Lawyer Jan Press, known for defending clients and a healthy lifestyle, dies at 59

He never wavered from his belief that everyone deserves a fair trial.
Jan Press' death shocked those who knew him as dedicated to fitness and a healthy diet.
Jan Press' death shocked those who knew him as dedicated to fitness and a healthy diet.
Published July 1 2014
Updated July 2 2014

PALM HARBOR — A couple of months ago, Jan Press was sprinting after a Frisbee in Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. He didn't see the 4-year-old child blithely step in front of him until it was almost too late.

A lawyer with a solo practice, Mr. Press went after everything the way he went after that Frisbee. All out, as if the stakes were life or death, because for some of his clients they were.

He avoided the child by going airborne but landed on concrete, gashing his head.

Mr. Press covered the stitches with a fedora, which kind of went with the Hawaiian shirts he favored.

Walter Blenner, a personal injury lawyer who shared office space with Mr. Press for two decades, mentioned the story in a eulogy he delivered last week. Mr. Press, a well-respected lawyer known for his exercise regime and offbeat sense of humor, died June 22 of a circulatory disease no one knew he had.

He was 59. He is survived by his wife of nearly 20 years, Anna Whissen, and their 11-year-old son, Aaron.

"We want to make sense of that which seems so senseless," Blenner told assembled mourners at Curlew Hills Memory Gardens. "Jan's loss is senseless."

A former prosecutor, Mr. Press spent the last 30 years defending a variety of clients. Among those for whom he won acquittals: an accused hotel robber; a former regional director of a program for the intellectually disabled accused of embezzling money; and a man in a road rage case who killed another motorist in self-defense.

A deep understanding of case law and a conviction that everyone deserved a fair trial pushed him through the legal complexities, said Lee Fugate, a lawyer and friend who worked with Mr. Press in the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office in the early 1980s.

"There are a lots and lots of lawyers in the world and lots of opinions," said Fugate, 67. "There are precious few that can take facts and the law and combine them in a way that's factual and persuasive. Jan could do that."

A native of Long Island, N.Y., Mr. Press graduated from Tulane University Law School, then clerked for a chief U.S. District Court judge. For more than a decade he was married to Elena Coscia. The marriage ended in divorce.

After about two years in the State Attorney's Office, he opened his own practice. Over the years he enjoyed cooking, playing the saxophone and attending jazz festivals.

He met Whissen in 1992 and married her two years later.

"Anybody who had any interaction with him heard some humor in there somewhere," said Whissen, 53.

He worked out nearly every day in the gym, putting countless miles on an Arc Trainer exercise machine. At home, he maintained a low-carb diet.

"Ever since I've known him he's always been such a control freak when it came to food," said Peter Ryan, 61, a friend of more than 30 years. "I don't think a french fry or a cheeseburger passed his lips since college."

On June 22, he returned from the gym and mowed his lawn. Next he began loading a pair of kayaks onto the roof of his van, part of a planned trip to Pop Stansell Park in Palm Harbor, his wife said.

Mr. Press complained of fatigue and wondered whether he was having a heart attack, friends said. He lost consciousness on the way to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office found arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease, which results in a thickening of blood vessel walls.

Family and friends are in shock. "I've got one foot in denial, one foot in reality," Whissen said.

Said Blenner, "It's a wakeup call, when someone who seems to be doing everything right is felled by something completely unexpected."

Contact Andrew Meacham at or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.