We are losing our lions, the men and women who have given much of themselves to Florida

February 24, 2023 12:30 pm

An example of Florida wetlands. Credit: Julie Hauserman

We are losing our lions, the people who have been Florida leaders for a long time.

One by one we are losing a generation of the men and women who helped Florida become a decent place to live.

The men and women who have given much of themselves to Florida and its well-being are leaving us.

Portrait of Thomas G. Pelham : Secretary, Department of Community Affairs, 1987. State Library and Archives of Florida.

This week we lost Tom Pelham, former head of the then-Department of Community Affairs in Florida.  He lost his long battle with Parkinson’s Disease.

No single person in our history did more to protect Florida’s fragile environment and manage growth. Pelham was 79.

On Feb. 11, we lost Steve Uhlfelder, a Tallahassee lawyer who spent much of his life helping the good guys win elections and supporting education and mentoring programs. Parkinson’s Disease took him at 76.

They will be missed.  The next generation of leaders appear to be made of lesser stuff.

Parkinson’s is a horrible disease that gradually saps everything out of the people it invades.  It is sad to watch.

Pelham is a great example of a man who worked his way out of a hard scrabble farm life in the Florida Panhandle.  As a child, he and his brothers started life in a two-room shanty on a farm where his parents were sharecroppers. Born in 1943, Pelham didn’t have electricity or running water until the mid-1950’s.

Pelham described life on the farm in rural Holmes County in detail, in a personal memoir of his childhood — “Kids Don’t Have Backs.’’

Published in 2021 and still available on Amazon, Pelham described the backbreaking labor that saw the entire family work from first daylight until dark, scrambling to make a living and keeping food on the table.

He also described an unsuccessful effort to milk a cow that slapped him in the face with a wet tail.

His mother so highly valued education, she made sure to instill book learning and school along with hard work in the fields. Pelham and his three younger brothers plowed fields, built fences, milked cows, picked cotton, harvested watermelons and sold the goods on roadsides. And they learned to handle whatever came their way.

Despite all the chores, Pelham graduated valedictorian at Holmes County High School in 1961 and managed to attend college despite living in hard times.

Pelham went on to get a bachelor’s degree in government from Florida State University, a master’s degree in political science from Duke University, a law degree from Florida State and an LL.M degree in law from Harvard University.  He taught school at the college level before moving back to Tallahassee in 1980 to practice law.

Pelham often taught classes at FSU’s law school and spent 28 years in private practice as he became one of Florida’s leading environmental and land use lawyers.  He served two times as head of the state agency that managed growth management — for Gov. Bob Martinez and later, for Gov. Charlie Crist.

In 1986, as I took over the Tallahassee bureau chief’s job for the then-St Petersburg Times, my husband retired from a long career at the Times and moved to the state capital. Pelham called him and asked him to be his communications person.  Together they traveled the state promoting growth management and often guarded by state troopers because not everyone wanted to see growth managed.

He met his wife Vivian in 1969, while both were teaching classes at Prairie View A & M in Texas. They have two sons, Christopher in New York City and Evan in Tallahassee.

Pelham became one of the state’s premier experts on environmental issues, and as a lawyer, he pushed to make the state deal with growth management and sustainable land planning.

He led efforts to preserve the state’s natural resources and protect coastal areas and promote smart growth. He earned national honors for his outstanding contributions to planning and growth management.

Pelham was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2015 and fought it hard, at one point taking a boxing class that helped those with the disease retain balance. The class at a local gym disappeared with the coming of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He will be missed.

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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.