BROOKSVILLE — A governor tapped David Russell Sr. in 1986 to take the place of a Hernando County commissioner who'd gotten himself into legal hot water.
But Mr. Russell, the owner of a Spring Hill pool company and a political unknown at the time, never considered himself to be a mere placeholder, said his son, current County Commission chairman Dave Russell Jr.
The younger Russell recalls his father poring over details of the county's comprehensive growth plan, an important document for a booming county.
"He was someone who put a great deal into the job," Russell said Tuesday. "He had a passion for it."
Mr. Russell, of Brooksville, died Monday (Oct. 26, 2009) in hospice care after a short fight with stomach cancer. He was 82.
Mr. Russell's taste of public service was a brief one, but he was glad for it, his son said.
"It's something he always aspired to. He felt he could make some significant contributions," said Russell Jr.
County Commission vice chairwoman Rose Rocco began Tuesday's regular meeting with an announcement about the senior Mr. Russell's passing and asked for a moment of silence in his honor.
"It's a wonderful family,'' Rocco said. "They've served well through the history of this county.''
A native of Fall River, Mass., Mr. Russell was the second youngest and the only boy among five children. His father had a career in the Navy and Mr. Russell dropped out of high school on his 17th birthday to join the same military branch.
He served in the Pacific theater during World War II and later used the G.I. Bill to finish his education, eventually earning a bachelor's degree in business, his son said.
Mr. Russell worked his way up to the position of president of a pesticide company. When he was ready to be his own boss, he and his wife, Sarah, moved from Jacksonville to Hernando County in 1981 to open the county's first Pinch-a-Penny pool care business. The couple celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary last month.
By 1986, Mr. Russell had become a prominent figure in the county's business community. The politically connected Dixiecrat jumped at the chance to fill the seat of then-County Commissioner Tom Lyons, who had been suspended while he stood trial for perjury in connection with a child support hearing.
Gov. Bob Graham tapped Mr. Russell to serve until Lyons could return.
When Lyons was found guilty, Graham's successor, Bob Martinez, appointed Mr. Russell to serve the rest of Lyons' term.
Former County Commissioner Len Tria first met the elder Mr. Russell as a customer of his pool business before serving with him on the commission.
Mr. Russell was a gentleman as a business owner and brought those same qualities to the commission, Tria said Tuesday.
"He was quiet and reserved, but Dave did his homework," Tria said. "He certainly provided a level of decorum and was a very thoughtful person. In my view, he tried to do what he thought was right."
Mr. Russell shared Tria's passion to secure state and federal money to build roads to accommodate the county's growth. He stood with fellow commissioners in 1987 against a bill they worried would make it easier for one water management district to take water from another.
"My biggest concern was in not letting anyone else have any overriding say in what we do with our water," Mr. Russell said then. "We're all kind of gun-shy when it comes to our water supply, and we should be."
The younger Russell called his dad a policy wonk and said he was at his best while working on the comprehensive plan. Though he came to Brooksville to capitalize on the boom, Mr. Russell also yearned for responsible growth.
"He devoted hundreds of hours to ensure a good product," Russell said. "He took it very, very seriously. I think that's his greatest contribution to the folks of Hernando County."
He did surprise some in the community, though, when he sided with two other commissioners to approve a 156-home subdivision in Spring Lake. That vote drew a lawsuit from residents who opposed the project, though the legal move was ultimately unsuccessful.
Mr. Russell labored over the decision to run to keep the seat in 1988, unsure if he was cut out for the ugly side of politics that came with the job, his son recalled. Years later he would try to discourage his son from running for office.
"I think he was concerned I wasn't cut out for it, either," the younger Russell said.
Mr. Russell would eventually decide to switch to the Republican Party in large part to keep the seat and was crestfallen when he lost to John Richardson, his son said.
"He had a lot more to contribute on top of what he did," he said.
Mr. Russell went on to build his pool business, acquiring a second Pinch-a-Penny store. He sold the last one in 1992.
His son, who owns a separate pool business and for a while was "friendly competition" to Mr. Russell, went on to serve two terms in the Florida House of Representatives and filed this month to run for a second term on the commission.
Among Mr. Russell's other survivors are a daughter, Rhonda, and three grandchildren.
A graveside service with full military honors is set for 11 a.m. Friday at Florida National Cemetery near Bushnell. Brewer & Sons Funeral Home in Brooksville is handling the arrangements.
Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.