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Former Gov. Claude Kirk makes final visit to the Old Capitol

Claude Kirk Former Florida Gov. Claude Kirk returned to the old Capitol Friday, where a steady stream of well-wishers came to pay their last respects as he lie in state. 

Kirk, Florida’s governor from 1967 to 1971, died in his West Palm Beach home on Wednesday. He was 85. 

The famously colorful governor, who became the first Republican elected in Florida since Reconstruction, left as many stories as he told.

Photo: AP/Steve Cannon

Dignitaries who came to the memorial included Gov. Rick Scott, former Governors Reubin Askew, Bob Martinez and Wayne Mixson, former Supreme Court justices and federal court judges, former state Cabinet officials, agency heads and current and former legislators. And there wasn't a visitor who didn't have a story to tell about the charming, flamboyant and provocative governor.

“We became fairly good friends,’’ said Askew, 83, who defeated Kirk in 1970. “You don’t become better friends by running against each other. But he did some things that were very important to the state.’’

Askew recalled how Kirk told the crowd on Askew’s inauguration day: “You may not agree what I did going out, but you knew that I was governor.”

When Askew and Kirk were invited to attend a forum of former governors at the University of Central Florida five years ago, Kirk criticized the current state leadership and talked about his term but left out what Askew considered the most valuable information.

“I pulled him aside and I said, ‘Governor, you’re missing some of your strongest points. You hired some of the best people that we’ve had in government,''' Askew recalled. "Most people didn’t notice that I kept many of his department heads.’’ 

Among them, Askew said, was the late Bill Reed, the state’s first commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Nathaniel Reed, Kirk’s environmental advisor whom Kirk paid $1 a year.

Kirk responded to Askew’s advice:  “Well, maybe I’ll get you to write my next speech,’’ Askew recalled. “I said, governor, I don’t think I want that responsibility.”

Gov. Bob Martinez, who followed Kirk 20 years later as Florida’s second Republican governor since the Civil War, said that Kirk’s legacy lastest longer than his four years in office.

“He brought in some talented people,’’ Martinez said. He he left his mark when he called a special session of the Legislature to revise the state Constitution, modernized FDLE and the executive branch.

“I enjoyed him,’’ Martinez said. “After our public lives were over we ran into each other and he hadn’t changed much. He was still as lively as ever. If he could make something serious light, he would. He just had that gift for that.”

Kirk was also a famously effective promoter. When he hosted the Republican Goveror’s Conference in Palm Beach the first year of his term, he attracted attention for granting a dozen interviews in a day and lining up 14 television talks. Kirk replied: “I’m just sellin’ orange juice. Sellin’ orange juice, sellin’ Kirk, sellin’ Florida. People are paying attention.”

Steve MacNamara, a former Florida State University law professor who is now Gov. Rick Scott’s chief of staff, recalls the time he invited Askew and Kirk to be guest lecturers to his law school class.

Kirk told the students: “But for Claude Kirk, there would be no Reubin Askew.” 

“That’s right,” Askew said Friday. He was one of just five Florida governors to be elected for two terms.

 In keeping with Kirk’s flair, his family had guests sign the visitor guest book Friday with orange pens.

A funeral service will be held in Palm Beach at 1 p.m. Monday, at Bethesda-By-The-Sea Episcopal Church, followed by a graveside service with military honors at the South Florida National Cemetery.