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Claude Kirk never forgot a name or face

Watching some governors can be painful. Enough to make you cry.

Gov. Claude Kirk, who died last week at 85, was different. Always entertaining, even when he was serious.

As a candidate his memory for people and their names was unparalleled.

I met him in early 1966 as he barnstormed the state in small airplanes, dropping in for campaign appearances in places like Crystal River and Chiefland. Early one morning with our 3-year-old son, Andy, in tow, I covered a Kirk press conference at the Crystal River Airport.

Being the politician that he was, Kirk paused to introduce himself to the 3-year-old, never one to miss an encounter with a child.

A month later with the red-haired son again accompanying me, I ran into Kirk as he campaigned at the Chiefland Watermelon Festival. An aide ran his hand across the red hair and called Andy "Red.''

Kirk spun around on his heel, pointing at the aide: "His name is Andy, use it.''

It was stunning. You would expect the politicians to remember the names of voters, but a 3-year-old he had met once? Nobody really expected him to win. He was, after all, a Republican in a state dominated by Democrats.

But Kirk was running against Robert King High, a liberal Democrat from South Florida who was perpetually late to almost everything and sometimes just didn't make it to campaign events.

After he was elected governor, Kirk entertained us all with constant taunting of the Legislature and other members of the state's political establishment, particularly the old "Pork Chop Gang'' that controlled everything.

Faced with reports of public corruption, he hired the Wackenhut Detective Agency to investigate. Wackenhut agents were everywhere, looking into reported crime.

Citrus County had its own Wackenhut agent. And was he ever busy. Before long the state had indicted Citrus County Clerk Francis "Cowboy" Williams on 73 counts of grand larceny and forging county checks. The county commissioners were tossed out after state auditors discovered the county road department was buying fancy wheel covers for sports cars and things like shotgun shells.

The uproar finally forced state legislators to create a state department of law enforcement that could look at public corruption. It was long overdue. Too bad Kirk can't come back and goose things to life once again.

On the environmental front, Kirk was golden. He hired millionaire Nat Reed to fight the forces of evil and push for environmental controls that preserved state resources at a critical time in our history.

As state officials considered construction of a new state Capitol building, Kirk complained that others were trying to build "princely and ponderous palaces for political potentates."

We used his words again last year as we watched the 1st District Court of Appeal build a new courthouse in Tallahassee that has since been dubbed the "Taj Mahal.''

Shortly after the first courthouse story was posted on the St. Petersburg Times website Aug. 8, 2010, I received an e-mail from Kirk's son, Erik, a Tallahassee lobbyist. He and his father were together in West Palm Beach waiting for the former first lady to recover from a serious illness at St. Mary's Hospital.

"Dad is ready to report for duty!'' the younger Kirk wrote. A man with a sense of humor that never dimmed. Ever ready to take on the establishment.

Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan can be reached at lmorgan@sptimes.com.

Claude Kirk never forgot a name or face 10/01/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 1, 2011 4:30am]
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