Wednesday, May 23, 2018
News Roundup

Friends, family remember Mike Liberton, advocate for nature and the downtrodden

RIDGE MANOR — Two days after one of his last hospital stays and six weeks before his death from blood cancer, Mike Liberton appeared before the Hernando chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society to give a funny, informative 45-minute presentation on creating backyard bird habitats.

"It was the first time Michael was on an oxygen tank, and the first time we had a speaker at the Native Plant Society with an oxygen tank," said his wife, Cindy Liberton, one of the group's founding members.

"Mike had committed to do something, and he wasn't going to let some little hospitalization stop him."

Mr. Liberton, 63, who died May 18, 71/2 years after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma, made and fulfilled a lot of commitments during his 36 years in Hernando County.

With the state Department of Corrections, he helped people convicted of crimes rebuild their lives and, later, with Guardian ad Litem, he advocated for abused and neglected children.

And as a longtime member of, among other groups, the county's Environmentally Sensitive Lands Committee and the Hernando Audubon Society, he spoke up for the environment, even though it usually meant speaking against powerful people, said fellow Audubon member Joe Murphy.

"Taking those positions in Hernando isn't always easy, but Mike kept plugging away," Murphy said. "As long as he lived in Hernando County, he was actively trying to do something positive on both a hands-on level and a broader policy level."

The hands-on work — including serving as volunteer curator for a Nature Conservancy preserve in northern Hernando — came naturally to Mr. Liberton, an outdoors enthusiast who traveled the world with his binoculars and bird guides.

He completed a so-called big year of birding in 2014, tallying 433 species in North America, and since then regularly headed out to catch sights he had missed the first time around, including, in March, the famous displays of hummingbirds in Arizona's Madera Canyon.

"You could tell Mike really loved birding," said former Hernando Audubon president Linda Vanderveen. "He was very interested and helpful to other birders. And he was just an all-around great guy to hang out with."

After the death of Steve Fickett, the founder of the annual Brooksville Christmas Bird Count, Mr. Liberton took over the job of leading the birding crew that covered Fickett's old eastern Hernando territory.

Like Fickett, he started the day on the southern shore of Bystre Lake. Unlike Fickett, he often paddled a kayak into the lake "and got a lot of birds other people didn't get," said longtime Audubon member Beverly Hansen.

He had loved water, especially flowing water, since his parents started taking him and his six brothers and sisters on weekend trips to the Bourbeuse River, south of their home in Fenton, Mo.

He later traveled the Mississippi, Danube and Amazon rivers and lived in a house on the "little black water" Withlacoochee River, Cindy Liberton said.

His appreciation of nature led him to serve as president of Hernando Audubon, but he didn't think it should be about just appreciation.

"Mike was a talented birder and botanist," Murphy said, "and he believed that if you know how this stuff works, you have an extra duty to step forward and try to protect it."

In 2012, when the county held an unsuccessful referendum to restore a tax dedicated to acquiring environmentally sensitive lands, Mr. Liberton campaigned across the county for its passage.

In the 1990s, he served on an advisory panel for the construction of the Suncoast Parkway, presenting well-researched arguments demonstrating that, in fact, it should not be constructed, Cindy Liberton said.

"Even though this was sort of a rubber-stamp deal, he'd always say, 'I would like to discuss the no-build option.' "

As hard as he fought for nature, he fought even harder for people, "especially what he called the 'downtrodden,' " she said.

He committed to becoming a social worker at age 12 and went on to receive a bachelor's degree in that field from the University of Missouri.

His job as a probation officer, as he saw it, was to talk people through problems with relationships, housing or transportation that might lead them to prison or lead them back to prison, Cindy Liberton said.

"He loved the fieldwork. He loved driving around, chatting with families," she said.

When he started to feel more pressure to issue violations, when the job "became more about incarceration than rehabilitation," she said, he took a pay cut to work as volunteer coordinator and caseworker for Guardian ad Litem, a group that represents abused children in the court system.

"He had a great rapport with the kids," said Sylvia Simmons, senior attorney with the program.

"The teenagers considered him a mentor. To the younger children, he was the big, friendly, white-haired guy," she said.

"He really wanted to make sure these kids were in the best placement. And if a home wasn't safe, he found a safe place. … I really can't say enough good things about Mike."

Mr. Liberton requested that anyone who wants to honor his commitment to kids donate to the Ocala nonprofit organization Voices for Children of North Central Florida.

And in a letter to friends and family, Cindy Liberton urged them to remember her husband's unabashed love of nature by recalling the phrase that for many years served as his phone's voicemail signoff.

"Please pause to hug a tree," she wrote.

Contact Dan DeWitt at [email protected] Follow @ddewitttimes.

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