J. Stanley Marshall, former president of Florida State University (1969-76) and founder of the James Madison Institute, died Sunday at 91.
“Ol’ Stan Marshall puts his pants on one leg at time,” the barber said as he trimmed the back of my head, which may have been trembling too much for him to cut in a straight line.
The barber’s words did little to soothe the anxiety I felt in preparation for a meeting in 1997 with Dr. J. Stanley Marshall, former president of Florida State University, founder of Sonitrol of Tallahassee and an all-around legend of the Tallahassee community. Marshall had asked to meet with me after the publication of an op-ed I offered in opposition to political correctness.
The obstacle to meeting Marshall was a matter of logistics.
I was in St. Petersburg working on Charlie Crist’s first campaign for the U.S. Senate. And the only time Marshall had open was sooner rather than later. So I drove through the night along the familiar roads of U.S. 19, slowing down into and accelerating out of the speed-bump towns that lined the trip.
I had a few hours before our meeting and decided to get a haircut in order to look my best.
I was too nervous then to remember much about that first conversation with Marshall except a promise that we would remain in contact with each other. I would fulfill that promise and then some, soon taking a position as a policy analyst and senior writer at the James Madison Institute, which Marshall also founded.
During my first month on the job, Marshall invited me to his family farm for a day of outdoor labor that would have made Hercules sore. Yet, there was Marshall, twice my age and then some, leading me around like a pace car.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t ever sure how I, the most junior of thinkers, was supposed to handle such a senior position, so my stint at JMI was brief.
But in that time, I became one of Marshall’s many admirers.
It’s an admiration that grew out of what kind of man he is, not just what he’s done. Of course, Marshall’s resume is nothing if not great.
President of Florida State from 1969 to 1976, Marshall presided over a campus rife with political protest and unrest.
When Marshall wasn’t staving off some sort of Kent State incident at the “Berkeley of the South,” he found time to hire a football coach named Bobby Bowden.
After Marshall left Florida State, the Renaissance man launched the local Sonitrol, the security and fire prevention firm. In 1987, the former science teacher, university president and company president founded the James Madison Institute, a Tallahassee-based public policy institute.
That’s where Marshall’s legacy as one Florida’s political giants was secured.
He became the Barry Goldwater and the William Buckley of Florida’s conservative movement. He created a home for conservative political thought in a state that had come to be dominated by men such as Reuben Askew and Lawton Chiles.
Men such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio owe some part of their careers to the path Marshall blazed.
Marshall ran for office himself and lost badly, but proudly, challenging the education establishment he has feuded with his entire career.
But again, it’s not about what Marshall did.
It’s about who he was: a towering man able to move with ease within the worlds of high finance and politics; the most generous of family men, dedicated to his beloved wife, Shirley, and an unequaled intellectual, with a library of letters from Jefferson to Madison, who also hosted conferences for Margaret Thatcher and Vaclav Havel.
Dr. J. Stanley Marshall built a legacy by defying expectations.
Florida has lost a giant, and not soon after it lost another giant from a bygone era, Gov. Reuben Askew. There is a tinge of irony that Marshall and Askew — intellectual adversaries but friends — died just months apart.
Like Gov. Askew, Dr. Marshall’s legacy will live on in a state not known for its sense of history.
Yet I won’t forget the incredibly sharp, considerate gentleman that gave this writer one of his first big breaks.
I’ll also never forget that Stan Marshall puts his pants legs on any way he pleased.
Peter Schorsch is a political consultant and new media publisher based in St. Petersburg. Column courtesy of Context Florida.