ST. PETERSBURG — Friends and family of Earnest Williams all knew this to be true: If you got him talking, you might have a hard time getting him to stop.
The longtime businessman and former City Council member was passionate about a few things: family, education and youth issues.
"Don't even get him into politics," said Pinellas County Urban League president Watson Haynes. "You knew if you were going to visit Earnest, you had to plan to spend the time."
On Tuesday, hours before Haynes was scheduled to visit Williams in a Tampa hospital, he learned that his friend and fraternity brother had died.
Mr. Williams was 68.
"His major accomplishment was he served people the best way he could, whether as a city councilman or an insurance agent," Haynes said. "He probably wouldn't say it, but I will — He was successful at that.
Mr. Williams was born in Marianna in 1946. As a youth, he helped desegregate lunch counters in the Florida Panhandle and was one of the first blacks to attend a Panhandle community college.
Mr. Williams moved to St. Petersburg in 1973. He worked for the city doing crime prevention work, focusing on a youth jobs program.
Twenty years later, he sought public office for the first time, but was unsuccessful. In 2000, he was appointed to a City Council seat, which he later won in an election. In 2008 in a special election, Mr. Williams decided to seek another office: Florida House District 55.
His opponent, who would eventually beat him, was Darryl Rouson. The campaign was bitter at times.
But on Tuesday, Rouson praised Mr. Williams, saying he respected him as a public servant.
"He was a great community warrior," Rouson said. "Even though we philosophically disagreed back then, I learned his passion and love for community. He was a worthy adversary who turned into an ally."
Those who knew Mr. Williams said he was a consummate business man.
"He was always about facts and the bottom line," said Pinellas County School Board member Renee Flowers, whose previous service on the City Council was alongside Mr. Williams.
But he also had a lighter side. He liked to dance, Flowers said. And he wasn't above playing tricks on someone if he thought the outcome was worth it.
Several years ago, Flowers said, Mr. Williams invited her to a meeting with some people he knew. It wasn't until the end of dinner, when their companions were thanking her for joining the board of Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services, that Flowers realized she'd been duped by her friend.
"He had a fun side," Flowers said.
Some years ago, Mr. Williams was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, an abnormal inflammation disease, and found out he needed a lung transplant.
He didn't slow down much before or after the surgery, Haynes said.
"He didn't stop talking," Haynes said. "But in all that, he didn't complain either."
Mr. Williams is survived by his wife Armetha, two daughters and grandchildren. Arrangements have not yet been made.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Kameel Stanley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643. Follow @cornandpotatoes.