TALLAHASSEE — Doyle Conner, the youngest state House speaker in Florida history who went on to spend 30 years as the state's agriculture commissioner, died Sunday. He was 83.
Conner, who had been in poor health in recent years, died Sunday morning at the Cross Landing Nursing Home in Monticello. The Bevis Funeral Home in Tallahassee said it had received his body and was handling funeral arrangements. Conner would have been 84 today.
"Our state has lost a great Floridian with the passing of Doyle Conner," said current Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. "Doyle was a mentor to me and defined the role of Commissioner of Agriculture for all others to follow. My prayers are with his family and the thoughts of the entire department are on him at this time."
Florida's agriculture sales increased from $900 million when Conner was elected commissioner in 1960 to $6.2 billion by the time he left the post. Hog cholera was eradicated during the same period, and Florida developed a method for detecting the Mediterranean fruit fly that became the worldwide standard.
He also created the Office of Consumer Services, now an official part of the agency formally known as the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Born Dec. 17, 1928, in the North Florida town of Starke, Conner was elected to the Florida House in 1950 at the age of 21 during his sophomore year at the University of Florida, after getting his start in politics as the state president of Future Farmers of America.
A Democrat at the time, his party held a virtual stranglehold on Florida, Conner won re-election to subsequent terms and was selected speaker in 1957 at the age of 28.
After five terms in the House, he was elected agriculture commissioner shortly before his 32nd birthday. Conner handily won re-election until his retirement in January 1991.
"These past 30 years have been mostly exhilarating, sometimes disappointing, but never, ever dull," Conner said upon leaving office.
The agency has widespread responsibilities, ranging from inspecting red meat, poultry and dairy products to testing the accuracy of fuel pumps at Florida's service stations and ensuring the safety of the state's citrus crop.
When Conner first took office, the department also supervised the state prisons system and managed public land matters — responsibilities reassigned after its reorganization in 1969.
Conner's management style engendered lifetime loyalties from former associates.
"In all the time I worked for him, he had a policy that anytime any employee wanted to come to visit him they could have a 15-minute appointment to talk about whatever they wanted," said Lee Hinkle, a former vice president at Florida State University who worked for Conner for eight years. "He was principled, a gentleman and understood the true politics of the South: Respect for people of both parties and respect for the process."
During his college days, Conner was president of UF's agriculture club and a member of Florida Blue Key. He was later president of the university's national alumni association.
Conner, who grew up raising livestock and farming on 400 acres, retired to country life near Lloyd in Jefferson County after leaving his Cabinet post.