Bill McBride, 1945-2012
More than a decade ago, not long after I joined Florida Trend, my family and I traveled to North Carolina to visit my parents. On the return trip, during a layover at the Charlotte airport, I recognized Bill McBride and Alex Sink, who were with their two children in the same gate area, waiting to board the plane to Tampa. I’d never met them and took advantage of the occasion to walk over and introduce myself. I expected no more than a brief, professional exchange with a couple of business heavyweights — she was head of NationsBank Florida; he was head of Holland & Knight, then growing into one of the biggest law firms in the country.
Both were warm and friendly. And after Sink excused herself to look after their children, I got the full-bore McBride conversational hug that’s familiar to everyone who knew him — jovial, completely unpretentious, as interested in hearing about my children as he was in talking about his. He and his family had been in Haiti with a group doing humanitarian work, building houses for poor people, if I remember correctly. Before returning to Tampa, they had gone to visit Sink’s family in North Carolina.
As surprised as I was at McBride’s generosity with his time, my impression was defined more by how authentic he was, how no one who spent more than 5 minutes with him could have any question about what was important to him — families, children, good works. That initial impression was refined and enhanced when Trend published a cover story in 1999 that featured profiles of the couple.
McBride’s story, by our former writer Cynthia Barnett, detailed his push to make Holland & Knight a global firm, highlighting how he was pursuing mergers and moves that would grow and modernize the firm while striving to preserve the home-grown culture that former Chairman Chesterfield Smith had engineered into Holland & Knight as it became Florida’s signature legal firm and its biggest.
The story related a biography full of achievement. McBride overcame a difficult childhood in which he had to become at times a surrogate parent and protector for his two siblings. He worked his way through the University of Florida after giving back his football scholarship in the wake of a knee injury; graduated, as a Marine, first in his class at Army Ranger school; commanded a platoon in Vietnam; was awarded a Bronze Star with Combat V for valor; graduated from UF law school and became Smith’s protégé.
But the story inevitably kept coming back around to the things that were most important to him. At Holland & Knight, McBride combined business strategy and philanthropy, championing pro-bono efforts, particularly on children’s issues, that he felt would make the firm more valuable to the communities it served. The firm also worked for years to get the state to compensate survivors of the Rosewood racial massacre in Levy County.
At home, he and Sink, amid the demands of their respective jobs, arranged their travel schedules so that one of them would be at their home in Thonotosassa every night for the children. Smith told stories about McBride slipping out of legal conferences to fly home so he could coach his son’s Little League team. Both he and Sink lent their efforts to philanthropic fundraising efforts in Tampa Bay and elsewhere; and both were privately generous in ways almost no one knew about — Trend’s 1999 story mentioned a college education for a deserving kid and a car for a crossing guard at their children’s (public) school.
Over the years, I ran into McBride several times, each interaction following the template of the first encounter. And over the years, he occasionally sent me handwritten notes commenting on something he’d seen in the magazine — “good issue,” “nice editorial” or “thanks, I didn’t know this.” There is no greater satisfaction in our work here at the magazine than being able to tell smart, informed people like Bill McBride something they don’t already know. But there was nothing for him to gain with those communications. He was simply kind, and he made you feel better for having been around him.
McBride’s business, legal and political legacy was much dissected at his memorial service, by people much better suited than I to appreciate all he had done for Florida. Aside from his devotion to his family, I am most struck by what I sensed as a willful, almost naive, belief in the goodness of people and their ability to sit down and work together to create a better future.
In that 1999 story, McBride said he carried a couple of lessons with him to work each day. Smith, he said, had taught him about intellectual courage. The other lesson?
“I learned that people will do great things if you trust them and believe in them,” he says. “And I learned that the only way to get people to do very hard things is if you’re willing to do them yourself and they know that.”
It is the greatest irony, of course, that heart failure took the life of a man who had so much of it. Florida is the poorer for his loss, but his memory will be a blessing.