He walks with a stoop and looks a bit frail, but as he nears 83, Reubin Askew's intellect is razor-sharp, his memories vivid.
The two-term Democratic governor led Florida for most of the 1970s and spent the past two decades teaching public policy courses at state universities.
He's a living, breathing history of this fascinating state.
Askew freely shared his recollections and opinions Thursday with students from Leadership Florida. With him was good friend Joseph Hatchett, who in 1975 was the first African-American to serve on the Florida Supreme Court, thanks to the former governor.
Fate has forged an inseparable bond between the two men, and when they share their thoughts, they call it "The Joe and Rube Show."
Askew joked about his native Muskogee, Okla., a place memorialized by Merle Haggard in the famous line, "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee."
"That was a lie," Askew deadpanned.
He was 9 when his mom packed up the family and headed east to Pensacola.
From that Panhandle base, Askew helped lead the charge against rural pork-choppers in favor of more political power for urban Florida.
Hatchett, 79, a Clearwater native, regaled the audience with the story of toting his trombone to Florida A&M University in 1950, when he joined the school's famed marching band.
"They were the Marching 99 until I came," Hatchett said.
The state was rigidly segregated, and Askew said of his friend: "He was a guy who couldn't even stay in the hotel where they took the Bar examination."
Askew put Hatchett on the state's highest court in 1975 and immediately Hatchett had to mount a campaign to retain the seat in the 1976 election, which he did with the help of Askew's political organization.
Following a scandal in which three Supreme Court justices were impeached, Askew replaced the popular election of judges with a system of screening and appointments known as merit selection.
When Askew became President Jimmy Carter's trade representative, Hatchett did the swearing-in ceremony. Carter later made Hatchett a federal judge.
"My whole career has been on the shoulders of Gov. Askew," Hatchett said.
Askew strongly championed school desegregation in 1971, and in a memorable speech at the University of Florida said the Constitution would be upheld, "and rightly so," three words that he said offended some friends.
"I never had so many friends get tired all of a sudden. They were not around," Askew said. He recalled a woman angrily confronting him at an event and saying, "We ought to bus you back to Moscow."
Both men are upset by current legislative efforts to reshape the judiciary by creating two Supreme Courts, abolish judicial nominating panels and require a 60-percent threshhold in future merit retention votes for appeals judges.
"The feeling in the Legislature is that the court system is their enemy," Askew said. "It bothers me."
Askew, who served 12 years in the Legislature, said he still cannot believe today's presiding officers — the House speaker and Senate president — have the power to fire every unelected senior staff member.
And people think the courts have too much power? "It's the Legislature that's too strong," Askew said.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.