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Column: Remembering Tampa's wise man

A decision made by Fred Karl in the throes of war in 1944 would become a defining moment of his life. He would later serve in the Legislature and was the last elected justice of the state Supreme Court. He died Thursday at 88.

Times file (1995)

A decision made by Fred Karl in the throes of war in 1944 would become a defining moment of his life. He would later serve in the Legislature and was the last elected justice of the state Supreme Court. He died Thursday at 88.

In the winter of 1944, a 20-year-old officer in Gen. George Patton's tank corps found himself standing over a captured German soldier. It was the dawn after a brutal night of virtual point-blank tank warfare.

The American officer was exhausted, stressed and grieving. The German before him was believed to have been responsible for the death of the young man's best friend. An emotionally overwrought Fred Karl pulled out his sidearm and pointed it at the German.

War can turn normally moral, upright people into animals. And it was here in the killing fields of the Battle of the Bulge that Karl was about to summarily execute a prisoner of war. Who would ever know? Or care? And who could really blame Lt. Karl for ridding the world of one more Nazi?

Karl cocked his weapon.

Fred Karl would come home from World War II with a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for injuries sustained in combat. He would go on to earn a law degree. He would serve in the Florida House and Senate. He would sit on the Florida Supreme Court as its last elected justice. He would run unsuccessfully for governor.

In Hillsborough County, Karl would become known as a man of unquestioned integrity. He would earn the reputation as the go-to guy to save distressed agencies, and he would become Tampa's official gray eminence.

When the county found itself wallowing in dysfunctional management, Fred Karl was tapped to become county administrator. When Tampa General Hospital was imploding under the weight of incompetent leadership, who else but Fred Karl to turn it around? When a newly elected Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio needed someone whose counsel she could trust, it was Fred Karl who stood by her as the city attorney.

On this day long ago in Belgium, Lt. Karl wrapped his finger around the trigger. Later in life Karl would go on to sit in judgment of murderers appealing their convictions before the high court. But now he was poised to become one of them.

All of us experience defining moments in our lives, events that serve to shape our world view, our character, our soul. Karl looked down at the man he was about to kill, the man who would define him as a war criminal.

With the blood of a dead German soldier on his boots, would Fred Karl have had the life he did? Or would he have simply become another hustling lawyer, another duplicitous politician, another young man on the make?

To be sure, Karl had no idea at 20 what path his life would take, the respected civic status he would enjoy and deserve. But he did know if he pulled the trigger he would become a man forever haunted by a singular irrational act committed in the throes of anger and sorrow.

Karl turned his weapon away. And with that self-control, a simple act of mercy toward an enemy and doing the right thing, the early seeds of a Florida icon took root.

After years gamely battling the ravages of Parkinson's and heart disease as well as diabetes, Karl died Thursday at 88. He leaves behind a large family and his wife, Merci, who have lost a husband, father and grandfather. Tampa has lost its wise man.

Karl was part of a long history common to many communities — the cadre of successful, or smart, or experienced old hands who understand the levers of power and money quietly offering their advice or counsel to the political class. Tampa has benefitted from the likes of Leonard and George Levy, the Shimberg family, Cornelia Corbett, H.L. Culbreath, Chester Ferguson, William Reece Smith, Fran Davin and many others.

Karl never materially benefitted from his public service. His motives were never questioned. And he managed to accomplish the seemingly impossible of making it through more than a half-century in various government roles with his reputation intact.

In 2010, Karl published a memoir, The 57 Club, which is a highly engaging primer on the Florida Legislature, the story of what it is like to try to be an adult in elective office. It ought to be required reading in Tallahassee.

Karl will be remembered as a good and decent man who tried his best to make government more responsible to the people it serves.

It could have turned out differently but for a 20-year-old so long ago, who had a choice to make and put duty above revenge. And all of us in Florida are the better for Fred Karl's grace under fire.

Column: Remembering Tampa's wise man 03/07/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 7, 2013 5:04pm]
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