. Three pairs of identical-looking flat black pumps are lined up by the door.

On the wall: a color photo of Reno on the day she was named state attorney. Her mother, a head shorter, grins up at her daughter's face with undisguised glee. Her brother Mark says she has "not quite had time to finish moving in," since her return from the nation's capital. A metal rolling rack sits in a breezeway nearby, with women's suits and dresses hanging from it.

But for Reno, whether or not her clothes are unpacked doesn't much matter. She is home.

"I love to sit here on the porch and just look around and absorb and think," she says. "It's peaceful."

‘Mother scooped Daddy’

Once, the land around the house flooded.

"It was so high there was only one dry spot to milk the cow and Daddy said we'd better not, because that's where all the snakes would go," Reno recounts. "But we milked that cow somehow.

"We had horses and cows and chickens and snakes and alligators and raccoons. Daddy was always bringing home animals," Reno said. "One time he came home from a bar with donkeys that he'd gotten from a man there. So then we had donkeys."

Her father, Henry, was a police reporter for The Miami Herald for 43 years. Every morning, she said, the Reno children awoke to the sound of their father's round of phone calls to the police stations — after the paper paid to string a phone line far enough west to reach the house.

"Anything happen overnight?" he would ask. "Got anything for me?"

Her mother was a writer, too, for the competing paper, the Miami News.

"Mother scooped Daddy twice," Reno says, with a glint of humor. "He was so proud."

Janet Wood Reno was a force in her own right, and she taught her daughters that women didn't have to follow the traditional roles.

"Daddy figured pretty early on that the female members of the family were going to do what they wanted," Hurchalla said.

He was known to sit with the family while wearing headphones to listen to classical music while the rest of the group debated the issues of the day. He cultivated roses and would send the blooms in boxes with holes punched in the sides to his daughters when they were away at college.

"I guess he thought they needed to breathe," shrugged Hurchalla, amused.

If Reno inherited her more remote tendencies from Henry Reno, there is little doubt that her mother imbued her with a determination to walk her own path.

"Her mother was, some might say, rather eccentric," historian Muir said. "But Janet was always so understanding and loving. She was awfully good about her mother."

When Reno was named to the Hall of Fame at her high school, the school erred slightly in the award, pronouncing Reno valedictorian of her class, said Joan Reitsma, a former teacher at the school who knew Reno.

"Her mother was insistent: Janet was salutatorian, not valedictorian," Reitsma said, laughing. "That plaque was taken back and redone."

Reitsma said the Reno children — she knew Janet, Maggy and Robert — were bright and ‘‘charismatic."

But always, she said, it was their mother at center stage. "She was outrageously charming and out of the box on everything. She was wonderful, with this marvelous sense of humor. Her children grew up respecting that," Reitsma said.

Ask Reno if her mother supported her ambitions and an amused look comes across her face. "Mother always said we should have been disco dancers," Reno says, deadpan.

Then, a slow smile. "She said she couldn't understand why my sister and I wanted to go into politics. It was her way of spoofing us."

No doubt, then, she would have been proud of the Janet Reno Dance Party fundraiser, held at Level nightclub on South Beach in July, when Reno took the floor and boogied with crowd.

Reno shakes her head with a laugh. "Mother would have had a few..." she pauses, then comes up with the phrase, "well-chosen words for that."

Like?

Reno thinks for a moment. "Showoff."

She allows herself a small smile.

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