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Claude Kirk and his lost hat

By Brian E. Crowley

I ran into former Gov. Claude Kirk at a green market in West Palm Beach. I would bump in to him from time-to-time and he always seemed pleased, especially if there were folks nearby, when I called him Gov. Kirk.

He started to tell me about his lost hat.  But more on that in a bit.

Claude Kirk profile mug Gov. Kirk's  death this week, at the age of 85, marks the passing of one of Florida's most flamboyant and underrated governors. In some ways, he was ahead of his time. He arrived in Tallahassee to take the oath of office n 1967 and the next four years were turbulent ones.

Gov. Kirk arrived determined to shake things up. He also dearly wanted to advance his own political career and took deep pleasure in being in the spotlight.

I didn't get to know Gov. Kirk until many years later. The early history of his governorship was harsh. But as time passed, historians and governors who succeed him began to recognize that Kirk had accomplished quite a bit during his four years in office.

He created the FDLE helping to break the hold of county sheriff's who sometimes abused their power. He helped usher in the new 1968 state Constitution - which had been penned by others - but would have had more difficult time without Kirk's help.  Few today understand just how sweeping the 1968 constitution was in changing how Floridians are governed today.

Kirk campaign poster   Gov. Kirk created the first statewide environment effort and helped bring the 1968 Republican National Convention to Miami Beach where he dearly hoped Richard Nixon would pick him to be vice president.

Gov. Kirk opposed school busing at a time when such opposition was considered racist. When Florida teachers went on a statewide strike in 1968 he helped break the strike and more than 40 years later the teacher unions have still not fully recovered.

Gov. Kirk, because of the 1968 constitution, was the first governor eligible to run for a second consecutive term. But voters had enough and the first modern Republican to be elected governor lost to Democrat Reubin Askew.

Gov. Kirk would run again, even as a Democrat, but the campaigns were more about getting attention than winning.

 In 2006, Gov. Kirk and former governors, Askew, Bob Graham and the soon-to-leave office, Jeb Bush, got together at the University of Central Florida to talk to the students.

It was clear that the old guard had become friends despite any political animosity from decades ago. Gov. Kirk was at his best, funny as hell and not afraid to offer his opinion.

He told the crowd that Florida is, "in a desperate situation" because of the need to improve education, water supplies and help the poor.

Gov. Kirk argued that the legislature should force the sugar industry to pay for cleaning Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.

"It is there mess," Gov. Kirk said. "Let them clean it up."

At the time I wrote, Gov. Kirk was also by the funniest participant, often poking fun at himself, while at the same time trying to make serious points about the future.


Defeated in 1970 by Democrat Reubin Askew, Kirk called him one of the state's best. "It was a great thing,"  Kirk said of that election. "Terrible for me, but a great thing for the state."

 About that hat.

Claude Kirk seminole It was 1998, Gov. Kirk was clearly distressed.  For many years, the then 72 year old Gov. Kirk, had worn a dingy, well-broken-in hat that his wife and daughters loathed. They finally convinced him to retire that hat (possibly the one pictured left) and he replaced it with an old cowboy-style hat the Florida Highway Patrol had given him while he was governor.

"You know, the old straw, tan hat," he said.

From a column I wrote at the time:

Later he sent me a note:

From the desk of Governor Claude Kirk,

I hope you will bring to bear all your powers of the pen to cause all of your readers to see the return of my "state property" last seen in the Bear Island development (or perhaps it stayed on my car's roof until Village road. Thank you for sounding the (your) trumpet.

It was classic Gov. Kirk. Funny, a touch serious, not afraid to poke fun at himself, hopeful of getting a little attention and - he really missed that hat.

As far as I know, he never got it back.



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