TAMPA — John P. Griffin embraced a simple approach to his life, one he could summarize in five words.
"Do something bigger than yourself."
Mr. Griffin followed his internal compass to do just that, changing careers three times in seven years. Mr. Griffin entered law school at 39 and later became a respected circuit court judge.
In the 1980s, he ruled on cases involving pitching star Dwight Gooden, serial killer Bobby Joe Long and a lawsuit stemming from the collapse of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, among others.
Mr. Griffin died Jan. 16 in the Manor Care assisted living center. He was 89.
As a young prosecutor, Mark Ober found himself in Mr. Griffin's court frequently.
"You wanted to try cases before Judge Griffin," said Ober, now the state attorney for the 13th Judicial Circuit. "He was very professional and no-nonsense. That being said, he was courteous and respectful to all parties. You knew when you stepped your foot into that courtroom you were going to get what all lawyers want — a fair hearing."
In the early 1960s, Mr. Griffin faced a critical juncture. He had worked in the Hillsborough County school system as a teacher and administrator, sold insurance and run for the Tampa City Council. Now in his late 30s, he was a city administrator.
But Mr. Griffin was not satisfied. He consulted three friends about going to law school, the late Rep. Sam Gibbons among them.
"All three said, 'You'd be crazy to do that; stay with your good job,' " recalled Chris Griffin, 59, Mr. Griffin's son.
Mr. Griffin entered Stetson University College of Law anyway. He later opened his own practice, specializing in adoptions and estate planning.
In 1979 he ran for circuit judge and won. In 1984, in his first capital case, he shocked many by overriding a jury's death penalty recommendation for double murderer Ronald Frederick Hale, becoming one of the first Florida judges to do so. In sentencing Hale (who had said he was under the influence of drugs and did not remember the murders) to life in prison, Mr. Griffin ruled "the aggravating circumstances haven't been sufficiently proved."
"He got pilloried for that," said Chris Griffin, a Tampa lawyer. "The radio talking heads were calling for his head."
That same year Mr. Griffin upheld the death sentence of Charles William Proffitt, whose fatal stabbing conviction had bounced around the courts for 11 years. He sentenced Long, one of Tampa's most infamous killers, to death in 1987.
"He was elected to make hard decisions, and he was pretty comfortable doing that, whether it was sentencing somebody to life or the electric chair," his son said.
John Phillip "Jack" Griffin was born in Tampa in 1924. As a boy he co-founded the River Rats, who defended their Seminole Heights turf against the Sulphur Springs gang.
He enlisted in the Navy during World War II, serving as a pharmacist's mate aboard an amphibious transport ship supplying the Pacific islands, including Okinawa, during the U.S. invasion.
He graduated from the University of Florida in 1949 and married Marilyn Emerson that same year. Mr. Griffin then taught journalism at Plant, Turkey Creek and Hillsborough high schools; then earned a master's degree and served as a dean at Plant.
Mr. Griffin left teaching in 1956 to sell insurance, a brief detour he didn't care for. He lost a bid for Tampa City Council in 1959 but impressed Julian Lane, who was running for mayor.
Lane won and made Mr. Griffin his chief administrative assistant. Before long, he was directing the purchasing department.
Lane lost a re-election bid in 1963. Though married with two young sons, Mr. Griffin decided to enter law school. His wife supported the effort by returning to teaching elementary school.
After graduating from Stetson in 1965, Mr. Griffin worked for two firms before starting his own practice.
His firm expanded to four lawyers. But again, Mr. Griffin was ready for something bigger.
In 1979 he ran for the Hillsborough County Circuit Court bench and won. He retired a decade later, traveling with his wife, rafting rivers and climbing mountains. At home in Temple Terrace, where he had later moved with his wife, he cultivated orchids and made wood furniture. He was also active in the Tampa East Sertoma Club.
Marilyn Griffin died in 2010.
In 2012 Mr. Griffin was one of 74 veterans flown to Washington, D.C., by Honor Flight West Central Florida to view war memorials. On his 89th birthday he fell in a Sears parking lot and underwent extensive rehabilitation.
On Jan. 13 and 14, Mr. Griffin told family members he had grown weary of the fight.
"He said, 'I've done all I can and it's not going to get any better. I'm not going to live the rest of my life lying in a bed and in a wheelchair,' " his son said, who added that it "was not a sad conversation."
Mr. Griffin fell asleep at 9 p.m. Jan. 14. Shortly after 1 p.m. Jan. 15, nurses told the family his vital signs were slipping. He died 12 hours later.
"It was absolutely his decision," his son said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.