TALLAHASSEE — Claude Kirk Jr., a colorful and confrontational leader who served as the first Republican governor of Florida since Reconstruction, died early Wednesday. He was 85.
A statement released by the Kirk family said he died peacefully in his sleep at home in West Palm Beach. He suffered a mild heart attack in February.
Gov. Kirk served one term as governor from 1967 to 1971, a turbulent period of Vietnam War protests, teacher strikes, school desegregation and massive population growth in the Sunshine State.
His presence at the center of the political stage made the times more unpredictable. He was sometimes so outrageous his name has come to be synonymous with flamboyance in politics in Florida.
He led Florida in a time of great upheaval, as a court-ordered remapping of legislative districts ended the control of the Pork Choppers, a band of rural North Florida conservatives. He helped usher in the 1968 Florida Constitution that created the office of lieutenant governor, required annual sessions of the Legislature and reorganized a bureaucratic backwater into a streamlined executive branch.
He was credited with placing greater emphasis on the environment, providing the impetus for a statewide law enforcement agency and injecting overdue energy into the Republican Party.
Most of all, Gov. Kirk relished a good fight.
He clashed repeatedly with the Democrat-controlled Legislature, the all-Democratic Cabinet and the courts. By the end of his term, voters had become weary of the circus-like atmosphere surrounding the man known as "Claudius Maximus."
In 1970, Florida voters elected Democrat Reubin Askew to succeed Gov. Kirk, and it would be 16 years before another Republican (Bob Martinez of Tampa) would become governor.
Gov. Kirk once called himself "a tree-shakin' son of a bitch," and laughed it off as a "clerical error" when a reporter exposed that he charged his honeymoon travel to Florida taxpayers.
He had a secret slush fund to augment his jet-setting lifestyle, financed by supporters, and he called it the Governor's Club.
He gave a $90,000 state contract to New York publicist William Safire, later the long-time New York Times columnist, to promote his image.
Gov. Kirk was a prosperous insurance executive from Jacksonville who had never held public office until his election in 1966. He won in large part because Democrats were bitterly divided over their nomination of Robert King High, a liberal Miami mayor, over Gov. Haydon Burns, who refused to endorse High.
"He marked the very beginning of the Republican growth in the state," said Curt Kiser, a former Pinellas County lawmaker who worked in Gov. Kirk's office while attending law school. "He was very innovative. He brought a lot of new people into state government and he helped fashion the modern image of Florida."
One of those people was Nathaniel Reed of Hobe Sound, a respected conservationist who became the first full-time environmental adviser to a Florida governor, at $1 a year.
"He was brash, rude, domineering, inventive, determined and marvelously good-humored," Reed said Wednesday.
Reed said Gov. Kirk was persuaded to drop his support for such "boondoggles" as a jetport in the Everglades and the Cross-Florida Barge Canal, and he ended the practice of untreated sewage being flushed into the Atlantic Ocean.
After serving as governor, Gov. Kirk ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate and state education commissioner. In 1984, he submitted his name as a presidential candidate in New Hampshire.
He worked as a business consultant, made speeches, and doted on his grandchildren.
At a 2006 symposium at the University of Central Florida, Gov. Kirk criticized his successors for not dealing with a water shortage, pollution by sugar growers and the high school dropout rate.
Recalling that he broke ground at the Orlando campus while governor, Gov. Kirk said: "I dug the dirt that started this place."
• • •
Claude Roy Kirk Jr. was born in San Bernardino, Calif., where his parents, Claude Sr. and Sarah Mrytle McClure Kirk, worked as railroad clerks. The family later moved to Chicago where his father sold mobile homes, and later to Montgomery, Ala.
After graduating from Lanier High School in Montgomery in 1943, during World War II, Kirk joined the Marine Corps Reserves and served with an artillery unit in the United States. He was called back to active duty during the Korean War and awarded the Air Medal of the Marine Corps and discharged as a first lieutenant in 1952.
He earned a bachelor of science degree at Duke University and a law degree from the University of Alabama.
In addition to his wife, Kirk is survived by seven children: Sarah, Katherine, William, Frank, Adriana, Claudia and Erik. He also is survived by 14 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
The family said information on services and memorial contributions will be forthcoming.
• • •
From the moment he became the state's 36th governor, on Jan. 3, 1967, Gov. Kirk displayed a flair for the dramatic.
In his inaugural address, he called for a special session of the Legislature to write a new state Constitution. He also said he was setting up a private police force to drive organized crime out of the state, and hired the Wackenhut security agency to lead a so-called "war on crime."
At his inaugural ball that night, Gov. Kirk stole the spotlight from Perry Como and the Ray Charles Singers by introducing his glamorous escort as "Madame X, my very good friend." The "mystery woman" turned out to be his future second wife, German-born Erika Mattfeld.
The next day, the soon-to-be first couple vanished for a surprise vacation. Reporters found them at the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, relaxing on George Wackenhut's yacht, named Security Risk.
The two had met in Brazil where Erika was working as a model and TV actress, and were married in February 1967, about a month after Kirk became governor.
After fathering three children while governor, Gov. Kirk liked to call his administration "the most productive in Florida history."
Gov. Kirk had a promoter's instinct for salesmanship and he never tired of the limelight. His last major public appearance was at Gov. Rick Scott's inauguration in January.
Kiser recalled that one of his duties was to promote Gov. Kirk as a possible vice-presidential running mate of Richard Nixon in 1968 by mailing packets of Kirk press clippings to GOP activists across the country.
"Part of my job was to help promote the governor's name nationwide," said Kiser, a lawyer and lobbyist in Tallahassee.
But when Nixon chose Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew instead, a piqued Gov. Kirk threw his support to New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.
The second half of Gov. Kirk's term was marked by a series of controversies, most notably a statewide teachers' strike and Gov. Kirk's defiance of a court order desegregating Florida schools. Gov. Kirk at one point suspended the entire Manatee County School Board and appointed himself school superintendent.
After first signaling his support for a huge pay raise for legislators, Gov. Kirk vetoed it, which infuriated lawmakers, who overrode his veto.
Kiser recalled hearing there were two versions of a Kirk speech — one if he signed the pay raise and one if he vetoed it. "We all were in the dark," Kiser said. "We didn't know which speech he was going to give until he went up to the chambers."
"He double-crossed the Legislature by promising lawmakers a pay raise and then vetoing it, after which the angry legislators overrode the veto and never paid any attention to him again," Martin Dyckman wrote in the St. Petersburg Times.
Reporter Don Pride, who covered Kirk for the Times, said he was writing a column one Saturday afternoon in his office in the sub-basement of the historic Old Capitol and had his 4-year-old son Rob in tow when Gov. Kirk popped his head into the news office.
The governor whisked the boy into his waiting state limousine with the small American flags on the fenders, and they went to the Governor's Mansion where they toured the rooms and rode up and down the elevator.
On the spot, Pride abandoned the critical column on Gov. Kirk that he planned and told the story of Gov. Kirk's visit with his son instead.
It was a different time, Pride said, when Gov. Kirk provided beer to reporters at press parties at the Governor's Mansion, which had a bar stocked with gin and Scotch. They all played slow-pitch softball on the mansion front lawn.
Pride said Gov. Kirk once broke his arm in a game by sliding into a tree that served as third base, and that Gov. Kirk liked being photographed with his arm in a sling.
"Kirk was really a showman," Pride said.
Times staff writers Craig Basse and Andrew Meacham and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, and information from Current Biography and the Associated Press was used. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.