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Tuesday, Jul 29, 2014
Columnists

Otto: Fred Karl spent his life serving all of us

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So who is going to be there for us now?

Frederick Brennan Karl not only understood the word “service,” he made it his mantra. It would be like a tattoo on his arm from his war years in savage combat across Europe to the political wars of state politics. It would motivate him in later years when he could have retired, but instead he stepped in to take on one crisis after another.

One afternoon we were sitting in one of his favorite restaurants, Mise en Place, and he was eating a bowl of creamy soup. “They make great soup here,” he said. “I don’t know what they put in it, but it all works. That’s the secret.”

At the time I didn’t know soup had any secrets, but I suppose it could describe this seemingly simple but very complex man who was so important to so many levels of government. He brought in his own secret ingredients of integrity and a determination.

He was another of that dwindling greatest generation raised with that word “service” as the key to living in this country. Like so many, he had that legacy of always working. He was an usher at a movie theater while still in high school back in his native Daytona Beach.

Karl went on to the University of Florida and earned a bachelor’s degree. But the year was 1942 and America was at war. Karl knew that was where he belonged.

I have a draft of a book he was planning to release later this year. It’s called “Python Tales,” and it is full of memories of his life as a tank commander in World War II. The fact that Fred Karl, suffering with a laundry list of maladies including Parkinson’s and diabetes, would even undertake writing a book shows something of his character.

But it also happens to be a good read and takes you across Europe from the Battle of the Bulge to Berlin. You learn how he earned his Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

I think one of his greatest disappointments in later years was his inability to find his tank “Daytona Beach,” which disappeared into the graveyards of military machines.

After the war Karl went back to school and received a law degree from Stetson University College of Law.

I asked him once when he first got the itch to run for public office. He said he never really did like campaigning or politics, but the challenges of a particular office were what got him interested. I’m not sure that was entirely correct.

His first state office came in 1956, when he was elected to the Florida House. In 1968 he moved to the Florida Senate after running unsuccessfully to become governor. In 1977 he became a justice of the Florida Supreme Court.

But those are only titles and not the story of a man who took on a state still struggling to move into the 20th century. He fought against racial injustice and he took on the so-called pork choppers of the Florida Panhandle who controlled the Legislature.

Then when he retired … he didn’t. In 1994 Tampa General Hospital was in danger of shutting down. Karl was called in and is credited with not just turning it around but installing an ethic that has made TGH one of the best hospitals in the South.

He pulled the same magic when Hillsborough County needed a new county attorney. He was hired again by the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority to clean up their act. And when Pam Iorio became Tampa’s mayor, her very first act was to bring in Karl to put her team together.

Fred could make things work. You suspect if the president had the foresight to call Fred Karl up to Washington for some advice, there would have been no fiscal cliffs and we wouldn’t be cowering behind closed doors waiting for whatever sequester means.

Fred Karl was about service to all of us, and for that we need to take a moment to remember him.

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