SAN ANTONIO — Robert Sumner's roots in east Pasco ran five generations deep. His work as county attorney, especially on growth policies during the last boom, will help shape Pasco for generations to come.
The well-known land use lawyer died Wednesday morning (May 25, 2011). He was 76.
"He was the epitome of class," said County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand. "We will all miss a very dear friend."
Sumner had been fighting lung cancer for several months, according to close friend Jeanie Germain, who owns a title company in San Antonio. He was at home recovering from the disease, but Germain said he was taken to intensive care recently for other lung complications. He was transferred Monday to a Dade City hospice.
Sumner was a savvy lawyer who could broker deals to get major policies passed. He served part time as county attorney from 1967 to 1972 before taking on the job full time from 1999 to 2008.
Sumner served as the interim county attorney after the previous attorney abruptly resigned. As the board began interviewing candidates for a full-time replacement, Hildebrand recalls saying, "You know, let's just cut to the chase. We like what Bob's doing. Let's just hire him."
He took over after the rocky tenures of two previous county attorneys and pledged to recruit a good staff and keep the office free from scandal.
"He was what this county needed at the time he became county attorney — mature, stable and his feet planted firmly on the ground," said Pasco Tax Collector Mike Olson.
Sumner's office played a key role in crafting Pasco's growth policies as the county experienced a major population boom. Though he had close friends in the development community, Commissioner Ted Schrader said Sumner balanced developers' interests with preserving environmental lands in north and east Pasco.
"He realized Pasco County is a jewel," Schrader said. "Bobby was just doing what he really thought was in the best interest of the county as a whole, not so much for any special interest. I'm sure there's relationships that were probably damaged as part of that."
Besides his straight legal advice, he was an adviser and confidant to commissioners and County Administrator John Gallagher, whom he met about 15 years ago. Gallagher remembers hanging out at the historic courthouse in Dade City and Sumner would chat with him and bum a smoke.
Those meetings were mostly just conversation. Gallagher said he could only remember one time when Sumner lobbied him on an issue. He was very interested in seeing his grandchildren play sports and suggested to Gallagher that the county buy some property at the current site of Burks Memorial Park in Dade City.
"He convinced me it was a good thing for the community," he said. "I had the money and I did it."
Sumner's best quality? "Had a very good abundance of common sense," Gallagher said.
Germain said she remembers him best as a father figure.
"He loved to pick at you," she said. "If he liked you, he picked on you. And he picked on me a lot."
She added: "I'm going to miss his coming by the office in the morning and having coffee. There's a big void."
Longtime land use lawyer Clyde Hobby described Sumner as a "soft-spoken Southern gentleman." But Schrader noted he "had a way of getting his message across."
"He would argue when he needed to," said Schrader, whose father was close friends with Sumner. "Even at commission meetings, he became emotional at times. He was very passionate about what he did."
Hobby and Sumner graduated from Stetson University Law School together in the mid '60s. Back then, Pasco had about two dozen lawyers in the whole county, and half didn't live on the west side. "It was a different time and a small county," Hobby said.
When Sumner was hired in 1999 as county attorney, he was 65, an age when most people think about retirement.
"Because of his maturity and maybe some independence, he was able to say no when no was needed," Hobby said.
Eddie Herrmann was childhood friends with Sumner in San Antonio and the two later served on the board of the Pioneer Florida Museum. As teenagers, they camped at Moon Lake Gardens, a hunting lodge owned by Sumner's family. "I can't remember when I didn't know Bobby," Herrmann said.
As president of the museum board, Sumner strived to keep the attraction alive and growing and organized a door-to-door fundraising campaign for it.
"I remember him for his dynamic ability as president. He could get people moving," Herrmann said.
Even as he was fighting cancer, Sumner could be seen at events around Dade City and remained active on community boards, including at the First National Bank of Pasco.
"While he was undergoing chemo and radiation treatment, he would do that in morning and go to the bank in Dade City in the afternoon," Hobby said. "Now that's tough."
Staff writers Lisa Buie and C.T. Bowen contributed to this report. Lee Logan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.