TAMPA — Louis de la Parte was known to say exactly how he felt, even sitting in a stew of politicians who didn't agree.
His messages were sometimes unpopular, always sincere. Once, when legislation didn't go his way, he was quoted saying this of the others: "I'm sorry that they feel in their hearts that this is the best we can do."
When he could have sailed through to powerful political tiers, he ended his ride. He wanted to see his family more.
"He's one of the finest persons ever to serve in Florida government," said former Florida Gov. Reubin Askew. "He was very bright, courageous, and fought often for causes that weren't otherwise popular. He was really one of my all-time favorites in state government."
Mr. de la Parte, a prominent Florida legislator, died Sunday after years battling Alzheimer's. He was 79.
He was born in West Tampa to a homemaker mother and a father who ran a men's clothing store on Seventh Avenue in Ybor City. In the summer, Mr. de la Parte helped his dad.
His grandmother lived in Tampa projects, and his large extended family came from modest means. Images of their strife seared his mind.
"He had an opportunity growing up to see people who weren't as fortunate as he was and how challenging it can be," said his son, L. David de la Parte, 47.
He thought of becoming a doctor, but it didn't feel right. An uncle exposed him to the legal world, and he was hooked. He had natural leadership and speaking skills.
"I remember him as being just a great persuader," said former Hillsborough County Commissioner Joe Chillura. "He was very articulate."
After law school, he joined the Air Force and started a family. Later, he worked as a prosecutor. Cases involving children disturbed him, and the tale of one boy, 14, was especially haunting.
"He killed his friend's grandmother because she wouldn't let her granddaughter go out to play with him," Mr. de la Parte told the St. Petersburg Times in 1990. "Now, what do you do with a boy like that?"
Locking up kids and people with mental problems didn't work, he believed. They needed help to get better.
"Dad felt if progress could be made scientifically and in the delivery of services in mental health, that many of the problems that he saw when he was prosecuting could be avoided, and a lot of human suffering could be avoided, and a lot of costs to society could be avoided," his son said.
Mr. de la Parte, a Democrat, served in the Florida House of Representatives from 1962 through 1966, and the Senate from 1966 through 1974, serving his final year in the Legislature as Senate president.
During his tenure, he built the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services to help the poor, mentally disabled, elderly and sick. He pushed for environmental legislation and education programs in prisons.
His two children with his wife, Helen, idolized him and followed him to work, at times toting his briefcase. On Sundays, the family had big dinners. He took them on travels around the world.
"Dad enjoyed showing us all the places that he visited when he was in the service," said his son. "He loved to travel. To me, he was bigger than life."
For four years, he worked in private practice with his son. Then, in 1990, early symptoms of Alzheimer's set in, and he retired. In 1996, the Florida Mental Health Institute at the University of South Florida was named after Mr. de la Parte. He was touched.
"He was an idol of mine growing up," said former state Rep. Bob Henriquez, a cousin to Mr. de la Parte. "He was the icon of the family and represented everything that is good about public service and government service and really inspired me in ways that I don't think he ever knew."
Many times, people tried to convince Mr. de la Parte to run for governor, Henriquez said.
"Until this day, I wish he had. This great state would be even greater if he had."