NEW PORT RICHEY — Back in 1978, a recent University of Florida law school graduate named Ben Harrill landed a job at the Pasco County Attorney's Office.
"He appeared to be bright, the kind of guy who would do a good job," said Gerald Figurski, then the top county attorney who hired him.
Harrill did not disappoint him. Just six years later, he became chief county attorney, earning a reputation as a steady hand during one of the most dynamic periods of growth in Pasco history.
And when Harrill left to go into private practice, his reputation did not waver.
"He had extremely high ethical and moral values," said County Administrator John Gallagher. "And he kept them."
Harrill died Tuesday night (March 16, 2010) after suffering a heart attack just days earlier, his second in two weeks. He was 56.
Harrill, who joined Figurski in private practice in 1991, had become one of Pasco's best-known land use attorneys.
Most recently, he played a role in some of the largest projects to come before Pasco commissioners, including the proposed T. Rowe Price project in Land O'Lakes, Pasadena Hills in east Pasco and SunWest Harbourtowne in Aripeka.
To the commissioners he routinely faced each month, Harrill was an affable straight shooter, a gentleman.
"He was a first-class guy," said Commissioner Ann Hildebrand. "He brought such a great perspective. He knew land use, he knew county government, and I think that's why he was so successful."
And when he was county attorney, the private attorneys he faced had similar recollections.
"He was a gentleman, reasonable. You couldn't ask for a better guy in that position," said longtime attorney Steve Booth. "If Ben told you something, you could take it to the bank."
And in both government and private practice, Harrill earned a reputation as a hard worker.
"We joked about it on more than one occasion," said Figurski. "We worked so hard because we were both fleeing poverty."
Harrill grew up in Clearwater. His father was a charter boat operator and his mother a secretary. He married his Clearwater High School sweetheart, Jo Ellen, in 1974, and they had two sons.
Pasco County was going through sharp growing pains when Harrill first came on board, shortly before Gallagher took the helm in 1982.
Through $350 million in bonds, the county built a garbage incinerator, a regional sewer system and a network of parks and libraries. He and Gallagher were credited with playing hardball when it came time to build the incinerator; their negotiations ended up shaving $13 million from the original price.
Gallagher and Harrill announced the price tag at a commission meeting, and one commissioner suggested the pair get three extra vacation days for their effort.
Later, as they left the meeting, Harrill joked to Gallagher: "I wonder what we'd have to do for a week?"
After he entered private practice, Harrill remained active in county affairs, serving on a number of committees that help drive policy. Even as a developers' attorney, Harrill was the point person on the committee that recommended establishing a program to buy and protect environmentally sensitive land.
Figurski said he and his partner had a long-established pattern and routine at their Holiday office. First in would make the coffee. One of them might swing in the other's office to see what he thought about a case. They had coffee and lunch and talked about their children and sports.
And both Figurski and Gallagher used the word "brother" to describe their relationship to Harrill.
"To me, Ben was an exemplary expression of what it means to be a counselor of the highest order," said Figurski. "I'm so torn, ripped, by the fact that he's gone. I'm not sure I can ever find anybody to replace him as a partner."
Harrill is survived by his wife, Jo Ellen, of New Port Richey, and sons, Joseph and James, who live in the Orlando area. Funeral arrangements were pending Wednesday.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.