Bill McBride's bravery in battle and compassion toward others were celebrated Friday by hundreds of people who said goodbye, with laughter and tears, to the Tampa lawyer and civic leader who died last Saturday.
McBride, 67, the Democratic candidate for governor in 2002 who lost to Jeb Bush, died of a heart attack while on a family Christmas vacation in Mount Airy, N.C., the hometown of his wife, Alex Sink. Sink served four years as Florida's chief financial officer before also losing a race for governor, to Rick Scott, in 2010.
McBride first gained fame as a relentless fullback known as "Bull" at Leesburg High School. He became a student leader at the University of Florida, joined the Marines at the height of the Vietnam War and helped build Holland & Knight into a legal colossus. A decade ago, he decided to take on the Jeb Bush juggernaut, ran for governor and was handily defeated — the one major goal in his life that eluded him.
For more than two decades, McBride and Sink were a power couple — he at Holland & Knight and she at Bank of America — while they raised their two children, son Bert and daughter Lexi. Neither McBride nor Sink captured their ultimate goal in politics, but the couple's impact on Tampa Bay and the state was evident by the size of the crowd at Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church.
Festively decorated for the holidays, the church was packed to overflowing with a civic and political who's who of Tampa Bay and beyond for a 90-minute memorial service.
The mourners included former Gov. Bob Martinez, state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, former U.S. Reps. Jim Davis and Suzanne Kosmas, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and many judges and lawyers — some of whose careers McBride nurtured during his time at Holland & Knight. The area in front of the church was occupied by TV news trucks as police directed motorists to overflow parking lots.
Green wreaths covered the church's white walls, and a giant Christmas tree stood near the lectern. A poster-sized photo of McBride in his familiar ear-to-ear grin faced the crowd.
"Bill's death was unexpected for us, and so soon," said the Rev. John DeBevoise, as he began a service that was uplifting and filled with laughter. A pair of lifelong friends told tales of McBride's campus exploits — including his exuberant beer drinking — and how he once shocked them by bringing Sink along on a fishing trip in the Florida Keys.
McBride's children remembered him as a dedicated father and T-ball coach who left the campaign trail every night and flew home to Thonotosassa, near Tampa, so that he could send his kids off to school the next morning.
"He was the best father and friend a girl could ever have," said Lexi McBride Crawford, recently married and studying to become a doctor, as she paused frequently to hold back tears.
Sink did not speak.
McBride's law partner Bob Bolt, a close friend since high school, described a lifelong friendship forged on the football fields of Central Florida. "Leesburg (High) had one play: 'Give the ball to McBride,' " said Bolt, who, as a 155-pound lineman from Sanford High, was once "mowed down" by the 180-pound McBride.
Buddy Schulz, a law school classmate of McBride's and later a law partner and a close friend for decades, recalled getting one final voice mail message from McBride last Friday, the day before he died, as the family headed for North Carolina.
"As always, they were late, and he was talking fast," Schulz said. "But he said to me, 'Let me know if there's anything I can do for you.' That was Bill McBride."
During Vietnam, when student deferments ended, Schulz said, his law school classmates scattered to join reserve units so that they could later gain re-admittance to law school.
Not McBride. He joined the Marines, volunteered for combat duty and was awarded a Bronze Star for his wartime service.
"He came home a war hero," Schulz said. "The rest of us just came home."
As Friday's memorial service drew to a conclusion, three U.S. Marines meticulously folded an American flag and presented it to Sink.
McBride's ashes will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C. "He was very proud of his service," son Bert said.
A turning point in McBride's life came when the respected lawyer Chesterfield Smith chose McBride to be his assistant as he began a two-year term as president of the American Bar Association.
Smith became McBride's mentor. At Friday's service, people who saw McBride as a mentor weren't hard to find. They included former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who, as a 25-year-old novice running for a Hillsborough County Commission seat in 1984, got her first campaign contribution from McBride.
Iorio said Friday's service was an inspiration to all who attended.
"Bill wanted his life to matter. He wanted to do good," Iorio said. " 'How can I help other people?' That's the legacy of Bill McBride."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.