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Sandy D’Alemberte, Florida politician and FSU president, dies at age 85

Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte left his mark on Florida through the law, politics and academia.
Former Florida State University president  Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte next to a stained glass window unveiled in his honor at the school’s original library in 2017. Talbot, considered one of Florida's most prominent statesmen, died at the age of 85 on Monday. [Courtesy of Florida State University]
Former Florida State University president Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte next to a stained glass window unveiled in his honor at the school’s original library in 2017. Talbot, considered one of Florida's most prominent statesmen, died at the age of 85 on Monday. [Courtesy of Florida State University]
Published May 21, 2019
Updated May 21, 2019

TALLAHASSEE -- Former Florida State University president and politician Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, widely regarded as one of Florida’s most prominent statesmen and a leader on issues from open government to higher education, died Monday afternoon. He was 85.

A lawyer and professor for much of his career, D’Alemberte’s influence on state politics was nothing short of titanic, from pushing the state Supreme Court to allow video cameras into the courtroom to guiding criminal justice reform policy as a state representative from Miami-Dade County. He went on to a broadly-praised second act as a leader at Florida State University, amid which he also served as president of the American Bar Association.

GUEST COLUMN: Former FSU president Sandy D’Alemberte wrote on April 24 that the Legislature must support Amendment 4 and end Florida’s unjust system of de facto lifetime disenfranchisement

Over more than five decades, D’Alemberte left his fingerprints on several corners of state politics and the law, from championing more transparency in campaign finance and government to guiding higher education.

Distinguished by his bow ties, seersucker suits and gentle, whispery voice dispensing advice, D’Alemberte remained a fixture even in his years as FSU’s president emeritus, keeping an office at the law school and speeding around on his scooter at political rallies.

He and his wife, Patsy Palmer, were returning from the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville on Monday, where he had recently had knee surgery, when D’Alemberte collapsed at a rest stop. Emergency responders tried to revive him for 45 minutes but did not succeed.

After news of D’Alemberte’s death spread late Monday, tributes poured in on social media across the state from politicians, former students and legal colleagues.

“There are no Floridians, other than a few governors, who have had more of an impact on the nation than he did,” recalled close friend Steve Uhlfelder, who worked for D’Alemberte when he chaired the state Constitution Revision Commission and served on FSU’s Board of Regents. “They just don’t create people like him very often.”

Born in Tallahassee just blocks from the state Capitol in 1933, D’Alemberte spent much of his early youth on various military bases in the Northeast, tugged by his father’s ongoing Army service. But he would spend his most formative years in small-town Chattahoochee an hour northwest of Tallahassee, where his mother’s family, marked by a long line of lawyers, had lived for generations.

Home to the state-run mental hospital, Chattahoochee was so tiny he’d later recall being in both the band and the football team in high school, performing at games before immediately changing into his sports gear to play on the field. His father, who worked at the hospital, would regularly find chickens at the backdoor, left by people thanking him for a kindness or a service, D’Alemberte’s daughter, Gabrielle, said.

FROM 2017: FSU honors D’Alemberte with 'dedication of a window’

D’Alemberte was a voracious reader, which helped fuel his interest in politics and the law, she added. He left Florida briefly to major in political science at the University of the South in Tennessee and as serve a lieutenant in the United States Navy Reserve, before he went to law school at the University of Florida.

After he graduated with honors in 1962, he moved to Miami, where he became one of about a dozen lawyers at Steel Hector and Davis, a fledgling law firm at the time.

It was a vastly different Miami in the 1960s, where the tallest building stood about 12 stories. But D’Alemberte, his daughter remembered, was fascinated by how different South Florida was from his northern roots.

“It was this land of promise, so different from Chattahoochee, where water was just a place to explore,” she recalled. “Miami was a great adventure for him. You could end up in a whole different land.”

Shortly after moving to Miami, D’Alemberte, an ardent liberal Democrat, won election to the state House of Representatives in 1966. He, along with a circle of similarly-minded politicians including future House Speaker Richard Pettigrew and Gov. Reubin Askew, would set the stage for a decade of progressive moves, during which lawmakers strengthened public records laws and passed a major criminal justice reform constitutional amendment through the Judiciary Committee he chaired.

D’Alemberte was a “significant leader in many ways,” atop a similar plinth as Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles, said Tom Fiedler, former Miami Herald executive editor and political editor and current dean of Boston University’s College of Communication.

He was also a meticulous lawyer with a talent for writing gracefully — even in legal briefs, friends and colleagues said.

“He was 100% committed,” said Sharyn Smith, a lawyer and administrative law judge who worked with D’Alemberte on several cases. “He was open to shifting gears, trying new things. It was all about being thorough and competent and in the end winning the case for your client.”

A respected media attorney, he would also help catapult several others’ careers, not the least of which was future U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, who D’Alemberte hired as a staff director for the judiciary committee.

But though he regularly traveled to Tallahassee for the legislative sessions, he adored exploring South Florida, Gabrielle D’Alemberte said. He and friends would often take her and her brother Josh out on a sailboat toward the Keys or the Bahamas “for days: no guide, no anything.” But despite his time in the Navy, D’Alemberte’s skill in the law did not extend to his nautical adventures: “My dad was notorious for running aground.”

D’Alemberte, while in the state House, also briefly flirted with running for governor as an independent, said Uhlfelder, who became his friend while he was a student at the University of Florida. But instead, he backed Askew, who would be elected in 1970.

“He would have been a formidable candidate and a likely winner in any statewide race,” Fiedler said. “A number of people had the view that Sandy didn’t take advantage of the potential that other people saw for him.”

After his time in the state House ended in 1972, D’Alemberte continued to work as a lawyer in Miami, though he became increasingly disenchanted with the growing system of billable hours and profit. He also worked as George McGovern’s campaign manager in Florida, Uhlfelder recalled, though McGovern’s political hopes fizzled.

He continued to serve in various capacities in Tallahassee, including chairing the Florida Constitution Revision Commission from 1977-1978, But when he was tapped to lead the law school at FSU in the 1980s, he moved with his then-wife Lyn and children back to Tallahassee permanently, where he would remain a professor for the rest of his life.

There, he continued to push what he saw as a deep obligation he felt lawyers owed to the public, establishing a requirement for pro bono work for students. He would also remain deeply embedded in his own legal work for the decades to come, from taking pro bono cases like that seeking compensation for Wilton Dedge, a man who was wrongly convicted and imprisoned for 22 years, and persuading lawmakers to allow an undocumented Largo resident to be admitted to the Florida Bar and practice law.

He also married lawyer Patsy Palmer, who had worked as a journalist and would serve as children’s policy coordinator for Gov. Lawton Chiles, in 1989. They would go on to open a law firm through which he continued to take cases.

As president of the American Bar Association in 1991-92, D’Alemberte left an imprint on legal circles beyond the United States, cofounding a volunteer program of lawyers and judges to provide help after the fall of the Soviet Union to Eastern European countries that were inching toward democracy. That program, which would become the Central and East European Law Initiative, or CEELI, became a “Legal Peace Corps.”

In 1994, D’Alemberte was tapped to become president of FSU, where he would lead the university for nearly a decade. During his time there, he helped obtain funding for the university’s new medical school, the first to be established in the country in more than a quarter century, and oversaw the acquisition of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art and various cultural efforts at the school.

Even after ending his tenure as president, D’Alemberte continued to teach at FSU and pursue private legal work. He taught courses through this spring, said Uhlfelder, who guest taught with him a few times.

“He could talk to the students the same way he talked to presidents,” he said.

In later years, he also obtained his pilot’s license — though it was revoked after he got into three minor crashes involving his seaplane, daughter Gabrielle recalled.

“He wore that with a sense of pride,” she said. “He celebrated the things that were bad or dangerous as much as he celebrated his good stuff.”

He also remained deeply involved in progressive politics, attending anti-NRA rallies and supporting Andrew Gillum’s campaign for governor in the last year. But D’Alemberte didn’t think of himself as a politician, his daughter suggested.

“He thought it was everybody’s obligation to get involved,” she said. “The politics of what he did was less about politics and more about shaping Florida and our future.”

In an email to friends Monday night, his wife Patsy wrote D’Alemberte “loved his friends and family deeply, and loved life and the law.”

He is survived by his wife, brother Richard, daughter Gabrielle, son Josh, granddaughter Willoughby and grandsons Sears Talbot, Whitfield and Parker.

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporter Samantha J. Gross contributed to this report.

FROM 2013: At 80, Florida icon Sandy D’Alemberte marks a milestone

FROM THE TIMES ARCHIVES: Former Florida Gov. Reubin Askew dies at 85


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