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Longtime environmental champion and political strategist Thom Rumberger dies

Thom Rumberger Photo Thom Rumberger, long-time attorney, Republican advocate and stalwart champion of the Everglades died Wedensday night after a long illness. He was 79. Here's a statement released on his family's behalf:

Florida’s Legal, Environmental ‘Giant’ Remembered as
“Courageous, Vigilant Guardian” of Everglades’ Natural Treasures
 
TALLAHASSEE -- E. Thom Rumberger, 79, nationally respected as one of Florida’s most accomplished attorneys, environmental champions and political strategists, died Wednesday night (September 7), in Tallahassee, surrounded by loving family and friends, after complications related to diabetes.

Rumberger’s long, distinguished career was highlighted by significant multiple achievements in legal circles, consistent public policy thought leadership and uncompromising, steadfast advocacy for Florida’s environment. He was considered one of the most tireless, dedicated champions ever to fight for the state’s fragile and priceless Everglades.

“Thom Rumberger has been a courageous, vigilant guardian of the bountiful treasures and fragile nature of Florida’s – and America’s – most unique Everglades ecosystem,” said Mary Barley, President of the Everglades Trust. “His legal brilliance, political wisdom and unflinching commitment to preserve and protect our precious Everglades place him among the greatest Floridians – one who has fearlessly taken on all foes, without ever compromising principle or integrity. He was one of a kind.”

Born in Santa Ana, California, Rumberger and family moved to Florida when he was a young man. There, his love for wildlife and the outdoors took root in what would become a lifelong passion that found him becoming the recognized champion for preserving and protecting Florida’s natural resources, most notably the Everglades.

Indeed, Rumberger’s many, diverse achievements were recently honored by Florida’s U.S. Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio in a tribute they promoted through the U.S. Congress. And, Sen. Nelson delivered a memorable and lengthy tribute on the floor of the U.S. Senate that was broadcast live by C-Span. (To view the Nelson/Rumberger tribute, visit the tribute.)

Rumberger was a Senior Partner and founding member of the law firm of Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell (RKC), P.A., established in 1978, along with Bud Kirk and Dick Caldwell. During the last 33 years, his professional life revolved around making the firm one of the nation’s most highly regarded law firms.

Before receiving his B.A., with honors, in 1959, and his J.D. in 1961 from the University of Florida, Thom served in the United States Marine Corps. A member of Florida Blue Key, he was Associate Editor of the University of Florida Law Review in 1960.

To earn money to pay for school, Rumberger worked for Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute in Ocala, Florida.  In that unusual role, he milked rattlesnakes and regularly participated in a reptile show. He always said that job of handling deadly animals, while maintaining a smile and keeping up a one-way conversation in front of an audience, prepared him well for his later trial lawyer career.

In one of his most celebrated and successful cases, on behalf of General Motors in 1983, Rumberger convinced a federal judge that the entire window frame of a fourth-floor courtroom window should be removed to enable a car to be entered into evidence by being lifted via crane and then placed in the courtroom.

More recently, Rumberger represented the widow of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, in actively opposing publication by news media of photos from Earnhardt’s autopsy following the tragic crash that claimed the famed driver’s life. He later led the move to have the Florida Legislature enact a landmark law that makes it a felony to publish autopsy photographs.

His love for the RKC law firm stimulated the leadership he always demonstrated, and it was a constant source of pride for him to watch younger lawyers whom he taught develop into superb advocates, and even more, into productive members of the community. All who came in contact with him were positively and profoundly affected by his warmth, concern for both clients and lawyers, and the depth of commitment to the law and to the firm. Part of his considerable legacy is the example he left members of the firm about how to be a great lawyer, and a great human being.

Rumberger’s legal career began with the firm of Maguire, Voorhis and Wells in Orlando in 1961. In 1965, he moved to Brevard County, where he practiced law with, among others, former Orlando mayor Bill Fredrick, as well as former Circuit Judge David Strawn. While in Brevard, he was appointed Acting Sheriff, and in 1967 was named to a circuit judgeship by then-Governor Claude Kirk – making Rumberger the youngest circuit judge in modern Florida history at the time. In 1970, he won the Republican nomination for Florida Attorney General, a race ultimately won by Bob Shevin. Rumberger then served as Special Assistant to the Governor of Florida (Claude Kirk) and as a member of the Florida Land Sales Board. From 1971 to 1974, he was County Attorney for Seminole County.

Representing the Republican Party of Florida in 1992, he was instrumental in redrawing the historic district lines during the Florida Redistricting. 

Rumberger served as a member of Florida’s Federal Judicial Advisory Commission and on the Board of Supervisors of the Spaceport Florida Authority. He was Chairman of the Florida Lawyers for President Bush in the 1988 and 1992 Presidential Campaigns, Florida General Counsel for the George Bush Presidential Campaigns of 1988 and 1992, and Florida General Counsel for the Bob Dole Presidential Campaign. He has also served on the Board of Directors of the Florida Lawyers Mutual Insurance Company.  He served on the Governor’s 2001 Select Task Force on Elections, the 2002 Select Task Force on Election Procedures, Standards and Technology, and was Chairman of the Legislature’s Study Committee on Public Records in 2002.

Current professional memberships included: Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, Fellow of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers, International Association of Defense Counsel, and American Board of Trial Advocates.  Thom was recently honored with a certificate of achievement for being a member of the Florida Bar for 50 years.  Thom was very proud that during his long career practicing law and never shying away from a good fight, he had never had a grievance filed against him.

Rumberger served as Chairman of the Collins Center for Public Policy, as member of the Board of Visitors of Florida State College of Law, and as member of the Board of Trustees for the Law Center Association of the University of Florida.

Thom Rumberger loved spending time with his family, travelling and golf.  He enjoyed many trips with his children and grandchildren.  Some of his favorite trips were to Alaska, Ireland, Japan, Greece, France, Austria, Rome, Italy, Barcelona, Spain, London, England, California, Higgins Lake, Michigan, North Carolina, Jackson, Wyoming, and the Florida Keys.

Rumberger achieved beloved community fame while living in Winter Park, where neighbors relied upon his annual stunning decorations to a 100-year-old camphor tree with thousands of lights every Christmas season, which became quite the local attraction. His favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, was nearly always spent with lots of loving family members coming in from all over.

Rumberger’s extensive career was more than matched by his personal stature as a man. Standing at 6’6”, his physical presence was often the first thing people noticed – but even his physical size was dwarfed by his legendary big heart and lifelong sense of humor. In Japan, his Japanese clients likened him to Mt. Fuji.  In Ireland, during a long holiday, locals in Lahinch were stunned by his formidable size.  He once attributed his masterful trial skills and ability to persuade members of a jury—rich and poor alike—to the unique combination of intimidating size matched only by often self-effacing wit and a most likable sense of humor.  As a big man, Thom needed a big car to get around. This meant a Thom had a big Cadillac for most of his life, displaced only by a big truck.

Thom Rumberger loved family, first and foremost. He was a dreamer, fighter, charmer, father, grandfather, husband, and, for those who knew him at all, one of the best people and most unique friends to all who are proud to have known him.

Thom is survived by his wife, Debbie, and children:  Susan, Todd, Hayden, Matt, Katie, Molly and Chris; son-in-law, Will McKinley, and daughter-in-law, Julie Cote Rumberger—and grandchildren:  Megan, Max, Camille, Thommy, Audree, Emily, Caroline, Hayden and Charlie; and other family, Connie Rumberger and Mary Rumberger. He is also survived by a larger extended family of many dear friends, including Mike Demmer and Paul Schmidt.

Thom Rumberger is already missed by the countless many who called him family and friend.  Services details will be detailed shortly.

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