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Eccentric crusader Jim Fair, 73, dies

Jim Fair, former Hillsborough County elections supervisor and one of Florida's best-known eccentric politicians, died Sunday (June 2, 1991). He was 73. The self-proclaimed champion of the little guy died at the Gainesville Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where he had been under treatment for acute promylocytic leukemia.

Mr. Fair, who changed his name from James Searcy Farrior, walked away from membership in a wealthy Tampa family to successfully challenge the established order with salvos of lawsuits that made a difference.

He is credited with helping office-seekers win the right to submit petitions rather than filing fees to run for office. For "the little people" he won the right for them to vote in bond issue elections even if they owned no property.

"I was raised to be fair," he said in an interview published last month in the St. Petersburg Times. "Fairness was a big thing with me. I wanted to make a new name for myself. Things people work for all their lives _ wealth and material goods _ I worked to get away from. Because of my values."

Legal scraps by the bearded, ponytailed Mr. Fair _ who was not a lawyer _ went on for more than two decades. He once went to court with one of his handwritten legal complaints in an effort to save a favorite oak tree in Tallahassee. On another occasion, he won the fight to walk through the city's drive-in booth to pay his utility bill.

During the 1960s, he was a frequent foe of the telephone and electric utilities. He kicked off the 1990s with a suit against the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission, challenging secrecy surrounding investigations of the state's judges.

Over the years, the Annapolis graduate and World War II hero and engineer vainly sought one public office after another, including the office of Tampa mayor. His most recent setback came last year. Fighting what he saw as unfair elections laws, he ran as a write-in for secretary of state. He lost.

But back in 1968 it was different. He stunned the Tampa establishment by winning the supervisor of elections seat in Hillsborough County. Once in power, Mr. Fair gave a home in his office to the homeless.

Less than two years later, he was impeached and suspended from office by then-Gov. Claude Kirk and removed by the Florida Senate in 1970.

He was accused of staffing his office with "hippies" who busied themselves with helping him file assorted lawsuits against other public officials and agencies instead of conducting the required biennial purge of inactive voters.

When he began the purge, his critics charged, he sent cards to all 210,000 registered voters instead of the 30,000 who had not voted in the previous four years.

He also allegedly violated the purge law by using a congressman's franked envelopes, which had no postmark to date them, and "summarily humiliated" five career employees by firing them in a public ceremony.

Mr. Fair fought back, ultimately taking his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he lost. He sought other public offices. He got into fistfights. He was arrested on charges of trespassing in front of Curtis Hixon Hall in Tampa, gathering signatures to get his name on the ballot for Congress.

A county judge declared him insane. He was sent to the state mental hospital in Chattahoochee. Then a state hearing office deemed him sane as anyone.

"Evidently, this man was sent to the hospital for some other reason" than insanity, said hearing officer Jon Caminez in his report. "Political systems opposed to democracy use these tactics."

Mr. Fair was free. But it was not until 1988 that the perennial combatant against bureaucracy and entrenched power won a 15-year battle for restoration of his right to vote and seek public office. He made his home in Tallahassee, refusing to return to Tampa.

"The one thing I'd like before I die is the correction that I'm a kook," he said in the recent interview. "Nobody was more serious about the government than me. I was a patriot. My whole life has been one of misunderstandings. I just tried to help people, and everything I did was twisted around by the cynical."

Mr. Fair was educated in Tampa schools. At Henry B. Plant High School he was voted most popular. After high school, he won a scholarship to the University of Tampa and appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. He graduated from the academy with an electrical engineering degree.

In World War II he won seven combat stars for duty that included service aboard battleships, cruisers and aircraft carriers. Battle injuries damaged his hearing and he developed a spastic colon. After a dozen years in the service he received a medical discharge as a lieutenant commander.

Returning to Tampa he spurned engineering to open a series of unusual department stores that catered to the poor. Best-known was a four-story business on Franklin Street called the A-1 Catalog Discount House Department Store Get It For You Wholesale Co. Swap Shop and Rent All _ Salvation Navy for short.

Survivors include a daughter, Katherine Carter, Lakeland; three sisters, Sarah Farrior Hunter, Lakeland, and Evelyn Farrior Polk and Judy Farrior Drake, Tampa; two brothers, Dr. J. Brown Farrior and Dr. Richard Farrior, Tampa; and a grandson, Leonard Carter Burns, Lakeland.

A memorial service will be at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Hyde Park Presbyterian Church, Tampa. The family suggested memorial contributions to the church.

Curry & Son Funeral Home, Tampa, is in charge of arrangements.

_ Some information in this obituary came from a story by staff writer Jeff Klinkenberg and from the Associated Press.