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Jean Fitzgerald, 88, US Navy captain, Broward leader

JeanFitzgeraldHMIPhoto[1]Jean Fitzgerald, a prominent member of the civic, cultural and political life of Broward County for more than three decades, died of heart failure Sunday in Jacksonville. He was 88.

A retired U.S. Navy captain, Fitzgerald had a decorated 31-year career that placed him in charge of three destroyer divisions, and he later held a variety of positions at the Pentagon. After retiring in 1974, he moved to Fort Lauderdale and quickly became involved in community work while he nurtured his love of the Navy.

Fitzgerald was one of the six founders of the Port Everglades Association, a group formed in 1979 to advance the interests of port businesses in Fort Lauderdale and to diversify the port. At the time, he was president of Tracor Marine, which ran a full-service shipyard and fleet of oceanographic vessels.

"He was a good anchor for the association," said Margaret Kempel, who heads the group. "He was an energetic and active participant in the association he founded right up until the week they moved to Jacksonville."

Fitzgerald and his wife, Carol, moved to Jacksonville in 2012 to be closer to family members. Carol Fitzgerald was for many years an administrative assistant to Broward County commissioners Anne Kolb, Eve Savage, Scott Cowan and Jim Scott. 

"Jean had never really had a hometown until he moved to Fort Lauderdale," Carol Fitzgerald said. "He just jumped in with both feet."

The Fitzgeralds lived for many years at Point of Americas, a high-rise condominium overlooking Port Everglades, where he personally kept an eye on one of the world's busiest seaports.

In 1990, he founded Broward Navy Days, an annual event that promotes the presence of the Navy and Coast Guard in Fort Lauderdale. He was a member of the Broward Civic Center, the forerunner of the group that led to creation of the city's performing arts center, and served for many years on the Broward Arts Council, Gold Coast Jazz Society and Broward Public Library Foundation.

In a 1993 op-ed column in The Herald, Fitzgerald faulted government for spending too little money on the arts. "Given the chance, people will embrace art and culture not as fancy extras, but as necessary ingredients of a full and satisfying life," Fitzgerald wrote.

From 1984 to 1988, Fitzgerald was a member of the seven-member Port Everglades Authority, serving as an appointee of the Broward County Commission to represent port business interests. Voters later approved a straw-ballot referendum that made the port a branch of county government.

It was a time of turmoil at the politically-charged port, and Fitzgerald was familiar with its rough-and-tumble ways. In a highly-publicized 1983 case, he won a $20,000 settlement from Charles "Chucky" Browne, a former port union official who punched Fitzgerald in the mouth and caused injuries after a verbal confrontation.

Pia Thompson, who worked at Port Everglades for 35 years, said Fitzgerald was instrumental in her getting her first managerial post there, in contract compliance. "Jean was always there as my mentor, whenever I needed help," said Thompson, now retired in Atlanta. "He would say, 'Meet me at Pier 66 for lunch.'"

Before and after serving on the port authority, Fitzgerald was an executive of Hvide Shipping Inc., a major port tenant. Fitzgerald also co-founded the Florida Alliance, a group of maritime interests that successfully fought the construction of an oil pipeline to Port Everglades.

Fitzgerald held a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University and was a graduate of the National War College in Washington, D.C.

Born in St. Louis in 1926, Fitzgerald was a child of the Great Depression who maintained a lifelong interest in the subject. He was a collector of books and pamphlets created during the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a Franklin Roosevelt-era program to find work for the unemployed. In 1986, Fitzgerald donated his WPA collection to the Broward County Main Library's rare book collection.

“He was a great supporter of the library and of the arts generally,” said Sam Morrison, a retired director of the Broward library system. “We’ve lost a good friend.”

Visitation is from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 11, at Hardage-Giddens Funeral Home, 4801 San Jose Blvd., Jacksonville. A graveside service will be at 11 a.m. Friday, Dec. 12 at Jacksonville National Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to Seafarers House, 2550 Eisenhower Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, or Light of the World Clinic, 806 Prospect Rd., Oakland Park, FL.