Friends and family recall life and times of Fred Karl

TAMPA — She didn't think she could do this and had said so. But Mercedes Karl agreed to try.

On Friday, the late Fred Karl, 88, got the memorial service he wanted, the one he had planned. He had chosen the music, the speakers, the public location. And he had asked for final words from the woman he loved.

She stood a few yards from his portrait on a plain stage at the Tampa Convention Center and found her voice.

"There's not much I can tell you about Fred Karl that you don't already know," she said.

"He was a wonderful, loving husband and father. He was a doting grandfather. He was so proud of each and every one of our precious 15 grandchildren.

"The only thing you may not know about him was he was my best friend," she said. "And I will miss him terribly."

Fred Karl always wanted people to do their best.

After all, he liked to say that a man is the sum of his past.

Eight days after his death, those who were part of Karl's past assembled to recognize his contributions to Tampa, Hillsborough County and Florida, and to the lives he touched along the way.

Some stood at the microphone, their staid eloquence and frayed emotions laid bare by a camera and a large video screen.

Others sat quietly, sniffling in business suits, recalling the doors he opened for them.

Former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio spoke first, followed by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, civic activist Chloe Coney, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, Karl's friend Mark Smith and the Rev. George Corrigan of Tampa's Sacred Heart Catholic Church. They were followed by Karl's son Frederick Jr., daughter Tami, grandson Brad, granddaughter Erin and then his widow.

People spoke of knowing Karl for decades. He was a World War II hero turned public servant, with equal parts confidence and humility. A man with honor.

Throughout the 90-minute memorial, they found reasons to chuckle.

Iorio noted the number of roles Karl had assumed over the years. Widely regarded as a problem-solver, he had served as a state legislator, state Supreme Court justice, Hillsborough County administrator, Tampa General Hospital president, county attorney and Tampa city attorney.

"It seems Fred had a hard time keeping a steady job," Iorio quipped.

There were good-natured barbs about the frequency of his so-called "retirements."

He wasn't always right, he used to say. But he was never wrong.

If Karl and Iorio disagreed, he would tell her, "Go ahead. Make a big mistake."

He used humor sometimes to make a point, she said.

But in the end people listened to him because they came to know and trust him.

He believed in respecting the opponent, assembling facts, recognizing when to compromise, but never compromising on integrity, friends said. The loss of honor would feel like a pebble stuck in one's shoe, he would say.

The Rev. Corrigan polled the room to make a point: "Is there anyone here that didn't implicitly trust Fred Karl?"

Sen. Nelson said Karl restored honesty and integrity to local government, calling him "rare."

"He saw public service as one of the highest callings," Nelson said. "When he sought public office, it was not to be something. It was to serve."

Coney, the civic activist who works for Rep. Castor, recalled meeting Karl more than two decades ago. Karl had moved to Hillsborough County in 1988 to be county attorney and then county administrator.

Coney had just taken over as manager of the Lee Davis Neighborhood Service Center, then located between two public housing complexes. The area was plagued by crime, she said, but that didn't stop Karl from visiting, even at night.

He helped her get support for neighborhood projects and in return asked only this: "Make me proud of you."

Family members offered personal glimpses of Karl.

Son Frederick Jr. said he was most impressed by his father's courage in fighting racism as a young member of the Florida Legislature, a passion that exposed the family to threats.

"I was afraid," the son said, "but my father was not."

At home, Karl was a man who engaged with his children and then grandchildren, often in a battle of quick wits and playful rivalries.

The memorial included a slideshow of family photos. In them, Karl carved a turkey, kissed babies, went boating. The images captured decades of him standing tall and straight before his body yielded to Parkinson's.

Daughter Tami Karl called him a hopeless romantic.

He and Mercedes would always sign greeting cards to each other with a "+" and "-" — code for, "I love you more today than yesterday but less than tomorrow," the daughter said.

Before he died, she said, he told his wife, "Honey, my body is tired, and I'm going to have to go soon, but I promise to walk slowly so you can catch up."

He told Tami to take care of her mother.

"And make me proud."

Patty Ryan can be reached at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

Friends and family recall life and times of Fred Karl 03/15/13 [Last modified: Saturday, March 16, 2013 12:07am]

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