Editors note: Jim Williams former Florida LT. Gov who made his name by courageously opposing the Cross Florida Barge Canal passed away in December.
By Robert Buccellato
Jim Williams was my friend. I can’t claim that I was the nearest or the dearest to him. But, we got along very well during the three and a half years we communicated with one another. I would fit our phone interviews awkwardly into lunch hours or breaks during my day job. Whenever I had a day off for a holiday, I would schedule a prolonged interview with him, knowing that he would be at his family’s real estate office regardless of the day. We would plan to talk for an hour, it would always turn into two or three. If I needed to get somewhere in the afternoon, I would always get there late. He always made me want to stay on the phone.
We would always stay on the phone for hours chatting, he was so colorful, so open and modest that each conversation was like a marathon deeper into his humanity. He was a farmer, veteran, family man, devoted husband, outstanding citizen, a mentor to me, great conversationalist, and thoughtful public servant. He was state senator during Florida’s Golden Age, who once stood up to a Police Chief who attempted to fire a deputy for of all things giving Jim Williams a ticket. When Dempsey Barron the legendary Senate President tried to manhandle Williams and Bob Graham outside of the senate chambers, he informed him that “If he ever touched him like that again they were going outside!”
When at a Campaign rally during his first senate race, republican Governor Claude Kirk approached him and informed “You’re a great guy. But, we’re gonna kick your a**!” He smiled at him and told him to bring it on. He was a man who went to war a hawk and who learned to love peace when he earned his Bachelor’s degree later in life. He was a furiously loyal friend to Reubin Askew and the two men had the most caring friendship of any Florida gubernatorial ticket. Trust me on that, I’ve known a few of them.
He was also blessed with a quality that has become rare in politicians, he was kind. Again many politicians try to project kindness, and a lot of them are openly very decent people. But, Jim Williams like Reubin Askew were kind at their core. Decency was marrow deep in them.
When Askew was looking to replace his first Lieutenant Governor, most everyone thought he would ask Bob Graham to be his running mate in 1974. When Askew called Williams to meet him at the Governor’s mansion, Williams said no because he had been working all day. The Governor finally got a yes out of the state senator after it was agreed that Williams didn’t have to wear a suit. After losing the democratic primary to Bob Graham, Williams took what he considered the greatest job he ever had in public office, deputy Secretary of Agriculture in the Carter White House. “I had to have senate approval and I got my own car!” Williams would say with a laugh.
When I told him once I was going to see Carter teach Sunday School he told me to say hi, before mentioning, “He probably won’t know who the hell I am.”
Jim Williams always looked with amazement that many within his old Senate district looked on Buddy Mackay with such distrust. As some kind of left wing nut. “I’m the freaking liberal!”
And, Yes he was, a shameless Liberal. He grew to dislike the Republican mentality and looked on the tea party with total amusement. He called himself a “Dove” openly and with total conviction believed in loving your fellow man. He called me his friend and it was an honor that I will always hold dear in my heart. Next only to my Grandfather and Reubin Askew, this man has shaped my political identity.
During what would be our final conversation he talked about how odd it was that he was in his eighties as both his parents died before sixty. He spoke about wanting to throw away all his awards, yet his kids weren’t letting him. Being that I have four of my grandpa’s awards at my house I told him it wasn’t gonna happen. Then I told him about my new book (the one on Jimmy Carter) and he said he was proud of me. In that moment I had a deep respect and admiration for that kind old man, that I didn’t think possible. I then had to go pick up my wife from work, as always on a Jim Williams call, I was running late.
Robert Buccellato is the author of three books including “Finding Dan McCarty,” a definitive work about an important era in Florida politics.