In a large church nearly filled to capacity, hundreds gathered Wednesday to honor the memory of Reubin Askew, the governor who guided Florida into a modern era with courage, conviction and grace.
Friends remembered Askew with insight and humor as a reformer who cared about the downtrodden, sought racial harmony, honest government and challenged people to be better.
The longest and most moving eulogy was given by Jim Bacchus, who quit his job as a newspaper reporter in Orlando to become Askew’s 24-year-old speech writer, learning through many attempts the skill of writing a speech in Askew’s voice. Bacchus, who trudged through the fields of Iowa and snowbanks of New Hampshire with Askew the 1984 long-shot presidential hopeful, later served in Congress and as a judge for the World Trade Organization.
Facing a front-row crowd that included Gov. Rick Scott and many elected Republicans, the Democrat sought to capture the message of Askew’s life.
“Florida is a special place, and it becomes more special still, and it can be as special as any other place in the world if we come together and work together as one state. So bring people together, don’t pull them apart,” Bacchus said in a stern tone of voice that sounded reminiscent of Askew. “And lead. What good is it to be in public office if you don’t lead, if you don’t take a chance, if you don’t tell people what they need to hear and not just what they want to hear.”
The 90-minute service at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee drew a large political crowd that included much of the Legislature, all three Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices and five of Florida’s six living former governors: Bob Graham, Wayne Mixson, Bob Martinez, Buddy MacKay and Charlie Crist. Former Gov. Jeb Bush had previous commitments in Tennessee and did not attend.
Dozens of former aides and political associates also were there, and some of whom no doubt learned for the first time that Askew’s code name, used by law enforcement agencies on security details, was “Integrity.”
The program for the “service of remembrance” showed a smiling Askew wearing a garnet-and-gold tie, and his bullheadness and loquaciousness were not forgotten, either.
“He could talk an owl out of a cypress tree,” said his long-time friend, former Florida State University president Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte.
Askew was so loyal to his alma mater that when he was governor, he demanded that FSU football coach Bobby Bowden receive the same salary as the coach of the arch-rival Florida Gators.
Askew, 85, died last Thursday after suffering a stroke, which followed pneumonia and hip replacement surgery. His pastor said Askew faced death with dignity and recalled a conversation with his widow, Donna Lou.
“She said that Reubin told her at the last, ‘It’s time to go,’ ” Dr. Robert Sullivan said.
Kevin Askew described his father’s sense of humor by saying Askew offered to dispense advice one of two ways.
“He said, ‘As your attorney, I advise you to do this, and as your father, I advise you to do that.’ But sometimes the two opinions clashed, and what do you do then?” the son said. “He said, ‘Accept my advice as a lawyer, and it’s $500 an hour. As a father, it’s free.’ ”
A Democrat, Askew was the first governor to serve successive terms, in the 1970s; and led successful statewide citizen initiative campaigns to force elected officials to disclose their personal finances and to prevent casino gambling; and appointed the first black Supreme Court justice of a Southern state, Joseph Hatchett of Clearwater, who attended the service.
“He changed the color of the judiciary in Florida,” said state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.
Askew knew great success in politics and crushing defeat. His bid for the Democratic presidential nomination ended in disappointment in New Hampshire and was another race where he didn’t tell audiences what they wanted to hear, whether labor union leaders or pro-choice activists. He abandoned a 1988 U.S. Senate bid in disgust over the growing preoccupation with fundraising.
D’Alemberte said that what set Askew apart from other leaders in Florida was that he was one of only two, along with Gov. LeRoy Collins, whom people “truly loved.”
The lawyer and educator said people admired Askew for taking strong stands. He supported busing to achieve school desegregation when it wasn’t popular, appointed African-Americans to high office and repeatedly went over the heads of a reluctant Legislature and took his case directly to the people, including winning public approval of the state’s corporate profits tax in 1971.
Former Gov. Martinez, a former Tampa mayor, described what set Askew apart from most politicians: “He did things that he thought were right, no matter what the obstacles might be. He sort of put his head down and went in that direction to get it done.”
On Thursday, a hearse carrying Askew in a flag-draped casket will leave Tallahassee at 1 p.m. Eastern time for Pensacola, the Panhandle city where he was raised by a single mother and where he first won a seat in the state House in 1958. The hearse is expected to arrive at about 3:30 p.m. Central time in Pensacola where Askew will lie in repose at his former church, First Presbyterian Pensacola at 33 E. Gregory St. The public can pay respects from 4-8 p.m. Central time.
En route to Pensacola, Askew’s hearse will be met on the Interstate 10 bridge over Escambia Bay by the county sheriff’s office, which will escort Askew on Interstate 110, known as Reubin Askew Parkway.
He will be laid to rest on Friday with full military honors at Bayview Memorial Park, 3351 Scenic Highway (U.S. 90 East) in Pensacola. The graveside service will begin at 11 a.m.Central time and is open to the public.