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Hernando remembers Neil Law Jr.

A who’s who of Brooksville and Hernando County filled First United Methodist of Brooksville during Thursday’s funeral service for Neil Law Jr., 90.

LANCE ARAM ROTHSTEIN | Times

A who’s who of Brooksville and Hernando County filled First United Methodist of Brooksville during Thursday’s funeral service for Neil Law Jr., 90.

For most of his working life, Neil Law Jr. "was a mail carrier in the morning and a cattleman in the afternoon,'' said his son Neil "Fred'' Law III. He never held elective office, worked as a doctor or lawyer, or owned a downtown business. Yet on Thursday, six days after his death at age 90, Neil Law Jr. received the kind of sendoff Brooksville reserves for its highest-ranking elders. The crowd at his funeral filled one of the big downtown churches, First United Methodist. His list of honorary pallbearers included the town's elite: retired mining executive Tommy Bronson, banker Jim Kimbrough, lawyer Joe Mason.

The front of the funeral procession, rolling toward Brooksville Cemetery, nearly reached Rogers' Christmas House Village before the last car left the church.

All this may seem strange if you're from a city, where social standing depends on what you do for a living, and letter carriers usually aren't asked to join country clubs.

In Brooksville, especially a few decades ago, status had more to with your family ties and friendships. Along with his owning a large ranch, the relationships put Law in a position to help found Brooksville's country club.

"The Brooksville Golf and Country Club, in my opinion, exists today because of the kindness and generosity of Neil and (his now deceased wife) Lucile Law,'' Kimbrough said.

Law's ancestors arrived with the first wave of settlers, before 1845. Three members of his family served as sheriff, including Law's father, Neil Law Sr., from 1933 to 1948.

Neil Jr. left Brooksville to work as a supervisor with the Internal Revenue Service in Jacksonville, and served in the Army during World War II, Fred Law said, but returned home "because he just wanted the rural way of life.''

His job with the post office was highly paid by Brooksville standards, a coveted appointment to a member of a powerful family, Mason said.

"It doesn't diminish (Law's) stature that he had a patronage job,'' he said. "It was an indication of his influence. It was an honor.''

Working on the cattle ranch east of Brooksville, which Law and his father expanded over the years from 40 to 600 acres, also gave him high standing.

"The citrus and cattle industry in Hernando County 50 years ago, they were the king,'' Mason said. "If you were part of it, you were well into the fabric of the society.''

The farm led to added prominence in the late 1960s, when Hernando had begun to grow and Brooksville's business leaders felt the need for the kind of business and social hub they'd seen in other nearby towns, a country club.

Law first agreed to sell 167 acres for the golf course at the discount price of $200 per acre, Kimbrough said. Then, when a federal loan fell through, he offered to donate it.

"I'll never forget that phone call,'' Kimbrough said. "We were ecstatic.''

It wasn't all charity, because it started Law on the standard career move from farmer to developer. Though he later sold some of his property for the Majestic Oaks subdivision, which has yet to be constructed, his pride was Dogwood Estates, built next to the country club in the 1970s.

He liked to drive its streets in an old red pickup truck, his dog riding with him in the cab, and talk to residents and admire the houses, said William Shaw, a retired minister who helped lead Thursday's service.

"We see developers crowding houses together on small lots to maximize profits,'' Shaw said. "He wanted large, comfortable lots, with real back yards and real side yards.''

Of course, I don't know what Law was thinking when he developed Dogwood Estates this way.

But I know he immediately told me about his family every time I interviewed him. So I don't think it's a stretch to think he wanted to live up to its legacy. It's also hard to imagine him donating the land for a country club in a more crowded, modern town, where business associates are likely to be acquaintances rather than lifelong friends.

I don't mean to cheer Brooksville's cozy way of doing things. It's got plenty of downsides, which we write about all the time. But I had this thought on Thursday, watching the long line of people who took time off to join Law's funeral procession:

Maybe it's not all bad.

Hernando remembers Neil Law Jr. 09/18/08 [Last modified: Saturday, September 20, 2008 12:33am]
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