Former Gov. Reubin Askew’s body lies in state at historic Old Capitol

They came by the hundreds to pay final tribute to Reubin Askew, one of the most admired leaders in Florida history, as his body lay in state Tuesday at the historic Old Capitol.

They walked up the steep wooden steps and said goodbye to Florida’s 37th governor, his casket covered with an American flag and a single white rose, his official portrait displayed a few feet away.

Askew died Thursday at age 85.

“He just had an aura of kindness and sincerity about him,” said Diane Scholz, who works at Florida State University, where for two decades Askew, a proud FSU alum, brought the same passion to teaching public policy courses as he did to politics.

“He changed the landscape for us. He stood tall, literally and figuratively,” said Helen Levine, a vice chancellor at USF’s St. Petersburg campus, who recalled how moved her parents were when Askew, an obscure state senator from Pensacola, won the governorship in 1970.

For the next eight years, he guided Florida through the turbulence of campus unrest, school desegregation and political scandals while working to make state government more open and demanding that elected officials earn the public’s trust.

Under an overcast sky, members of a military honor guard, in crisp uniforms and white gloves, carried Askew’s casket into the Old Capitol, trailed by Gov. Rick Scott and First Lady Ann Scott, Cabinet members, state Supreme Court justices and legislative leaders.

Small cards printed for the ceremony called it “the final tribute from a grateful state.”

Askew’s widow, Donna Lou, their children, Kevin and Angela, and several grandchildren formed a short receiving line on the Capitol’s second floor.

Former Govs. Bob Graham, Wayne Mixson and Bob Martinez attended along with several dozen former state officials and friends of the Askew family.

Former four-term state attorney general Bob Butterworth said it was fitting that Askew was honored in the Old Capitol, now a history museum and an enduring link to a different era, when almost all legislators were white men, the Senate had spittoons and a rural clique of lawmakers known as the pork choppers wielded power far beyond their numbers.

“Walking in here, you have the feeling that he’s still here,” Butterworth said. “It’s so symbolic, because he’s sort of between the old and new Florida. He’s the bridge.”

George Sheldon, who got his political start as a young aide to Askew the state senator, began weeping as he saw so many former colleagues.

“It’s good to see Florida giving the tribute that they’re giving,” Sheldon said.

“I miss him so much,” said former U.S. Rep. Jim Bacchus, who was a young speech writer for Askew and will be one of three speakers at a memorial service Wednesday in Tallahassee.

It was a subdued occasion, but not sad, and old friends laughed as they swapped stories about “Reubin the Good.”

He was remembered as the stubborn back room dealer who hated to lose a fight; the strait-laced dorm counselor at UF who railed against profanity; the teetotaler who wouldn’t serve alcohol to Vice President Spiro Agnew in the Governor’s Mansion.

Former FSU President Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, who served in the Legislature when Askew was governor, recalled his friend as someone who didn’t like to get up early but liked to stay up late, when he would plot political strategy.

“If you were at home and had a couple of drinks, and the phone rang, your dread was it was going to be Gov. Askew, giving you an assignment,” D’Alemberte said.

Former Secretary of State Bruce Smathers recalled Askew’s tough side and his willingness to play hardball to get his way.

“He was humble before God, but not before the rest of us,” Smathers said. “He was tough when he needed to be. The guy was a very formidable opponent.”

Diane McCarthy, who has worked for the state auditor general’s office for 35 years, said she was grateful for the chance to pay respects and felt that as a state worker she had to say farewell.

“He was a great man,” she said. “He led this state very well.”

Herald/Times staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this report.

Related stories from Miami Herald