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Plant City Courier

Tampa lawyer William Reece Smith dies at age 87

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 09:00 AM
TAMPA -

William Reece Smith Jr., an iconic lawyer known for his intellect, legal prowess and charity in a career that spanned six decades, died Friday. He was 87.

Smith, who grew up in Plant City and never forgot his hometown roots, had a resume like few others: Rhodes Scholar, former American and International Bar Association president, one-time interim president of the University of South Florida and early crusader for civil rights.

He joined the Carlton Fields law firm in 1953 and helped build it into one of the largest firms in the state, with 300 lawyers. He was the 112-year-old firm's president emeritus at the time of his death and made daily visits to his office until recently.

"A giant of a man, and I mean a giant of a man has died," said retired Senior District Court of Appeal Judge E.J. Salcines. "He was a great example of the very best in the legal profession and a great friend."

Salcines said he met Smith shortly after Salcines graduated from law school 50 years ago. He immediately was drawn to Smith for legal wisdom.

"He was a mentor to a lot, a lot of lawyers all over, including me," said Salcines, a former Hillsborough County state attorney. "He led by example and was one of the best in the legal profession."

Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco recalled that Smith, then Tampa city attorney, helped guide officials through racially turbulent times in the 1960s. Smith, the police chief and NAACP representatives often went to Greco's home on Davis Islands to discuss how to defuse tensions.

"He always had a steady hand in everything he did. He would sit in my living room and he would go over how to best handle anything that came up," Greco said.

"He was a brilliant individual who above all else cared about people."

"I loved the guy and so did everybody who knew him."

Smith had a heart for the less fortunate. In the 1980s, as American Bar president, he rallied lawyers to defeat a proposal to eliminate federal funds for legal services for the poor, said Dick Woltmann, president and CEO of Bay Area Legal Services.

"If not for William Reece Smith, legal services to the poor would probably not exist in this country," he said. "Reese was one of the great supporters of legal services for the poor both nationally and locally."

Smith, founder of Florida Legal Services, encouraged private attorneys to donate some of their time to help the poor, Woltmann said.

"It is a great loss when someone like Reece passes," he said.

Smith was born in Athens, Tenn., and grew up in Plant City, where childhood friend Hilman Bowden marveled at his intellect even at a young age. When the neighborhood boys gathered in Smith's yard to play after school, the sessions always ended after about an hour when Smith's grandmother, Mary Noel Moody, called him inside to tend to his studies, Bowden said.

"He went right inside. He took his studies very seriously. He was absolutely brilliant," Bowden said.

Smith and Bowden sometimes double-dated as teenagers and forged a friendship that lasted a lifetime.

If at no other time of year, Smith and the 89-year-old Bowden would visit during Plant City's "Florida Strawberry Festival." Bowden last saw him in the fall, when Smith was inducted into the Plant City High School Hall of Fame and tossed the coin to open the Raiders' homecoming game.

"He was a real Plant City boy through and through. He was a tremendously successful attorney but he never forgot his hometown," Bowden said.

Smith, born Sept. 19, 1925, graduated in 1943 from Plant City High, where he was quarterback. The World War II Navy veteran also played quarterback at the University of South Carolina, where he led the Gamecocks to the Gator Bowl. Later he went to law school at the University of Florida and then to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.

Smith practiced law in Plant City and taught law at the University of Florida before joining Carlton Fields.

His community service was legendary, including interim USF president, 1976-77; founding president of the Florida Orchestra; president of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce; trustee at Bethune-Cookman College and chairman of the chamber's Committee of 100.

He is survived by his son, William Reece Smith III, daughter-in-law, Rachel-Anne Winter Smith, grandson William Reece "Liam" Smith IV, and other family members.

Reece Smith was an active member of the Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, where funeral services will be held at 1 p.m. Thursday. A visitation will be held from noon to 1 p.m. at the church, and a reception will follow the service at the Chester Ferguson Law Center of the Hillsborough County Bar Association, 1601 N. Tampa Street. Private burial services will be held in the family plot at Plant City.

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