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May 24, 2018

Editor's Page

A tribute to a friend: Cliff Hinkle

Mark R. Howard | 5/25/2016

I’m leery of men who wear bowties. Most shouldn’t. Cliff Hinkle wore them well.

I met Cliff when we were classmates in the Leadership Florida program nearly 20 years ago. The program, headquartered in Tallahassee, where Cliff lived, is a non-profit organization that aims to bring a consciousness of statewide issues to regional leaders. Each year, the program selects a group of about 50 people from different parts of Florida.

Class members meet on five weekends during the year, with each meeting in a different part of the state, to learn about that region and about issues that impact the whole state. The program (leadershipflorida.org) is a must for executives who want to truly understand Florida.

When I met Cliff the evening before our class sessions began, I wouldn’t have bet on him becoming much of a friend — he showed up sporting a particularly garish yellow bowtie. But the next morning we happened to sit next to each other. The first session included an explanation of the Myers-Briggs personality assessment — we had all filled out the M-B questionnaire in advance — and Cliff and I, it turned out, had similar personality types, at least according to Myers-Briggs. At the end of the presentation, the speaker asked us to talk with someone of our type for five minutes. And so Cliff and I talked. And within five minutes, we were friends.

Florida had Cliff as a friend long before I did. A native of Apalachicola, he grew up in Tallahassee. Early in his working life he had been county administrator of Leon County, where he had put together deals for an important park and a civic center. He then managed the Florida state retirement system’s pension funds from 1987-91, doubling the assets under management. Some of the policies he developed while running the pension system survive to this day. After leaving government service, he went on to a successful career as an investor and financial manager. In 1996, he started a merchant banking firm, Flagler Holdings.

Principles and ethics were important to Cliff, and he built service into whatever he did. He served on the boards of several foundations and charitable organizations and chaired the FSU Foundation board of trustees. The FSU Faculty Senate honored him with an award in 2008 for contributing to the school’s ability to fulfill its mission.

Cliff was very, very smart, but he never hit you over the head with it. He had a great sense of humor and a great way of introducing play into serious work without letting the fun detract from the endeavor. He could compete hard, but he never lost perspective on whatever the game was. He was always inches from a big, sly smile, and he always made you feel that what you were saying was important.

Through the years, we got together fairly regularly on our respective travels. He could hit a golf ball a mile and got me much more engaged in that game than I’d ever planned to be. We both play guitar and shared a love of acoustic music. He gave me a banjo that I haven’t learned how to play but sits on a stand in my den. I got to know his wife, Lee, who’s as talented and engaging as Cliff was. I never met his son, Ross, but knew him well through Cliff and the pride Cliff showed when talking about him.

And then there came a weekend about 10 years ago when we were supposed to get together. But I didn’t hear from him and didn’t get a response when I reached out. A few months later, another Leadership Florida friend told me that Cliff, then in his late 50s, had early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Lee says he began having trouble putting sentences together, then stopped doing crossword puzzles, then stopped using the computer and then reading for pleasure.

There could have been no crueler diagnosis for people as smart and vital as Cliff and Lee. And there is no comfort in the characterization of the disease as a “long goodbye.” It is torture, the day-by-day evaporation of the memories and personality and physical skills that make us who we are. Lee and Cliff’s friends in Tallahassee took extraordinary care of him during his decline. He and they continued to serve, organizing “Team Cliffwalk” as part of the annual “Forget Me Not” walk conducted by the Alzheimer’s Project Inc., a Tallahassee organization that helps families of Alzheimer’s victims.

I last saw Cliff about two years ago on a visit to Tallahassee. He could no longer communicate with words. I showed him pictures of my children and played a couple of songs for him on the guitar. He smiled and hummed along. He died last Dec. 5 at age 67, about a month after the birth of his first grandchild. Lee says he understood he’d become a grandfather before he died.

There are three reasons to write about Cliff. One is because he believed strongly in Leadership Florida, both in terms of the relationships it fosters and its importance to the state.

The second is to encourage support, however you may choose, for Alzheimer’s-related research.

The third is the reminder from Cliff’s life of the value of public service — and the value of public servants. By the time I knew him, he was well established in the most capitalist corner of the private sector, but Cliff believed strongly in the ability of government to do good and in the value of government employees. Even as Florida operates with one of the lowest ratio of state employees to population of any state in the country, ignorant politicians — and many citizens — use government and its workers too readily as whipping boys for whatever they believe is wrong with the system. Cliff knew better.

I’ll never understand bowties. But I will keep that banjo in my den, and with it the blessing of Cliff’s memory.

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