Pinellas Congressman C.W. “Bill” Young recently announced his retirement after more than half a century of public service. For me, the news brought back two rather fascinating memories.
In 1963, I was a high school student serving as a doorman in the Florida House of Representatives. Back then, the Legislature was controlled by Democrats. In the House, there were perhaps a dozen Republicans who occupied the back row, and in the Senate there was only one Republican — Bill Young.
It was a reapportionment session during which the Pork Choppers — the rural legislators of North Florida — fought to maintain their control of Florida government against the rapidly growing urban centers of Central and South Florida.
In those days, before “Government in the Sunshine,” the Florida Legislature was a very different place. Committee meetings were not open to the public; instead, they were held in smoke-filled rooms, with fully stocked bars. I still remember watching legislators gathered around a table in their shirtsleeves, drinking whiskey and talking politics among themselves and with industry lobbyists. As a doorman, my job was to bar the door against the public and the press.
During that session an important bill sponsored by Democratic House Speaker Mallory Horne was defeated in the Senate. To commemorate the moment, Sen. Young sent the speaker a large funeral wreath, a colorful circle of flowers on a three-legged stand. I was the doorman working the main door of the House when the wreath was delivered by a local florist, and had the responsibility of carrying it down the main aisle of the chamber and up the steps of the podium. As one might imagine, the business of the House stopped as the speaker read the card from Young. As I recall, the speaker did not laugh, but made a rather off-color comment.
A few years ago, I was in Tyrone Mall in St. Petersburg. There I noticed a rather bored-looking man, surrounded by shopping bags, sitting on a bench outside of a nail salon. I told my wife, a woman who has never met a stranger, that the man looked remarkably like our congressman. She approached him asking, “Are you ever mistaken for Congressman Young?”
“All the time,” he responded. “I am Congressman Young. I am waiting here while my wife, Beverly, has her nails done.”
In the conversation that followed, I recounted my experience with the funeral wreath he had sent the speaker. Remembering the incident, he laughed. “I got into all sorts of trouble for that,” he said. “They said it was conduct unbecoming a senator.”
Looking at pictures of our 82-year-old congressman, I can still see the fresh young face of Sen. Young in Tallahassee, a man who was willing to break the rules, to help change Florida politics in a variety of ways, but always in an honorable manner.
Congressman Young will be missed in Washington. Unlike a few of his colleagues, he has always taken his job seriously. Like all elected officials who have served for most of their lives, he has seen both triumphs and failures. There are moments that he can look back on with great pride and moments that I am sure he would like to forget.
As someone who has followed Florida politics for most of my life — working as a journalist, press officer, speech writer, lobbyist and historian — I am confident that Young will go into history as man who served the people of Florida well.
And I hope history will also remember his sense of humor.
David Lee McMullen is a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He teaches courses in U.S., British and Florida political history.