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November 29, 2015
H. Lee Moffitt is a 'Florida Icon'

Photo: Michael Heape

H. Lee Moffitt

Florida Icon

H. Lee Moffitt is a 'Florida Icon'

Attorney, former speaker of the Florida House and namesake of the H. Lee Mofftt Cancer Center & Research Institute, Tampa; age 72

Art Levy | 8/28/2014

Nothing has ever come easy for me. It was not easy to graduate from college. I was working full time. The same was true in law school. The key, at least to any success that I have had, particularly with the cancer center and in politics, is perseverance.

Playing baseball during high school, I crunched my knee sliding into second base, and it always was a problem. And then, later in life when I was 29 years old, I found out that the same knee — I always thought it hurt because of the baseball injury — had a tumor. It turned out to be malignant. When a doctor puts his hand on your arm and says you have cancer, it is a lifealtering experience. It makes you re-examine all of your priorities and re-examine the direction you want to take in your life.

When you’re in elected office, too many people think it’s about them. The real reason people should be in public service is to serve the people.

There is not a day, and I’m not exaggerating, that goes by when I don’t talk to or visit with someone who has either been a patient at the cancer center or wants me to help them get a member of their family into the cancer center. There are some days when I get four or five requests.

I read a lot and I travel a lot, and when I’m traveling in my car all Over Florida I always have a CD or a book on tape that I listen to. I enjoy historical novels and enjoy reading about Harry Truman and Teddy Roosevelt. ‘The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt’ is one of my favorites.

When I first floated the idea of building a cancer center, I thought I would receive support. I was absolutely amazed at the amount of opposition. The local medical association, the local hospitals, even from areas around the state that were 100 miles away, did not support it and actively fought it. And when I finally got some money in the budget, just to plan for the creation of the cancer center, the state medical schools went to the governor and got the governor — who was Bob Graham at the time — to veto the first money for the cancer center.

Once I graduated from law school and passed the Bar, I hung out my shingle in Tampa in what was then the tallest building in town. I had a little-bitty office, sandwiched between two big law firms. In those early years, I took every case that walked through the door.

You show me a good politician — a good public servant I should say — and I’ll show you a person who has first and foremost good people skills. The ones who excel are the ones who are not afraid to strike out on their own and innovate, rather than be herded along by some sort of party policy or party politics or dogma. I like the ones who can think for themselves.

Do you know any of the poetry of Robert Service? There was one particular poem of his that I like called ‘Carry On!’ that talks about perseverance. You just carry on until you achieve the best you can.

I didn’t want the cancer center to be named after me. I didn’t want People to think that I was fighting for the cancer center to create a monument for myself. I fought for it because I saw the death of my friends and I saw the state of Florida had either the first- or second-highest incidence of death from cancer in the United States.

My father was a welder. He tried for years to teach me how to weld, and I was just all thumbs. Jokingly, one day he said, ‘Well, you’re never going to amount to a damn thing. You can’t work with your hands, so you may as well be a lawyer.’ 

I met Ralph Haben when we were both students at the Cumberland School of Law in Alabama. During the day, I’d go to school and at night Ralph and I would work at a go-go lounge. It was a roaring ’20s speakeasy kind of place. There were peanuts all over the floor. My job was being the bartender, part-time bartender, and Ralph, who later in life became Speaker of the Florida House, was the bouncer. After a lot of Auburn- Alabama football games, there were a few people who had just a little bit too much to drink, and I think Ralph saved my life on more than one occasion.

The governor was still not persuaded that a cancer center was a good idea, so I had to turn to some of my friends on the appropriations committee to carefully consider the governor’s budget. And they saw fit to cut the governor’s budget by about a third for the running of the office of the governor. It was amazing. It was so much easier to get the governor’s attention for the creation of the cancer center. I gave him his money back to run his office in exchange for his pledge that he would support the cancer center. Sometimes, it takes a meat ax to get things done.

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