In addition to his distinguished military service which earned him a Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Silver Star, Fred Karl worked at almost every level of state government from the Florida Supreme Court to Tampa City Attorney.
Karl will be remembered for many things. But he said World War II shaped him and taught him leadership.
He was a student at the University of Florida at the start of World War II. Karl enlisted in the Army and was commissioned as a second lieutenant while still 18 years old.
Karl commanded a platoon of five tanks – 25 men all older than him – at the Battle of the Bulge. They were part of the 2nd Armored Division.
“We got set up for Christmas Eve.” Karl reminisced in 2008. “It was really a bittersweet time. I remember early Christmases at home, the smell of incense and pine trees, but I was terrified about the attack the next day. On Christmas day 1944, we attacked the Germans and cut the point off.”
Karl said his division captured the 2nd Panzer Division in the woods. Then, they were told to flank the bulge and drive south to meet Gen. George Patton’s tanks and relieve Bastogne.
“About the third day of fighting, I mean big, wicked fighting really a lot of resistance, my company commander was lost. He got blown up in a tank,” Karl said. “And then the next day, I was hit with a piece of shrapnel in my arm and my chest and went back to England. So, I missed everything from Jan. 5th.”
But he made it back with his troops in time to join the triumphant entry into Berlin.
Karl often said he learned leadership during that time in the Army. He returned to Florida, earned a law degree from Stetson University, spent 12 years in the Florida legislature and had an unsuccessful run for governor.
Karl was the last justice elected to the Florida Supreme Court back in 1976. That’s the same year voters passed an amendment to appoint the justices instead.
Karl told WUSF in 2008 that he campaigned for both.
“I’m proud to tell you I did help change it,” Karl said. “While on one hand I was saying please elect me to the court, I was saying but please also vote for the amendment that makes this kind of election old fashion and out of date.”
Even as he ran for the state high court Karl was troubled by his need to raise money for the judicial campaign.
“It was demeaning, not to me but demeaning to the court,” Karl said. “Here was somebody aspiring to sit on the Florida Supreme Court and making decisions about life and death and about constitutional matters and about some of the most important economic matters in the state that could come before a court and I was out glad-handing and back-slapping like I was running for dog catcher.”
Karl was known for his integrity.
That’s why he was called upon to become Hillsborough County Attorney in 1988 and then county administrator. Former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio was a commissioner back then and said Karl helped stabilize Hillsborough’s government.
“It had been plagued by corruption and then it was plagued by poor leadership and just kind of a disorganized mess,” Iorio said. “He gave it focus and direction and professionalism that I think has helped to this day.
When Iorio was elected as Tampa Mayor, she asked Karl to leave retirement this time to serve as Tampa City Attorney.
“He was truly born to be a public servant,” Iorio said.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe admired Karl’s grit and work ethic.
“A cowboy’s cowboy, you know, he was going to ride until he couldn’t ride anymore,” Sharpe said. “Even with all the infirmities that come with age, this man kept his grace and his wit and his brains.”
Karl suffered with Parkinson’s Disease and heart problems in his later years. But Sharpe says that didn’t detract from his willingness to take on insurmountable problems.
“In most situations in a crisis, people tend to run away from the problem. Fred ran toward it,” Sharpe said. “And he was willing to take risks to his own reputation in order to solve problems.”
Iorio equated Karl with Sam Gibbons, the former long-serving Tampa congressman who also fought in World War II as a paratrooper.
“We really are talking about individuals who come from a generation where they were tested early in life by war and then devoted their life not just to making a living but to making the world a better place,” Iorio said.
Karl taught by example.
“I still believe there’s no higher form of public service than the honest practice of politic,” Karl said at the end of an interview five years ago.
Karl died early Thursday at age 88 surrounded by family.