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Outside spotlight, Ira McCollum was pleased and proud of son Bill

Ira McCollum was sometimes overshadowed by his father-in-law, Clyde Lockhart, who was one of the state's pioneering Republicans and a lawyer for Hernando County's dominant bank.

McCollum's son, Bill, who lives near Orlando, served 20 years as a U.S. congressman and one term as Florida attorney general before his unsuccessful run for governor last year.

And, unfortunately, said Ira McCollum's friends and family members, that's the way people sometimes thought of him, as a minor figure between generations of much bigger ones.

But that view is wrong, they say. Ira McCollum, 96, who died Tuesday, was important to the county in his own right — Brooksville's postmaster at a time when that was a high-profile job, and a rancher who helped bring modern farming practices to the county.

And though Lockhart usually gets most of the credit for shaping Bill McCollum's political career, the elder McCollum played at least as large a role.

Yes, Lockhart was the intellectual powerhouse, the one recognized as "Mister Republican" in Hernando County and called "colonel" just because he exuded authority. But he was also stern and, at least from the perspective of Bill McCollum's childhood friends, a little bit scary.

The elder McCollum, on the other hand, was warm and outgoing, qualities he passed on to his son that helped make him an appealing politician.

"He was very kind and gentle and always made you feel welcome in the family," Don Varn, who grew up across the street from the family's house on Liberty Street, said of Ira McCollum.

When reporting previous stories on Bill McCollum's Brooksville childhood, sometimes I felt as though people were talking about two different kids. Learning about his father helped explained why.

The younger McCollum, whose mother, Arline, died when he was 6 years old, lived in the Liberty Street house with his grandparents, even after his father had married his second wife, Alma, and moved to the ranch in eastern Hernando when the younger McCollum was 12 years old. It was a book-filled house where dinner conversations tended to be about law and politics.

No surprise that the people who knew him from town describe him as unusually serious and studious, somebody who dressed and acted more like a miniature corporate lawyer than a child.

Meanwhile, his father told me several times about how much his son liked to hunt for quail, fish for bass and ride horses. He made him sound a lot more fun.

First of all, Bill McCollum said last week, he was capable of enjoying himself in Brooksville. He did, on occasion, play football and climb trees.

But, if there was more time outdoors, and more fun, with his father, that was a reflection of Ira McCollum's personality. The recreational things Ira described his son doing were things they did together when Bill stayed at the ranch on weekends.

The elder McCollum was an outdoors person and a good high school athlete in his hometown of Bushnell who lost his chance to play football at the University of Florida because of a knee injury his freshman year.

"He loved sports. He loved his Gators tremendously," Bill McCollum said.

Ira McCollum, whose education was delayed first by the Depression and then by service in the Navy during World War II, eventually received degrees in business administration and agriculture. His specialty was grass, which was more important than it sounds now.

Most Florida cattle still grazed in the woods. Ira McCollum and Lockhart cleared their 3,000- acre ranch and planted the pastures in bahiagrass, which supported a much larger herd of cattle. And they weren't the spindly cracker cattle that were common in Florida at the time, but a heavily muscled Angus-Brahma cross.

"He was a very sophisticated farmer," his son said.

Until a few years ago, he tended a large vegetable garden, and his favorite meals came from it — fresh-picked greens along with fish he caught. No doubt it was one reason he lived so long, his son said, and was alert until his last days.

It is true he owed a lot to his father-in-law. When President Dwight Eisenhower was elected in 1952, there were only 69 Republicans in the county, and none nearly as powerful as Lockhart. No surprise, he was able to get his son-in-law what was then the prime political appointment in the county — postmaster — once Ira McCollum switched parties.

"That was part of the deal," his son said.

The elder McCollum held the job until 1980, when he retired so he could campaign for his son in his first congressional race. It was a vast district stretching from Clearwater Beach almost to downtown Orlando and including both Hernando and Sumter counties, where Ira McCollum was well known and well liked. It was no coincidence, his son said, that he won both counties.

But Ira McCollum didn't take credit for his son's success, old Brooksville residents said. Sometimes it even seemed he didn't mind being in Bill McCollum's shadow. Certainly he loved being known as his father.

"You might say he had a little bit of an extra glow after Bill became a prominent state and national politician," said Brooksville lawyer Joe Mason.

"If you ever wanted to see his face light up," Varn said, "all you had to do is ask him about Bill. He would just be effervescent."

• • •

Here's a subject Bill McCollum would love: tax increases. And, stunningly, signups for the protax revolution I suggested Friday have been coming in a little slowly.

So let me refine the manifesto. On Friday, I checked with county budget director George Zoettlein, who told me that the increased tax rate needed to make up the full anticipated $5.7 million budget shortfall is 0.773 mills, or about 77 cents per $1,000 dollars of assessed home value.

It's higher than the increase that was very briefly considered last year, he explained, because of falling reserves. Still, for a $100,000 house with a homestead exemption, it comes to only $38.50 a year.

Remember, that's the amount needed to keep the revenue steady — to make up for the overall reduction in what taxpayers will actually pay due to declining property values. It's not really a tax increase (I know, you've heard that before). And we could still have a slight tax break — most of us — and save a lot of services if we just agreed to pay half that much.

We know there's still fat, after all, especially after my colleague Barb Behrendt's report Friday about the county employee benefit package. What other employer pays so much of their workers' health insurance premiums? Not yours, I bet. Definitely not mine.

So how about it, chipping in roughly $20 a year for those of you with a house appraised at $100,000 and a homestead exemption? Are you with me? Are you ready to storm the next budget workshop with vaguely menacing signs demanding no closing of parks or cuts to code enforcement and, furthermore, that the commission darn well better slightly increase our property tax rate?

I'll check my inbox on Monday. No doubt it will be jammed with e-mails from new recruits.

Outside spotlight, Ira McCollum was pleased and proud of son Bill 05/07/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 7, 2011 11:29am]
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