Extraordinary FL women: Two sisters stronger than most men, and it’s hard to believe they’re gone

February 23, 2022 7:00 am

Maggy Hurchalla. Credit: Friends of the Everglades

They were two of the strongest women I ever knew, stronger than most of the men, too.

Janet Reno and her sister, Maggy Hurchalla, are both gone. Maggy, 81, died Saturday of complications that arose after a second round of hip replacement surgery.

Reno died at 78 in 2016, after several years of declining health due to Parkinson’s disease.

It is hard to believe they are gone.

The late Janet Reno. Credit: Wikipedia.

Reno, born in 1938, was the nation’s first female attorney general, a longtime Florida prosecutor, and probably the best known woman in the state for many years.

Both of them owed their strength in large part to their parents, who worked as newspaper reporters in Miami for many years. Janet often described her mother’s decision to build the family a new house on a 21-acre farm they bought in rural South Miami.

Jane Wood Reno learned masonry, electrical work, plumbing, and much more to build the house for their four children. It was a family affair. Janet learned to make butter, which the family sold to make ends meet, and kept the house her mother built until her death in 2016. Visitors to the home in the closing days of her life included former President Bill Clinton and many others.

Reno’s father, Henry Olaf Reno, took the short snappy name after immigrating to the United States from Denmark. He spent 43 years working as a Miami Herald reporter. Her brothers, Robert, a Newsday columnist, and Mark, described as an adventurer in a family known for adventure, died in 2012 and 2014.

As state attorney, Janet spent years intimidating state legislators. Her fellow state attorneys convinced her of the need to sit on the front row of all of the final appropriations committee conferences because her mere presence was enough to keep prosecutors and law enforcement well funded. At the time, the same committee members were tasked with dividing state money between the two groups.

Reno didn’t have to say anything. She just sat and watched them. It was fun to observe.

Often, we had dinner together in Tallahassee after long days in the Capitol. Sometimes we cooked it at our house. Other times we went to local restaurants with others. Years later, when she was the nation’s attorney general, we had dinner in a great little Italian restaurant in Washington, D.C.

It was an interesting experience. The crowded restaurant stood and applauded her as we entered. After Waco, she had become one of the most easily recognized figures in the nation. The chef and owner of the restaurant came out of the kitchen, took the menus away from us, and brought out what he wanted us to have. It was great food. I must confess, we killed a couple of bottles of a good red wine that night.

Fortunately, her FBI escorts who sat at a back table at guard while we discussed the world’s problems got us safely home for the night. Janet insisted on paying her share of the terribly expensive tab in cash. She said she once wrote checks for her share but found people stopped cashing them after she became attorney general. I was pretty sure that my editors at the-then St. Petersburg Times would have paid her tab too, but she would have none of it.

No one was more independent. Except perhaps her sister Maggy.

I did not meet Maggy until years later, after she started fighting officials in South Florida. She was a relentless advocate for the Everglades and every other environmental issue that threatened life in Martin County, where she lived and spent five terms on the Martin County Commission.

Maggy Hurchalla. Courtesy George Hurchalla

Maggy’s environmental fame had her name in headlines more recently after she spent more than seven years fighting a rock mining company that had a project in Martin County. The company won a $4-million verdict against Maggy and sent sheriff’s deputies to her house to seize her 2004 Toyota truck and an old kayak. The truck had previously been owned by Janet Reno.

She was still fighting the lawsuit when we met her and husband Jim Hurchalla for lunch in Cashiers, N.C., two years ago. It was a fun lunch that probably convinced the Zookeeper Restaurant that we should pay rent because we were there so long talking and remembering Janet.

Maggy appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case in 2021. She got the Toyota and kayak back. Deputies returned them.

Maggy loved getting out in her favorite kayak and speeding across lakes in South Florida or mountain streams. Like her sister, she was fearless.

Janet and Maggy both loved working with Talbot “Sandy’’ D’Alemberte and his wife and partner, Patsy Palmer.

Unfortunately, D’Alemberte died in 2020 while her case was on appeal. Sandy once successfully defended me when prosecutors tried to send me to jail for refusing to reveal a source. The Florida Supreme Court decision in 1976 continues to protect Florida reporters from over-zealous prosecutors in search of sources. D’Alemberte another great soul.

Small world isn’t it.  We are losing too many of the lions.

Correction: An earlier version of this column misreported the date of Janet Reno’s death and her age. It came in 2016 at age 78.

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Lucy Morgan
Lucy Morgan

Pulitzer Prize-winner Lucy Morgan was chief of the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times capital bureau in Tallahassee for 20 years, retiring in 2006 and serving as senior correspondent until 2013. She was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame and the Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame. The Florida Senate named its press gallery after Morgan, in honor of her two decades covering the Legislature.