Former Hillsborough County Judge Don Castor, known as a brilliant jurist who brought integrity and compassion to the courtroom for more than two decades, died in Tampa today at 81.
Castor had been ill with pneumonia for a couple of weeks. His daughter, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, said she and Mickey Castor, the late judge’s wife, were with him when he died.
Castor was not as well known to the public as his congresswoman daughter, or his ex-wife Betty, who served in a number of political offices and as president of the University of South Florida. But he was remembered in legal circles and by old friends as an innovator who first conceived of community service as an alternative to jail time.
U.S. Circuit Court Judge Charles Wilson, who as a young lawyer practiced before Castor and called him a mentor, said Castor combined a razor-sharp intellect with a “warm, gracious and modest demeanor.”
“He just had that common touch so that when you left his courtroom, whether you won or lost, you knew you had your day in court and that your case was heard by a fair and impartial judge,” Wilson said.
Castor was born in Tampa on July 15, 1931, and grew up in Seminole Heights, attending Hillsborough High School. Former Tampa Mayor Bill Poe was a classmate and remembered Castor being elected president of the student council at Hillsborough and at Memorial Junior High. Poe called Castor “the most popular boy in Tampa” when they were kids.
“He’s the type who loved everybody and always tried to help everybody,” Poe said. “He wasn’t interested in working to do something for money. He was the guy who wanted to take care of people.”
Poe and Castor were roommates for one year at Duke University before Poe transferred to the University of Florida. Castor got his bachelor’s degree at Duke, then a law degree from Stetson University.
After law school, Castor moved to Miami where he was an assistant state attorney and then assistant director of the legal services program in Dade County, said Betty Castor.
“He really had a sense of wanting to provide legal services for those who may not have been able to afford it,” she said.
Castor brought his experience in legal services for the poor to Tampa where he became the first director of Bay Area Legal Services, founded in 1967. Betty Castor said the late U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons was able to get federal money to start the program during President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.
“Judge Don Castor had a strong passion and commitment to the civil legal needs of the poor,” said Joan Boles, current deputy director for Bay Area Legal Services. “He retired as a judge, but he has always remained very active in our organization and very committed to our mission.”
Gov. Reubin Askew named Castor to the county court bench. He is remembered for his innovative sentencing practices, which tended to be more educational than punitive. For instance, he once sentenced a 10-year-old boy who stole a car to pick up trash at a playground near his home.
A bearded wrestler named “The Wolfman” was sentenced by Castor to teach wrestling at a Boys and Girls Club. After The Wolfman served his 60 hours of community service, he returned to the Boys and Girls to continue working with youngsters.
“He punished them for their crimes but they learned and went away better people because of him,” said Kathy Betancourt, a former lobbyist for the University of South Florida and a friend of the Castor family.
Though Don and Betty Castor divorced in 1979, they remained good friends, Betancourt said. Don married Mickey Castor 10 years ago.
In addition to Kathy Castor, Don and Betty had another daughter, Karen Castor Dentel, who was recently elected to the state Legislature, and a son, Frank, a county judge in Palm Beach County.
Funeral services will be 2 p.m. Sunday at Grace Lutheran Church, 3714 W. Linebaugh Ave. in Carrollwood.