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William Reece Smith Jr., former American Bar Association president, dead at 87

William Reece Smith Jr. was a man of many accomplishments: college quarterback, Rhodes scholar, Navy ensign, prominent attorney, president of the American Bar Association.

But one of the best stories Sylvia Walbolt can recount about the busy powerhouse lawyer is how he would take a few moments to wave a handkerchief at the window of his Harbour Island law office. At the time, Walbolt's 9-year-old daughter was getting chemotherapy at Tampa General Hospital, and she could see Mr. Smith's waves from her room. It was his way of perking the girl up, and she would happily wave back with a towel.

"I always thought that ought to tell anybody about all they needed to know about Reece Smith," said Walbolt, who practiced with Smith at the Carlton Fields law firm for nearly 50 years.

Many more stories were being fondly told in the Tampa Bay area on Friday after news spread that Mr. Smith died that morning after a brief illness. He was 87.

Mr. Smith was remembered as A Consummate Lawyer — a book was written about him with that title — but he also was a gentlemanly behind-the-scenes figure who worked to negotiate settlements in his cases, and who also strongly believed in civic involvement.

He served as Tampa city attorney and as interim president of the University of South Florida. As a lawyer, he argued cases at all levels of the judicial system, including before the U.S. Supreme Court. Some say he is the only person who has served as president of a county, state and international bar association, as well as the American Bar Association.

For all his educational and legal achievements and all the places he visited in a career that spanned six decades, Mr. Smith was always anchored to his roots in Plant City. A humble upbringing fostered in him a love of people, his family said, but also a tenacious drive to succeed and be the best in his chosen course.

"He wasn't driven by the need to rub elbows with the high and mighty all the time," said his son, William Reece Smith III. "I always saw the Plant City in him."

Mr. Smith graduated from Plant City High School and went on to attend the University of South Carolina, where he played quarterback. In World War II, he served in the U.S. Navy with the rank of ensign aboard the USS Columbia.

He received his law degree from the University of Florida in 1949 with high honors and became a Rhodes scholar.

Mr. Smith was considered a highly skilled trial attorney. But he became a lawyer at a time when lawyers were less specialized and perhaps a bit more civil to each other and willing to negotiate equitable settlements, colleagues say.

Indeed, many who knew Mr. Smith noted his commitment to principle that was balanced by a willingness to compromise.

"He was willing to compromise in a way that you didn't realize it was a compromise," said Mr. Smith's friend, Tampa lawyer Bill Wagner. "He didn't look at it as your side versus my side."

Mr. Smith was part of a legal tradition in which "the best solution to a dispute is to work it out and the best way to work it out is through talking and negotiating and settlement," said Michael L. Swygert, a professor emeritus at the Stetson University College of Law, who wrote the book about Mr. Smith. Sometimes, Swygert said, "He felt lawyers were too quick to recommend litigation to their clients."

The young lawyer saw his profession as a calling and a service, rather than a business. And he held that belief throughout his career.

He became an advocate for the poor and felt it was the duty of every lawyer to provide low-cost legal services to those with limited means.

After Mr. Smith became American Bar Association president in 1980, he rallied against a proposal by President Ronald Reagan to cut funding for a federal program that provided legal services to the poor.

Adherence to good ethics guided his legal practice and was something he tried to instill into the young legal scholars at Stetson, where he taught for more than 20 years.

"It wasn't enough to be a winner," his son said. "You had to win the right way or it didn't count."

The younger Smith also recalled his father as one who believed in broad-based education — the more you knew beyond your chosen profession, the better you could relate to all kinds of people.

It was a principle he kept close when he served as interim president of the University of South Florida from 1976 to 1977.

Many also said Mr. Smith was committed to diversity at a time when many Southern law firms weren't. At Carlton Fields in the 1960s, he strove to hire and mentor young people, particularly young women, who weren't always accepted in the legal profession.

"He was very definitely a mentor to me," said Gwynne Young, a Carlton Fields shareholder and current president of the Florida Bar Association — a post Mr. Smith held four decades earlier. "We had women and partners before other Southern law firms had them, and I think that was in large part because of Reece."

As Tampa city attorney in the 1960s, Mr. Smith helped defuse race riots that erupted after police shot a black man in the back. He later helped establish a committee that organized better training for police officers in matters of race relations.

"His positions were not ones of party lines and legal cliques," his son said. "His positions were the principles he held."


William Reece Smith Jr.

Born: Sept. 19, 1925

Died: Jan. 11, 2013

Survivors: son, William Reece Smith III, and daughter-in-law, Rachel-Anne Winter Smith; grandson, William Reece Smith IV, (Liam); and former wife Marlene Medina Smith.

Services: A visitation funeral service will be held at 1 p.m. Thursday at Hyde Park United Methodist Church, 500 W Platt St., Tampa, with a reception to follow at Chester Ferguson Law Center of the Hillsborough County Bar Association, 1601 N Tampa St.

William Reece Smith Jr., former American Bar Association president, dead at 87 01/11/13 [Last modified: Friday, January 11, 2013 11:07pm]
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