TAMPA — LeRoy "Roy" Collins Jr., a retired two-star admiral, successful businessman, champion for veterans and son of one of Florida's best-known governors, died Thursday when a sport utility vehicle struck his bicycle. He was 75.
Hours after Mr. Collins' death, ruled an accident, Gov. Charlie Crist interrupted a Cabinet meeting to announce the news and observe a moment of silence.
Capitol flags were lowered to half-staff for Mr. Collins, the executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans' Affairs.
"Our state has lost a great man today," said Attorney General Bill McCollum, one of many officials who put out statements.
At 6-foot-3, Mr. Collins was a striking presence, with chiseled features, thick white hair and a 35-inch waist — the same as when he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1956.
He rowed six miles most days in a scull painted Navy blue, with two gold stars. He launched a series of companies, but drove a 10-year-old Volvo with spotty air conditioning. A self-taught piano player, he once persuaded his commanding officers to put an upright piano on a nuclear sub.
And he was famously independent. In the 1980s, his Democratic father was aghast when Mr. Collins registered as a Republican. Nearly 20 years later, Mr. Collins ventured into politics to run against Katherine Harris, one of the GOP's best-known figures, whom he considered unfit to serve in the U.S. Senate.
"He had what most candidates brag about having — things like honesty, integrity, strong family values and a love for America," said Chris Ingram, who left Harris' campaign and went to work for Mr. Collins. "You knew it from the moment you met him."
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A fifth-generation Floridian, Mr. Collins was the son of LeRoy Collins, who, as governor from 1955 to 1961, appealed to heads and hearts of average Floridians to reject racial segregation.
An Eagle Scout, Mr. Collins received his commission from Annapolis in 1956. In 1961, he boarded a brand-new, nuclear-powered submarine, the USS James Madison, as a ballistic missile weapons officer. And it was there that he managed to get a piano below deck.
"Anytime there was a piano around, he played it," said his sister, Jane Aurell of Tallahassee.
In 1966, Mr. Collins transferred to the Naval Reserve, where he held a series of increasingly responsible posts. He retired as a two-star rear admiral in 1990.
Around the time he went into the Reserve, Mr. Collins also went into business. In the late 1960s, he and Ed DeBarba took on the task of bringing MasterCard, then known as Master Charge, to seven Florida counties.
Thus began a partnership that spun off a series of financial services ventures, a couple of which they sold to Fortune 500 companies. Their companies — "too many to catalog," DeBarba said — mainly worked in electronic banking: ATMs, credit cards, debit cards and the like.
They worked together nearly 40 years, at one time employed nearly 400 people and never had a problem, said DeBarba, now 85 and living in Palm Harbor.
"We never signed a piece of paper," he said. "We had a handshake, and that was it."
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Mr. Collins inherited his father's courtly manners and concern for Florida's future. But when it came to politics, he had a mind of his own.
In the 1980s, Mr. Collins followed his admiration of Ronald Reagan to the GOP. His father called it a serious mistake.
"That phone just about melted in my hand," Mr. Collins recalled with a chuckle in 2006. "He really, really gave me hell."
That same year, Mr. Collins entered the Republican primary for U.S. Senate an hour and a half before the qualifying deadline. At his first campaign rally, one person showed up, an old Navy buddy. The campaign ran on a shoestring and losing came as no surprise.
"He knew it was a long shot," Mr. Collins' son, LeRoy Collins III, said. "He just felt like he should say what he needed to say."
At a time in life when others coast, Mr. Collins remained driven and passionate.
At the Florida Department of Veterans' Affairs, he is credited with helping bring a veterans hospital to Orlando and advocating for veterans returning from Iraq.
On the Fourth of July, he delivered a sermon on patriotism at his church, Saint Andrew's Episcopal, in his dress whites.
On his blog, leroycollins.org, he wrote about current affairs, old friends, military life, history, love for his country and his family.
"I do not see this as the winter of my life," he wrote in January 2009. "Maybe the fall . . . still with a glorious panorama of colorful leaves. With all four of our children within a 4-mile radius (along with 8 grandchildren) . . . with me still meaningfully employed on a daily basis . . . still able to row (scull) 10 miles in an outing, and swim 1,000 yards without stop, and bicycle several miles each way to row."
It was on his way from his waterfront home on Davis Islands to go rowing that Mr. Collins died Thursday.
It was about 6 a.m., and Mr. Collins was in a crosswalk in South Tampa when his bicycle was struck by an SUV driven by Margaux Manuel, 27.
Manuel, a second-year obstetrics and gynecology resident at the University of South Florida, was on her way to work at Tampa General Hospital.
She told police she didn't see Collins, who was wearing a helmet, as she turned left from Brorein Street onto S Hyde Park Avenue.
She and two nurses also headed to Tampa General tried to revive him. No charges will be filed, Tampa police said.
At the nonpartisan Collins Center for Public Policy, named for Mr. Collins's father, Mr. Collins had taken part in a board of trustees meeting Wednesday in St. Petersburg.
"We're just as sad as we could be," center president Rod Petrey said. "He was contributing so much. Everybody respected Roy Collins."
Times staff writers John Frank and Danny Valentine and researcher John Martin contributed to this report.