LeRoy Collins Commentary 26

Commentary #26
5 February 2007

The Last Six Weeks

To Colonel Shinn, Army of South Korea, now on temporary duty with the United Nations contingent in the Republic of Georgia

Colonel Shinn, you asked about Jane and me in the recent past.

But before I go there, I want to thank you for the very hazardous assignment you are pursuing in Georgia as a member of the United Nations armed contingent stationed there. Why just a few weeks ago we read of a foiled attempt by a trafficker to sell some enriched weapons-grade uranium...right there in Georgia. Jane and I wondered if you helped spring that trap. I fear there will be more such attempts in the future. With the stakes so high, it is vital to the survival of humankind that such nefarious activities are CONSISTENTLY detected, and STOPPED AT THE SOURCE!

Col.Shinn This picture of Col. Shinn was taken near his observation post. The mountains with white snow are part of Great Caucasus Mountain Ranges. Beyond those mountains is Russia.

*  *  *  *  *

You asked what I have been doing since my unsuccessful race for the U.S. Senate Republican Nomination from Florida this past summer. While I was disappointed with my results, the urgency of the times DEMANDED THAT I GET INVOLVED. The current efforts of the new Congress to curtail the President’s new strategy for Iraq seem well-intentioned, but naive and oblivious to the worldwide threat of terrorists. While I had hopes of serving on the "varsity team" in the Global War on Terrorism, I have since been appointed by Florida's newly-elected Governor, Charlie Christ, to head Florida's Department of Veterans' Affairs. It is somewhat remarkable because I did not know Charlie Crist personally until we crossed paths a few times this past summer on the campaign trail, and then only for fleeting moments.

During a final campaign week neighborhood campaign rally, he saw me and asked how he could reach me; then he called me at home on a Saturday morning in mid-December to ask "are you still interested in public service." I said yes, if it would involve him. He called back the following week and asked me to come to Tallahassee to speak with him and his transition team…the next day.

In my haste to drive the 260 miles early the next morning, I was stopped by a State Trooper for speeding. After writing the citation, the officer asked me what was my rush. When I told him I had a 2pm appointment with our Governor-Elect, he smiled and said "tell him we are out here doing our job." Thanks a lot, Officer. More important, I did arrive on time.

Arriving at the new Governor's Transition Office across the street from the Capitol, I was ushered to a bare room with four chairs and a table. In came the Transition Appointments assistant, to verify with me the offices I had discussed with Charlie Crist. I emphasized I was prepared to serve anywhere, but if we stayed within the offices discussed previously, my choice was the Department of Veterans' Affairs. She smiled, and gave me a host of forms to complete, including releases to examine my records (including my Highway Patrol citation earned that same morning).

In the middle of that task, my doorway was darkened by a huge 6-5 former Florida State lineman of almost 20 years ago...and almost 300 lbs! "Hello Admiral Collins; my name is Larry Ringer; I am the Chief of Staff for the Lieutenant Governor–Elect. Please follow me." I dutifully tracked him down the hall, then into a large room with three others, i.e. the new Governor, his Lt. Gov, and the new Governor's Chief of Staff.

The questions at first were intended to find out: what inspired me to run for the U.S, Senate; why did I become a Republican 20 years ago (despite a strong Democratic upbringing); could I take the heat of public scrutiny. At first it felt like an interview with ADM Rickover for the Navy's nuclear power program back in the 1960s, but it became more relaxed after about 15 minutes.

Then they asked if I had any questions. Yes...when could I speak with the incumbent in the job (ans: after the announcement). Could I speak with my wife and reply within 24 hours? Of course...which I did. Just a few weeks before, Jane had expressed some dismay about me being at home so much; the house was harder to clean, and I was offering her too much advice. "Why don't you get a job?!" OK, I did...albeit 260 miles away. I told Governor Crist I would probably commute to Tallahassee since the Department's principal offices are in Pinellas County (Largo).

The public announcement of my appointment (plus three others) was made by Governor Crist between Christmas and New Years Day. On that occasion I met several members of the new Governor's staff, including the Deputy Chief of Staff, who would be my conduit for communications to and from the Governor. I immediately asked him to notify the incumbent Executive Director I had been appointed to replace. Within a scant few hours I was meeting with the incumbent in my new job, quartered in a State office complex about 4-5 miles SE of the Capitol building.

I was replacing COL Warren R. "Rocky" McPherson U.S. Marine Corps (Retired). From the outset Rocky was immensely helpful in the transition. He was (and still is) a trove of information and opinion. He graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis 10 years after me, and had a distinguished career as a Marine aviator in Viet Nam combat flying A6 Intruder attack aircraft. He promised a seamless "change of command," and he delivered as promised. By mutual consent he would deliver his resignation to the Florida Governor and Cabinet on the day preceding the Cabinet meeting, where my appointment would be approved, i.e. 18 JAN 2007, almost three weeks following Governor Crist's Inauguration on 2 JAN 2007. I could use that gestation time to become more familiar with my staff, our FDVA resources, our mission, our problems, our facilities, our legislative committees and leaders, etc.

Inauguration Day in Tallahassee was clear but cold (as I recall from my youth there in the 1930s, 40s, and early 50s), in contrast to the milder climes of my home in Tampa. It started with the Prayer Breakfast @ Florida A & M University. Jane joined me for the Inaugural ceremony, seated with the other State agency chiefs enjoying the speeches, the Florida National Guard Band, and especially the low flyby of four Florida Air National Guard F-15 fighters with afterburners roaring. Immediately afterwards, we were shepherded into the Governor's suite of offices for photographs. Since I would be leading a Department requiring confirmation by the Cabinet, Jane and I decided to spend the afternoon visiting each Cabinet Officer's respective receptions in the Capitol, i.e. Chief Financial Officer, Attorney General, and Commissioner of Agriculture. I knew them all beforehand.

My confirmation was early on the Agenda for the first Cabinet Meeting of Governor Crist's Administration on 18 JAN 2007. My brother-in-law, John Aurell, was with me. The motion was made and passed 4-0; I was invited to respond, so I thanked the Governor for the appointment, and the Cabinet for their approval, and pledged my very best in service to the 18 million citizens of Florida, 10% of whom are military Veterans (exceeded in the U.S. only by the 2.2 million in California). Since the Legislature was in Special Session that week to address Florida's insurance crisis, my staff legislative assistants and I used their presence to ensure they were current on our Veterans' issues.

Since the commencement of my new life in service to the State of Florida (I have now been on the job barely two weeks), I have been inspired by the dedication of so many civil servants I have met in State government. It is readily apparent that good guidance is coming from the top. In our first staff meeting with Governor Crist, he made it clear that he would demand the most ethical practices from each of us, and he explained quite clearly what that meant. Each staff meeting since then, he has been readily available to all of us.

As an interesting aside, Governor Crist expressed to me his interest in meeting my 95 yr old mother, whose antebellum home adjoins the Governor's Mansion property. As I may have told you earlier, she suffered a severe fall on 1 NOV 2006, broke three ribs, and punctured a lung. We thought that might degenerate to a fateful conclusion, but she has clawed her way back to renewed strength and resolve to live. It was only last week she told me that I could now tell Governor Crist she felt strong enough to properly host him in her home next door, provided I was there at the time...and she had ample notice to fix her hair. He graciously accepted those predictable feminine pre-conditions for any age.

At this juncture, I have visited 4 out of the 6 eldercare facilities our Department operates, and I hope to have visited them all by the end of this week. Next week I shall be in convention with my counterparts from all States plus senior Executives of the Veterans Administration in Washington, DC. With the passage of each day I feel better equipped to give my own "rudder orders." That comes from a supportive administration, family, but moreover the people of Florida. Life is good...and Jane says our house is noticeably cleaner in my absence.

But amidst all this excitement for our future was a major note of sadness. One of the most enthusiastic and devoted volunteers in my campaign, and among the very closest of Jane's lifelong friends, Evelyn Polk Vincent, took her last breath less than two weeks ago. Just weeks after the campaign was concluded, Evelyn discovered she had a cancer in her spine which was far advanced. Jane was with her family until the last...and then some. She found my steady webmaster, Larry Kent, who is still doing the job with me. Her life was a major inspiration for so many of all ages; she was truly one of God’s dearest angels.

We look forward to a visit from you in the future. Stay safe.

/s/ LeRoy Collins, Jr.


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