Editor’s note: Former Florida State University System Chancellor Charles Reed died Tuesday at 75.
Charlie Reed was a hard charger, a master legislative strategist, a fantastically successful leader in higher education, a consummate professional, and a class act.
Reed became Chancellor of Florida’s State University System at about the same time that I became Executive Director of the Florida Student Association, the lobbying group that represents the students of Florida’s State University System.
He left his job as Governor Bob Graham’s chief of staff to become Chancellor. It was 1985, and everyone in Florida’s higher education policy realm had had a healthy dose of respect for and fear of Reed. He wanted to raise tuition 15 percent per year. Students wanted tuition increases capped at no more than 5 percent per year.
Part of my job was to testify immediately after him at every Board of Regents and Legislative Committee meeting that dealt with the tuition issue and provide the counterpoints to his points. The undergraduate tuition increase landed close to 5 percent, but no permanent cap was created.
After the Session, I was summoned to the Board of Regents office for a one-on-one meeting with Chancellor Reed. I had no idea why he wanted to meet with me, much less alone. I thought he was going to take me to the woodshed, because he was a tough guy.
In fact, during that Session, I saw him use a legislator’s aide’s phone (no cellphones back then) to dress down a high-level university administrator for not towing the State University System position on a particular bill. My interactions with Chancellor Reed during the legislative session and at Board of Regents meetings were made awkward by the fact that we were diametrically opposed on the high-stakes tuition issue, and though we had spoken many times, we had never had a “casual” conversation.
I nervously went into his office. We shook hands, and I sat down.
He said he wanted to meet so that he could complement me on how I handled myself during the Session, how even though the issues were big and the stakes were high, it never became personal or disrespectful.
Reed said it is always great to witness the abilities of so many student leaders coming out of Florida’s universities, and that even when we differ on issues, we all have the best interests of Florida’s students and universities at heart. He said that he heard that I wanted to return to Orlando after my 1-year contract was over and that he wanted to encourage me to stay involved in the process because he thought I was good at it.
Coming from Charlie Reed, that was high praise.
He asked what I wanted to do, and when I told him that I was a Public Administration major, and that in the near term I wanted to work in government, but live in Orlando.
So, he offered to call then-Orlando Mayor Bill Frederick, and his chief administrative officer, Lex Hester, and put in a word for me. The fact that he was a Democratic partisan and I was a Republican partisan made no difference to him, or me. Thanks to recommendations by Reed and Vice Chancellor George Bedell, I got an interview and my first post-college job in Mayor Frederick’s office.
So, the man whose side I had been a thorn in for months put differences aside and took a personal interest in me and what I wanted to do with my life, and helped give me a head start in a rewarding career.
I saw Charlie many times in Tallahassee in the years that followed, and he always asked about and seemed genuinely interested in the campaigns, causes and clients that I was working on. I even called him in California for insight and institutional knowledge, and he would either immediately take my call, or call back later that day, and seemed eager to help and glad to talk to another Floridian.
I’m saddened by his passing, and forever grateful for the lessons that a lion of those days taught, and the courtesies that he extended, to the 22-year old version of me.
RIP Charlie Reed. Your legacy is beyond measure, and you will be greatly missed.
John Sowinski is a political consultant and founding partner of Consensus Communication.