He spends weekday mornings in his Holland & Knight law firm office — except for Fridays when he keeps his mind sharp playing bridge. John F. Germany, 89, prefers to keep active, he says, if nothing more than "meddling in other people's business." The former circuit judge and lifelong resident of the Tampa Bay area has watched many things change, some under his influence. This past week, he was grieving the loss of Sam Gibbons, who died Wednesday at age 92. "I feel empty," Germany said. He called friend and fellow attorney Steve Yerrid, and asked to meet him for lunch: "I want to hold your hand and talk about Sam." Tampa Bay Times staff writer Elisabeth Parker caught up with Germany to talk about his accomplishments, and the passing of Gibbons, in a 41st-floor conference room at Holland & Knight that bears Germany's name.
Tell me your favorite memory of Sam Gibbons.
It was when I ran his first legislative campaign in 1952. I remember that well. It was a wonderful thing because our wives were friends. We traveled around together. I loved Sam like a brother — better than a brother because you don't always see eye to eye with your brother. We had a relationship for 62 years. He's the godfather of my oldest child. She's coming for the funeral.
Talk about bringing the University of South Florida to Tampa.
It was (Sam Gibbons') concept. He passed a bill to create a new four-year degree university back when there were only three in the state. But it doesn't do any good to pass a bill unless you can fund it. At that time, I was the governor's aide to the legislature. The governor at the time was my very good friend, LeRoy Collins. He wanted to create community colleges and feared another university would cause competition for the pie of funding. It was the early 1950s and the Legislature had gone over on segregation issues. My lease was up and I was going to have to stay in a hotel. It so happened that the governor's wife went to Europe with a friend. (The governor) said, 'come stay with me in the mansion and we'll work at night.' It gave me the opportunity to lobby for the funding. And that's how the University of South Florida came to be.
Is that your most significant accomplishment?
I was more responsible for the library here in town. (The John F. Germany is Hillsborough County's flagship library). It's kind of awesome. There's nothing I'd rather have than to be connected to the library. I've always had a library at home. Even when I was in college I had a small library.
What books would you recommend?
I have all the (Sir Winston) Churchills. You have to be thinking of The Prince (by Machiavelli), the philosophy of government, books by Benjamin Franklin. Thomas Jefferson.
Hmmm, so for instance, do you want to travel? I would say (James) Michener's Hawaii. Want to go to Spain? Then his Iberia. That's what I tell my grandson. He spent the summer in Dresden. I told him he had to go to the Green Vault. Well the kid, he loves his granddad, he would study there. It's very important for a young person to do some worldwide traveling before you settle down. You don't have to have money. You can live in a pup tent.
How else have you left your mark?
Most of my pro bono time I spent on testing for the bar exam. In the 1950s, bar examiners were being sued for discrimination. Examiners had to read blue books of graduates. If you gave me 100 to read, I can guarantee you I would not do as well on the 100th as the first. And you could tell by the language and the grammar the kind of person who wrote it. At the time, a miserable percentage of minorities were passing. I was with a group who came up with a multiple-choice test. It gave anti-discriminatory questions to the candidates. Now it's been part of the examination for 40 years.
You grew up in Plant City. Did you pick strawberries?
I picked strawberries, 2 cents a quart. My back still hurts. (laughs) My father had lost everything in the Depression. I got up at 3 o'clock every morning to deliver the newspaper. I was this big. (He holds up his pinkie.) Most of my paper route was on dirt roads. Many a time my kickstand sank into the ground and the papers went all over.
On Saturdays, you had to collect. It was a lesson in economics. Just because the person had a Cadillac in the driveway, did not mean they paid the paperboy.
So how did you get from there to law school?
The University of Florida cost $75 a semester, something like that. I somehow cobbled together enough funds and went off to Gainesville. Then I volunteered with the Army for the war (World War II). I stayed four years. I was in the European and Japanese theater. When I got out, I had a GI bill. That, with the money I had saved, put me through Harvard Law School. There's a funny story about that.
In Plant City High School, my homeroom teacher told us to write down the schools we wanted to go to and she would get us a catalog. So I wrote down Harvard, Yale and Princeton. I knew I could borrow a catalog from my friends who were going to Gainesville. She told me that was impossible. She tore up my list in front of the class. My friends later teased her about that at school reunions. I've always been a dreamer.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.