A few months back when I was writing about politics where politics does not belong — Republicans opposing the retention of three Florida Supreme Court justices who had apparently displeased them — my first call was a no-brainer.
I did what people in this town have done for decades when they needed to understand history and its nuance from someone who lived it. Or when they wanted wise guidance, political or otherwise. Or when some troubled entity needed a steady hand. I called Fred Karl.
Karl, 88, was absurdly overqualified for my questions, having been (deep breath here) a state legislator, county administrator, county and city attorney both, a lawyer and statesman known for his sensibility. In seven runs for office, he lost once, for governor in 1964. In more recent years he retired once, twice, three times, only to be begged back again.
Tampa General's a mess? Somebody call Fred Karl!
For my purposes that particular day, he had been not only an actual Florida Supreme Court justice in the 1970s, but also the last one who had to campaign for the job in an election.
So, about mixing politics with what's supposed to be an independent judiciary …
"It destroys the integrity of the court," he began.
Who do we call now, without Fred Karl?
For years, even as his health declined, you would see him out and about with Someone Important at one of the good tables at Valencia Garden, the see-and-be-seen restaurant where they served trout a la Rusa with a side of political dish.
Always he ordered the Angel's Salad, the Tampafied version of a chef's, and everyone stopped at his table to talk about the latest. There was always a latest — who was running, who was out, what was next, and what did Fred think about it all?
When he was not well, you might be lucky enough to be invited to visit him at the Harbour Island home with the view of the channel where he lived with his wife, Mercedes. He would be sitting in his chair impeccably dressed just like he was downtown running things, no matter how much effort it took to get himself there.
He was forthright when I asked about his health: Progressive Parkinson's disease, he said, and diabetes and heart trouble. His brain was as good as ever but his body had turned on him, had "gone to hell," as he matter-of-factly put it. He trembled as he discussed the "unhappy mess" of the latest scandals over at county center — that government high-rise he himself finagled for us taxpayers at a bargain price, a building that today rightly bears his name.
He wrote a book a couple of years ago titled The 57 Club: My Four Decades in Florida Politics, a treasure map of the state's history. The cover shows him slumped in a chair in suit and tie and nerdy glasses, fist to chin, glum and pensive. He told me it was snapped the day he reluctantly quit the Supreme Court for financial reasons. His face looks like he is saying: Can you believe this? And also: This isn't how this should be.
When a person dies, you are technically always correct in saying there will be no one else like him. But around here, that could be no more true than with the passing of a man who has been a sort of mentor, statesman and grandfather, Fred Karl.