‘We make a bigger deal out of many things and actually everything is simple’
By Jan Pudlow
Applause and laughter thundered in the Boca Raton ballroom as Foundation dinner-goers hoisted foot-and-a-half high “Jack-on-a-stick” signs into the air.
The moment was right before Florida Bar Executive Director John F. Harkness, Jr.’s speech, as he accepted the Foundation’s highest award, the Medal of Honor.
There stood Harkness on stage, usually the Bar’s quiet, behind-the-scenes sage leader, in the spotlight. Looking out at all of the bobbing signs of his smiling face caused him to belt out hearty laughter along with the crowd.
“I really can’t believe this. I never thought that I would be honored like this. It’s a tremendous honor!” said Harkness, who will be retiring at the end of the year, after serving 37 years as executive director.
“I think we have the best relationship between any state bar and state bar foundation,” Harkness said. “In so many states, where there is a foundation and a bar, the minute the money comes in, problems arise. But we’ve always found ways to work around it. We worked together. We worked within the state. We worked nationally.”
Even though it was his moment in the limelight, Harkness gave credit to Jane Curran, the Foundation’s former executive director, who also received a Medal of Honor, by saying without her, “the IOTA system we have in the entire country would not be there today, no question.”
Harkness was nominated for the Medal of Honor by former Bar President Gwynne Young, who said, “As a result of his leadership and staying on top of issues, The Florida Bar has always been a leader in implementing new programs, implementing creative programs to serve not only its members but the public in Florida. His vision and leadership is responsible for us as a Bar and as a Bar Foundation being on the cutting edge of what bars and foundations in this country do.”
Harkness told the crowd that he read a book about how “you don’t retire, you refire,” and announced he has decided to volunteer with both The Florida Bar Foundation and Florida Lawyers Assistance, Inc., a nonprofit program created in 1986 to help Bar members who suffer from substance abuse, mental health, or other disorders negatively affecting their lives and careers.
The June 22 event was just one of several tributes to Harkness, during the Bar’s Annual Convention at the Boca Raton Resort & Club.
Earlier that day, at the Judicial Luncheon, several past Bar presidents and Chief Justice Jorge Labarga delivered a tribute, along with slide show of photos of Harkness and Bar leaders through the years.
Leonard Gilbert, of Tampa, described himself as “the first president that Jack Harkness had to put up with in his 37 years of service,” and remembered he was sworn in as president in 1980 at the very same resort hotel, with Harkness at his side.
When Harkness was hired at age 35 in 1980, and there were about 28,000 members of the Bar, Gilbert recalled, “I told Jack that I was sure that there was a notebook, a handbook on how to be executive director of The Florida Bar. Certainly, if there wasn’t one of those, there would be file drawers full of information. One of the few times in my life, I have to admit, that I was totally wrong.
“But, of course, that made it easier for Jack, because he could write his own plan. There was truly on-the-job training for both of us,” Gilbert said.
Ben Hill, Bar president in 1991, of Tampa, listed many of the Bar’s accomplishments over the decades, saying, “Jack engaged in all of the activities on behalf of the Bar and on behalf of the profession, without asking for any credit. Indeed, he was always in the background. So I coined a phrase that perhaps sums up what I think Jack was: ‘He was always there, but never there.’”
Mayanne Downs, Bar president in 2010, from Orlando, played a “What If I Told You?” game with the audience. Among her questions:
“What if I told you someone who rarely, rarely speaks in public and is even more rarely quoted actually wields more power and authority than most any name bandied about our state? . . .
“What if I told you that person probably doesn’t have cable TV and can barely master an iPhone and his Twitter account has been dormant for seven years, but actually made The Florida Bar one of the nation’s leading technology giants?
“The answer to these questions, of course, is Jack Harkness. Jack, we are all of us grateful for your friendship, your leadership, your service to this profession and the public, and your presence in all of our lives.”
Chief Justice Labarga noted there have been 25 justices on the court during Harkness’ career at the Bar, and before that, Harkness served as state courts administrator from 1974 to 1980.
“His service was important and essential for the courts. But Jack was also a man of ambition. So, it was disheartening when Chief Justice Arthur England, at the time, told him there was no chance the Supreme Court would ever name the Supreme Court building after him,” Labarga said.
“So the heck with that! He left for the Bar,” Labarga said, describing the sign erected in 2016 at the Bar with “four-foot-high letters” spelling out the John F. Harkness, Jr. Complex — aka known as “The Jack” — that he joked is visible from the air when flying into Tallahassee.
“Jack, for all your years and efforts and accomplishments, I extend the thanks of a grateful Supreme Court for your service,” Labarga said.
Harkness told those gathered that he remembered a Florida politician once described state government as a three-legged stool, with each leg representing the House, the Senate, and the Governor’s Office.
“I said, ‘Whoa! Something is wrong with this picture.’ So I got to thinking about it and I said, ‘If you want to say that, I’m going to assume that the seat at the top is the court. Because without the seat holding up the other three, you just have three sticks. I believe the court, as we all say, the rule of law, is what makes everything operate. And that is what we have to protect,” Harkness said.
“We use the term, ‘fair and impartial judiciary.’ I believe that is the term to use. I believe the person who walks in the door of the courthouse expects fair and impartial judges. Now, you get there by being independent. If you weren’t independent, you couldn’t be fair and just.”
On June 23, at the General Assembly, outgoing Bar President Bill Schifino said he learned this from working with Harkness: “Silence is golden. I learned that patience is actually a good virtue; as my mother and father would tell you, it’s not one I learned early in life. And to let issues play themselves out; all will be OK in the end. But most important, as I like to call him, Captain Jack and I laughed a lot together; more times than not we laughed at ourselves.”
Harkness again stood at the podium and shared a favorite Mark Twain quote: “Life is full of problems; most of them in your own mind.”
“We make a bigger deal out of many things and actually everything is simple,” Harkness said.
“Just to make sure we all understand that everything changes, but nothing is lost, this is a quote from the Board of Governors minutes: ‘At the urging of some members of the BOG, the president had a 40-minute discussion among the members of the board, regarding the types of things The Florida Bar ought to be doing in the future. The items discussed included matters that do and do not become part of the agenda for the meeting of the BOG, whether the system gives the president room enough to lead, the size of the BOG, the relationship between local bars and sections of the Bar, the relationship with the Supreme Court and The Florida Bar, whether The Florida Bar is serving the public more than its members, communications with its members, and delivery of legal services.’
“Those are the minutes, from March 26, 1981, President Leonard Gilbert,” Harkness said,
“Thank you for everything you’ve done for me,” Harkness said, as those gathered at the General Assembly rose to give him a standing ovation.