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Hillsborough County legend Fred Karl dies

TAMPA — Fred Karl, a powerful leader who served in all three branches of Florida government and became Hillsborough County's go-to political problem solver, died early Thursday at home.

He was 88. Mr. Karl had been in declining health in recent weeks since suffering an injury, his family said.

After 12 years in the Florida Legislature and then the state's Supreme Court, Mr. Karl took over as Hillsborough County's administrator when the county was facing wage freezes, then as president of a financially struggling Tampa General Hospital.

There was some kind of previous crisis at every stop. The Legislature he joined in 1957 was so divided, Mr. Karl jokingly suggested they might not have enough votes to pass the annual Mother's Day resolution.

Public service somehow suited Mr. Karl, who secured the deal for the 28-story Hillsborough county center that bears his name.

"Everybody admired Fred for his intelligence," said former Florida Gov. Bob Graham. "But the real characteristic that made him such a special person was his integrity. He just represented the very best of ethics for anyone, but specifically for people in public office."

On occasion he escaped to a lakeside cottage 50 miles west of Tallahassee, where he took his family water skiing and planted gardenias.

But mostly he just plodded ahead, using his sharp legal mind and political savvy to engineer the Tampa Bay area's first waste-to-energy facility in the 1980s; then laid the groundwork for what are now the Tampa Bay Times Forum and George M. Steinbrenner Field.

"He was Mr. Fix-It," said former Gov. Bob Martinez. "He came to county government and fixed it. He went to Tampa General Hospital and fixed that. He was the complete package, he did it all."

Frederick Karl was born in Daytona Beach, the son of a Michigan county commissioner and a teacher. He enlisted in the Army, and at age 18 was a tank platoon leader. He fought in the 20th and 2nd Armored divisions, and was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge.

"He remembers sitting out in a field on Christmas Eve, away from his family and wishing he was home," said Tami Karl, his daughter.

Mr. Karl came home with a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He earned a law degree from Stetson University in 1949, then served as city attorney in Daytona Beach and Ormond Beach.

He was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1956, where he tried to abolish the communist-hunting Johns Committee and called for a corruption investigation into the Florida Turnpike Authority. Both efforts failed.

One victory: In 1957, Mr. Karl notified Gov. LeRoy Collins, whom he admired, about a local bill that would make it a felony to attend an integrated athletic event.

"I called him and told him about the bill and he vetoed it and it never saw the light of day," Mr. Karl said in a 1997 interview. "But that's the kind of legislation that bounced around in the Legislature, if you can imagine."

Mike Foerster, Hillsborough County's former communications director, recalled the era as a "very turbulent time."

"It was a time where strong men like Fred with strong ethics and morals stood tall against people who wanted to take Florida back to the 19th century," Foerster said.

Mr. Karl ran in the 1964 governor's race won by Haydon Burns. He served four more years in the Legislature, this time in the Senate. Mr. Karl then served in the 1970s as the state's first public counsel, representing consumers against public utilities.

He won a seat on the state Supreme Court in 1976, the last year justices were elected rather than appointed. Not being able to disclose how he would rule on anything made campaigning a tricky business, Mr. Karl wrote in his book, The 57 Club: My Four Decades in Florida Politics. He chose the modest slogan, "A justice is the sum of his past."

He stayed on the court only about two years, plagued by health problems and mounting debt. He returned to private practice, setting money aside until he could afford public life again.

In the mid-1980s, not long after three Hillsborough County commissioners had been charged with taking bribes, the opportunity came. Hillsborough County needed a special attorney for its part in building a multimillion-dollar solid waste facility, the Tampa Bay area's first.

"I said with his status and integrity and all, he would be excellent for the county," said Norman Hickey, then Hillsborough's county administrator.

"That was his entry into the county. He came to know all the players," said former Hillsborough Commissioner Jan Platt.

Mr. Karl went on to take the county attorney's spot in 1988, then moved to county administrator in 1990.

By then, doctors had diagnosed Parkinson's disease. It terrified him at first, but medication controlled a slight tremor.

Major accomplishments included acquiring an unfinished 28-story office building on Kennedy Boulevard at a bargain, bringing disparate county offices under one roof; and getting an arena and a professional hockey team to the Channel District.

Mr. Karl and County Attorney Emmy Acton negotiated the deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning. "He was generous and respectful while driving an extremely hard bargain with the owners," Acton said. "So hard that they insisted on an escape clause if they couldn't pay for their commitments. This exemplified how to remain a gentleman while not budging an inch on issues that were important to the community."

Mr. Karl stepped down from his post in 1994 — and into running Tampa General Hospital, where he stopped an effort to sell the institution. In 2003, Pam Iorio called Mr. Karl back to serve as city attorney in her first public act as Tampa mayor.

He retired for the final time in 2004, at 80. In recent months he had completed a book, Python Tales, about his wartime experiences.

These last couple of weeks, Mr. Karl had spoken openly with his family about dying. "He said, 'It's time for me to go home,' " said Tami Karl.

He died in his bed with his wife, Mercedes, and Duke, a Maltese, beside him.

In 1997, a University of South Florida historian asked Mr. Karl how he hoped his work with the county would be remembered.

His answer — that he hired more minorities to county positions — harked back to his battles of the late 1950s.

Those small acts, he said, are "much more important than the county center or the Yankee stadium, or the Ice Palace or any of those tangible things. If I could be remembered for anything, I'd like to be remembered for those wholesome and intangible benefits that I helped bring to the county."

This story has been modified to reflect the following correction: Gov. LeRoy Collins vetoed a racially charged bill in 1957. An earlier version of this story stated an incorrect year.

Researcher Carolyn Edds and staff writers Laura C. Morel, Meredith Rutland, Bill Varian, Rick Danielson and Sue Carlton contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.


Frederick Brennan Karl

Born: May 14, 1924

Died: March 7, 2013

Survivors: Wife, Mercedes Karl; daughters, Cynthia Stamm-Clarke, Linda Herrington, Mary Bruder and Debbie Karl and Tami Karl; sons, Frederick B. Karl Jr. and James B. Karl; 15 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Memorial service: Fred B. Karl County Center, 601 E Kennedy Blvd.; date and time to be arranged.

Tributes to Mr. Karl

"Fred Karl was a war hero, dutiful public servant and statesman. No matter his role, Fred was always a calming influence on those around him. He believed that fairness should always carry the day, and his love for our community and the people who shaped it, regardless of their color or creed, superseded anything else."

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn

"Fred Karl was born to be a public servant. He tackled issues with a sense of fairness, respect and honesty, always reflecting his personal and professional high standards. His values and character were shaped in large part by his generation that viewed duty, sacrifice and civic engagement as necessary components of a full and meaningful life."

Former Tampa Mayor

Pam Iorio

"Fred Karl was a role model for excellent public service. His lifelong legacy as a public servant draws the conclusion: 'Well done, thy good and faithful servant.' "

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson

"Mr. Karl worked tirelessly for the people of Hillsborough County as county attorney and later as county administrator. He championed fairness and was a confident, calming force whenever crisis occurred."

Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan

"He wore many hats. He loved public service. And he made a positive impact on our community. We are a better place because Fred Karl lived and served here."

Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt

"Fred Karl exemplified what it means to be a public servant, and he led a life driven by his desire to make Florida a better place. Fred not only leaves a strong legacy in Tampa, but also throughout our great state."

Florida Attorney General

Pam Bondi

Hillsborough County legend Fred Karl dies 03/07/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 8, 2013 11:54am]
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