Most people in the Tampa Bay area remember Thomas E. Penick Jr. as a Pinellas-Pasco judge who worked to reform the probate system to better protect vulnerable residents. But years before that, he served in the U.S. Air Force, rising to the rank of brigadier general.
He spent his time in the Vietnam War as a staff officer assigned to the Tan Son Nhut Air Base in South Vietnam. While the former B-52 navigator didn’t see combat action in the skies over Southeast Asia, he is a casualty of that war.
Mr. Penick died March 21 of lingering health problems caused by exposure to the defoliant known as Agent Orange, his wife Leanne Penick said. He was 80.
“They were sprayed with Agent Orange every day,” said his wife of 59 years. “That’s what got him. He was very sick. It was probably a blessing.”
Leanne Penick said her husband’s health problems began in the late 1990s, when he developed prostate cancer. He also had diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and narcolepsy, which ultimately forced him from the bench.
“He did all phases of the court system,” she said, “but it was probate court that put him on the map. His philosophy was that the elderly were neglected so much in our society, they needed laws to protect them.”
Leanne Elliott was a senior at the University of Florida in 1959 when a member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity arranged a blind date.
“I had seen him at his fraternity,” she said. “I dated one of his fraternity brothers. I thought, ‘gosh, he’s kinda cute, I wish I could meet him.’”
Thanks to the blind date, she did. Things went so well that nine months later, the two married “because we had to.”
The reason, she said, was that Mr. Penick was going into the Air Force.
“I wasn’t sure when he would be back,” she said.
He spent nine years in the regular Air Force, first as a B-52 navigator then in a staff job in Vietnam. That was enough to convince Penick to leave the regular Air Force and join the reserve.
“He said, ‘I can’t do that again,’ ” Leanne Penick recalled. “Vietnam was horrible” because of the Agent Orange.
Mr. Penick retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1994, after a 34-year career that including intelligence work at MacDill Air Force Base. He earned an Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, a Bronze Star and many other awards and commendations.
Mr. Penick was born in Florida and graduated from the same Palm Beach High School attended by Burt Reynolds. After leaving the regular Air Force, he and his wife returned to the Sunshine State so he could attend Stetson Law School.
After graduating, he worked as a real estate lawyer for about five years. Then his wife saw a newspaper story about a county judge who was retiring. He put in his application and was appointed. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful career that ran from 1978 until 2004, when Mr. Penick retired as a Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court judge.
He presided over cases involving Scientology, ruling opponents must stay 10 feet away from their Clearwater church properties. He once sentenced a man to the electric chair, a ruling that was eventually overturned. But it was his actions on behalf of the most vulnerable, such as the time he jailed the operator of an adult living facility for “willfully interfering in the administration of justice,” that became Penick’s cause.
“He was absolutely phenomenal,” said Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Pamela Campbell. “He carried his lessons as an Eagle Scout — duty, service and honor — throughout his military career and his judicial career.”
Thomas Penick Jr.
Born: Oct. 18, 1938
Died: March 21, 2019
Survivors: His wife, sister Patty Ruth, daughter Mary Jo Penick, son Tom Penick and three grandchildren.
Memorial: A memorial service will be held at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, 701 Orange Ave., Clearwater, Sat., April 6, 2019 at 10 a.m.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112 . Follow @haltman .