ST. PETERSBURG — For most of a legal career spanning nearly 50 years, Bill Penrose represented people in wrenching situations, many of whom paid him late or not at all.
He could relate to their troubles. Mr. Penrose knew what broken homes felt like, and never handed out advice he wouldn't take himself.
Mr. Penrose, a family lawyer with a solo practice in downtown St. Petersburg, died Jan. 11, of squamous cell cancer. He was 73.
"I can remember him telling our clients, 'Pay your child support before paying me,' " said Fran Adams, 60, his paralegal assistant for 20 years.
William Leonard Penrose was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1940, the son of an itinerant engineer who drank heavily and left for months at a time. The family soon moved to St. Petersburg; Mr. Penrose graduated from St. Petersburg High's class of 1957.
He served three years in the Army, where he was stationed in Korea. He attended three colleges, including what is now Eckerd College, studying English literature before entering Stetson College of Law.
After graduating in 1964, Mr. Penrose worked for what is now Harris, Barrett, Mann and Dew, St. Petersburg's oldest law firm. An early marriage started right out of law school and lasted about four years before ending in divorce.
He married Anthea Lindsay (a former public relations manager at the Times) in 1971 and started another family. Everything looked good on the outside, but appearances deceived.
Over lunch, a respected colleague laid out the case that Mr. Penrose needed to stop drinking.
That was all it took. No arrests, repossessions or DUIs.
Mr. Penrose entered Alcoholics Anonymous in 1982, attending several meetings a week ever since.
"I wish I had a more dramatic story for you but I'm very glad I don't," said Ann Danner, 67, his sister.
Mr. Penrose started his own law firm a year or so later.
He gave dollar bills to the homeless, some of whom followed up by coming to his office. "I told them, 'This is a place of business,' " Adams said. "I had to be the voice of reason."
Her boss never padded his billable time and reimbursed clients for any portion of their retainer fees he had not used on representing them, Adams said.
Though he loved his work and was good at it, Mr. Penrose also saw his law practice as a moral calling. So when Pope John Paul II in 2002 said that lawyers and judges should not participate in divorces, he had a ready reply.
"Whenever there are children involved, I want the people to do whatever is within reason to try to maintain the family unit," Mr. Penrose told the Times in 2002. "That same philosophy does not pertain, however, when there are not children involved. To me, that's really the almost moral equivalent of breaking up in high school. I've always thought that and conducted my business in that way."
Mr. Penrose and his wife divorced in 2005, but he remained close to his family. Health problems affected him in recent years. Pulmonary fibrosis led to a double lung transplant four years ago — which in turn left him vulnerable to the squamous cell carcinoma that caused his death, said his daughter, Lindsay Summer, a nurse practitioner.
But the operation also extended his life long enough to reconnect with a son he had barely known since his first marriage and see all nine grandchildren born.
A gamut of well-wishers turned out Jan. 17 for his memorial celebration at St. Petersburg Country Club, including former clients and many of the hundreds of people he helped through AA.
"The thing that sticks out for me is watching his genuine care for anyone he met," said PJ Penrose, his son, 34, who works in real estate. "He was a lawyer who knew your name. He asked how you were doing and he genuinely meant it. That's something I take with me every day for sure."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.