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Harry Singletary, first African-American to run Florida prisons, dies at 63

TALLAHASSEE — Harry Singletary Jr., a basketball star at Florida Presbyterian College in St. Petersburg in the '60s who later became the first African-American to run the Florida prison system, died Friday (Jan. 29, 2010).

The Tarpon Springs native was 63 and lived in Tallahassee.

A product of a rigidly segregated Pinellas County, Mr. Singletary got a master's degree in social services at the University of Chicago, even though neither of his parents finished high school.

He worked in a variety of administrative posts in Illinois, including as a counselor at the juvenile prison in Joliet, considered one of the toughest in the country.

He came home and worked his way up the ladder in the Florida system and was chosen by Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1991 to head the Department of Corrections, a job he held for all eight of Chiles' years in office.

But as Mr. Singletary himself told the story, it almost didn't happen. In a first-person account on the Department of Corrections Web site, Mr. Singletary said he met with Chiles in April 1991 and was told he wasn't getting the job.

Despite the disappointment, he said, "There is nothing worse he can say to you. … So go for it, Singletary."

For the next 20 minutes, he forcefully made his pitch for the job and Chiles changed his mind on the spot and hired him.

"Please don't tell anyone about this conversation. I need to make some changes," he recalled Chiles saying.

Mr. Singletary's tenure had its share of controversy, with an exploding prison population and a notorious incident in which seven murderers dug a tunnel and escaped from Glades Correctional Institution.

Republicans took control of the Senate at the start of Chiles' second term, and Singletary's confirmation as prison boss was briefly in jeopardy, which prompted his former college basketball coach to vouch for him.

"I wrote a letter in support of him," Jim Harley said. "I remember saying, 'Whatever the budget was of the Department of Corrections, you could give it to him in cash and he wouldn't have taken a dime of it.' "

In college, too, Mr. Singletary was a trailblazer.

At just under 6-3, the school's first black basketball player was nicknamed "The Spring" and could touch the top of the backboard, longtime friend Jerry House recalled. Friends recall that Florida Presbyterian (now Eckerd College) had never seen someone with Mr. Singletary's leaping ability.

"There's a picture of him in the Eckerd gym, and he's up about 2 feet over the basket," House said. "He brought a whole new deal around here with his jumping."

A United Press small-college All-American, he set 16 scoring and rebounding records and was drafted by the Dallas Chaparrals of the old American Basketball Association.

In recent years, Mr. Singletary taught at an alternative school in Tallahassee for adolescents who were struggling academically.

"He would say, 'I'm taking kids nobody else wants to teach, but I feel good about it,' " House said.

Services will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at Timberland Church of Christ in Tallahassee. Culley's MeadowWood Funeral Home is handling arrangements.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

TALLAHASSEE — Harry Singletary Jr., a basketball star at Florida Presbyterian College in St. Petersburg in the '60s who later became the first African-American to run the Florida prison system, died Friday (Jan. 29, 2010).

The Tarpon Springs native was 63 and lived in Tallahassee.

A product of a rigidly segregated Pinellas County, Mr. Singletary got a master's degree in social services at the University of Chicago, even though neither of his parents finished high school.

He worked in a variety of administrative posts in Illinois, including as a counselor at the juvenile prison in Joliet, considered one of the toughest in the country.

He came home and worked his way up the ladder in the Florida system and was chosen by Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1991 to head the Department of Corrections, a job he held for all eight of Chiles' years in office.

But as Mr. Singletary himself told the story, it almost didn't happen. In a first-person account on the Department of Corrections Web site, Mr. Singletary said he met with Chiles in April 1991 and was told he wasn't getting the job.

Despite the disappointment, he said, "There is nothing worse he can say to you. … So go for it, Singletary."

For the next 20 minutes, he forcefully made his pitch for the job and Chiles changed his mind on the spot and hired him.

"Please don't tell anyone about this conversation. I need to make some changes," he recalled Chiles saying.

Mr. Singletary's tenure had its share of controversy, with an exploding prison population and a notorious incident in which seven murderers dug a tunnel and escaped from Glades Correctional Institution.

Republicans took control of the Senate at the start of Chiles' second term, and Singletary's confirmation as prison boss was briefly in jeopardy, which prompted his former college basketball coach to vouch for him.

"I wrote a letter in support of him," Jim Harley said. "I remember saying, 'Whatever the budget was of the Department of Corrections, you could give it to him in cash and he wouldn't have taken a dime of it.' "

In college, too, Mr. Singletary was a trailblazer.

At just under 6-3, the school's first black basketball player was nicknamed "The Spring" and could touch the top of the backboard, longtime friend Jerry House recalled.

Friends recall that Florida Presbyterian (now Eckerd College) had never seen someone with Mr. Singletary's leaping ability.

"There's a picture of him in the Eckerd gym, and he's up about 2 feet over the basket," House said. "He brought a whole new deal around here with his jumping."

A United Press small-college All-American, he set 16 scoring and rebounding records and was drafted by the Dallas Chaparrals of the old American Basketball Association.

In recent years, Mr. Singletary taught at an alternative school in Tallahassee for adolescents who were struggling academically.

"He would say, 'I'm taking kids nobody else wants to teach, but I feel good about it,' " House said.

Services will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at Timberland Church of Christ in Tallahassee. Culley's MeadowWood Funeral Home is handling arrangements.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Harry Singletary, first African-American to run Florida prisons, dies at 63 02/01/10 [Last modified: Monday, February 1, 2010 11:23pm]
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