Fred Karl, being a detail-oriented man, described to his daughter Tami what kind of memorial service he wanted after he died. The venue, Karl said, should not be too big in case “no one comes.”
He need not have worried. At least 200 people, including prominent local and state officials, said goodbye Friday to the former war hero, legislator, state Supreme Court judge and Hillsborough County administrator.
Speakers, ranging from a U.S. senator and a congresswoman to a Franciscan monk in cassock and sandals, paid tribute to Karl’s humor, intelligence and integrity. Karl often said a man is the sum of his past, and in a darkened room in the Tampa Convention Center, friends and family recalled a life fully lived.
Several of the speakers regarded Karl as a mentor, including former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. She said she met Karl in Tallahassee in the mid-1980s when she was 25, and he encouraged her to enter public service.
Later as a Hillsborough County commissioner, Iorio recalled Karl, then the county administrator, trying to squeeze an inflated balloon into a coffee cup during a budget discussion.
“I’m not really sure what the message was,” Iorio said. “But the commissioners, we were so fixated on the balloon _ he finally did get it into the coffee cup _ that we approved his budget.”
After being elected mayor, Iorio brought Karl out of retirement to be her city attorney. She recalled soon after he came on board, they were leaving a particularly disjointed meeting. Karl described it as the “most god-awful mess I’ve ever seen.’”
“I said, “Fred that’s why I brought you on, to help me figure things like this out,’” Iorio said. Karl stopped in his tracks and said, “I resign.’”
Karl often used humor to make points, Iorio said.
“But what really got people listening to Fred had to do with just one word: trust,” she said. “He understood a person’s reputation was built on daily interactions with every single person they touched. So Fred showed a genuine and sincere interest in every person.”
Karl’s courage under fire in World War II was rewarded with silver and bronze stars and a Purple Heart. But his son, Fred Karl Jr., recalled a different kind of courage when his father took a stand for civil rights as a young legislator from Volusia County.
Karl worked in the Legislature to sustain Gov. LeRoy Collins’ veto of the “Last Resort” bill, which would have shut down Florida’s public schools if the federal government forced them to desegregate.
At the time, the Ku Klux Klan was still active in Karl’s home county. Karl Jr., a small boy at the time, said his father got threatening phone calls in the middle of the night.
“I was afraid, but my father was not,” he said. “He stood tall and courageous and helped beat down the demons of prejudice, hatred and bigotry.”
He compared his father to Atticus Finch, the hero of the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” who defends a black man wrongly accused of rape in Depression-era Alabama. Karl Jr. recalled the scene after the accused man is found guilty and Finch packs up to walk out of the nearly empty courtroom.
The black audience in the segregated gallery stood up as Finch passed. A black pastor tells Finch’s daughter to also stand. “You’re father’s passing,” he said.
“So I say to my brother and my sisters and our children and indeed to all of Fred Karl’s children out there, stand up: Your father’s passing. Stand up, Fred Karl is passing.”
His commitment to civil rights continued after Karl became Hillsborough County administrator, said Chloe Coney, now district director for U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa. In the early 1990s, Coney became director of the Lee Davis Service Center, located near the predominantly black Tampa neighborhood of College Hill.
Poor, deteriorated and crime ridden, College Hill had many needs but little money to address them, Coney said. Karl became her mentor and encouraged Coney to form a tax-exempt non-profit, the Lee Davis Neighborhood Development Corp.
“I knew I needed help in taking back that community,” Coney said. She prayed for help and, “God sent an ordinary man who did extraordinary things.”
Since that time in 1992, the non-profit has helped send 500 young people to college, she said, and provided job training for thousands.
“My prayer is, as he leaves his legacy, that there will be many others that will come behind Fred and pick up that mantle,” Coney said, “and mentor the next generation because so many of our young people will need a Fred Karl in their life like I did.”
Also speaking at the service were U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, Rep. Castor, Dr. Mark Smith, Karl’s wife Mercedes Karl, daughter, Tami Karl, grandson Brad Carl and granddaughter Erin Karl. Castor said a tribute to Karl will be read into the Congressional record.