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A Life Well-Lived – Bill McBride of Tampa

Special to the News Columns

Holding memories he mostly kept to himself yet wearing a Bronze Star with Valor, the Marine Corps’ recognition for heroism in combat, Bill McBride left Vietnam behind.

On his way home, McBride stopped to see his friend Bob Bolt who was then  a graduate student at New York University. Bob lived just off Washington Square Park in Manhattan.

McBride showed up that evening in full Marine Corps Service uniform. After a round of hugging and handshaking, the two decided to get some dinner. Bolt suggested a route avoiding Washington Square Park, because the area was packed full of angry Vietnam War protesters. Many confused the warriors with the war.

McBride looked at his friend, adjusted his hat, and said assuredly: “We’ll be fine.”  So McBride and Bolt strode straight through the mass of humanity gathered in the park that evening. Bolt would later recall the noise of voices and drumming getting quieter and quieter, as they purposefully and peacefully walked through the park.

Bill McBride, an accomplished Florida lawyer who died too soon at age 66 in 2012, was a gentle soul wrapped in a large, intimidating body that commanded respect. His life may not have been perfect, but it was extraordinarily well-lived and honorable and worth remembering.

“Mr. Leesburg High School”

Born May 10, 1945, in Leesburg, with a population of slightly more than 11,000, McBride was known as both “The Man” and “Mr. Leesburg High School.”

Local boys working with him loading and unloading watermelons said no one could keep up with him.  The small Florida town had never experienced anyone quite like him: great athlete, scholar, and all-around nice guy.

To many he was known as “MAC Bride,” which sounded like two names:  First name, Mack; last name Bride. That uniquely Southern pronunciation didn’t start with the great Jacksonville trial lawyer Buddy Schultz, but he popularized it.

As Schultz recalled, in the summer of ’62, a host of Florida high-school boys showing  achievement and potential trekked off to Tallahassee to learn about state government, before returning home to their last year in high school.  It was the annual anointing of future Florida leaders known as Boys State.

Buddy, a wiry rising senior from Jacksonville, had made the Boys State cut. On his first day, looking around for someone to have his breakfast with, Buddy spied two guys sitting off by themselves. One was large, the other physically smaller and looking a little out of place. Schultz noticed the smaller boy had the characteristic look of someone with Down Syndrome. The syndrome apparently had not dampened the young man’s spirit, as it was clear that he was doing most of the talking while the big guy more or less sat mute, hanging on his every word. It was the smaller boy who first noticed Schultz and invited him to sit down, saying. “This is my new friend, MAC Bride.”

That exchanged ignited Schultz’s friendship with McBride that did not end until Bill’s death.  With Schultz’s help, McBride was elected governor of Boys State.

“Bull” Without Rage

After high school, he headed off to Gainesville on a full athletic scholarship at the University of Florida. A formidable running back known for a relentless and punishing running style, McBride’s nickname was Bull — not Raging Bull, just Bull.

McBride did not rage on the football field. But when he was under a full head of steam, you would be crazy to get in his way.  The Gators saw future glory with McBride at fullback.

In the fall of 1963 at UF, McBride had expected to continue his upward march but fate intervened and the Golden Boy was injured at the very beginning of the season. His career as a collegiate athlete was over.

Head Coach Ray Graves (later athletic director) would later confirm to this writer that McBride insisted on returning the financial benefits of his scholarship. As Graves remembered it, McBride was the only scholarship recipient to make this magnanimous gesture.

Off the playing field, MacBride was undaunted and one honor followed another as he was inducted into all the top organizations, including Florida Blue Key, Who’s Who, and Hall of Fame. He had it all.

I first met McBride when he was in full collegiate glory as the acknowledged leader of what now might seem a quaint, archaic example of patriarchal privilege. By today’s standards, membership in Alpha Tau Omega ticked off what to some are all the wrong boxes: exclusivity, male, white, elite and Christian. But back then, to many ATO was the first and the last, the beginning and the end. In 1966, as it had been for a hundred years, it was full of wide-eyed 18-year- olds with lots of unstated questions who were damn glad to have like-minded only slightly older boys around to offer up their answers to life’s persistent questions.

In sum, in the fall of 1966, the ATOs were happily perched on the top of a tiny insular tree of fraternities. A few of the “brothers” had some family money, but most did not and McBride did not. McBride worked, and worked like hell to make ends meet while also fully participating in university activities.  During school, he waited tables in the sororities; in the summers he waited tables in the Catskills. Not much thought was given to diversity or inclusion or exclusion. Everyone just went forward, running like hell, and trying to find a way through. McBride was better at it than most.

Walking up Gainesville’s 13th Street on a crisp fall night, the sky was the limit. Everything seemed so perfect and nothing was needed. But there on the front porch of the ATO house, just opposite the UF Administration Building, in all of its faux antebellum glory, stood Bill McBride, the top dog of ATO. Without the slightest bit of embarrassment, the brothers of the house referred to him as their “Worthy Master.”

McBride’s only stumble at UF came the next year, and it was a doozy. He decided to run for student body president, and was elected by the thinnest of margins: 11 votes. The losers loudly demanded a do-over, with the full support of the student newspaper, The Florida Alligator. The Alligator pretty much distained the sorority and fraternity kids, who almost universally had supported McBride. Most of the Alligator staff was in the early stages of their ’60s political awakening and questioned many prevailing paradigms. In their eyes, McBride was merely a jock and worse a fraternity man. He stood for the old ways.

On the morning after his razor-thin victory, the Alligator ran an unflattering photo of McBride, beer in hand, celebrating in the usual collegiate way. That one photo was enough to turn off the conservative kids on campus and he lost the do-over election by a substantial margin.

Angry and Determined to Enlist

After graduating with a B.A. in English, by the fall of 1967 McBride had entered law school. Most of the entering 1Ls were focused on making grades. But McBride’s thoughts were focused on Vietnam.  While many Americans thought the war was going well, in fact it was well on its way to becoming a quagmire and arguably America’s most divisive foreign war.

McBride clung to the then common notion that our government would never lie to its people. As word seeped out that the outcome of the war might be in doubt, McBride recalled President Kennedy’s admonition:  “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

What doubts McBride had dissipated when the North Vietnamese ignored a two-day cease fire in celebration of the Tet or Lunar New Year in January 1968, sending 80,000 North Vietnamese soldiers into South Vietnam.  The Vietcong did not just attack military command and control centers. The VC also went after thousands of unsuspecting innocent civilians. Outraged, McBride felt compelled to do something.

According to Schulz, McBride invited a bunch of friends to convene at a Gainesville joint where those who came expected another fun, beer-fueled afternoon with friends. Instead they got McBride, visibly angry and determined to enlist.

True to form, he did not just enlist as your ordinary grunt. He volunteered for what has been called “the toughest combat training course in the world,” the United States Marine Corps Ranger School. McBride graduated first in his class.

During the Vietnam War, he was a company commander.  According to those who served with him, he never once asked, “How did we get into this mess?” “Why are we here?”  He just trudged forward doing his best to protect his troops and honor his commitment.

For years to come, a steady stream of soldiers who had served under him showed up to pay their respects and to thank him for his leadership. They still saluted him. They still called him “Sir.” To a man, they credited McBride for getting them home alive.

One man formerly in his charge was nicknamed “Heavy”. Heavy was strong enough to carry a heavy artillery piece, where others in the company carried the much lighter M16 rifles and small arms. Because of what Heavy carried, he was also a primary target.

After leaving the Corps, Heavy stood out because he only had one leg. He liked to say that he had left the other leg behind in Vietnam. On the day of that loss, Heavy had been hit hard and was dying, bleeding out and still under heavy fire. He recalls looking up and into the eyes of Bill McBride. Heavy doesn’t remember heroic words. He remembers not being hit again, and he remembers being carried by McBride to safety.

McBride never talked about the terror he must have experienced in Vietnam. And only once do I recall him indirectly alluding to it. We were outside a room in Washington, D.C., where a group of elected public officials were ready to commence intense cross examination. Partly to break the tension, I asked McBride, “Are you afraid?”

For a moment, I saw a chilling flashback in McBride’s eyes I will always regret witnessing.  But just as quickly, he grinned and asked, “Will there be any little men in black pajamas shooting at me? No? Then I’m not afraid.”

Chesterfield Smith and Alex Sink

On returning to Gainesville and law school, McBride fell under the spell of the great and powerful visionary force for American good: Chesterfield Smith.

Mr. Smith, as he was called, was in the process of turning the American Bar Association into the moral compass of America. Smith was often heard to say, “I love lawyers,” but there was no lawyer he loved more than Bill McBride. He had selected McBride to be his aide-de-camp.

McBride had always lived against the stereotype of his imposing size. At his core was the gentle soul of an English major and gifted writer. It is almost certain that he was the co-author of the powerful “No Man Is Above the Law” statement Smith issued as ABA president on the day after the Saturday Night Massacre.  By all accounts, that missive played a huge role in bringing down President Richard Nixon.

After graduating from law school, McBride joined Smith’s law firm, the professional equivalent of marrying one’s high-school sweetheart. Under McBride and Smith’s leadership, the Holland & Knight firm grew in size and power to 1,300 lawyers spread over 33 offices. At its peak, it was the nation’s seventh largest law firm.

Somewhere along the way, McBride met the love of his life, Alex Sink. She was attractive, but more importantly she was his intellectual equal and already the senior banking official in Florida for what became Bank of America. Like McBride she was also political, becoming the Democratic nominee for Florida governor in 2010 after serving as the chief financial officer of Florida.

Her political leanings matched McBride’s:  based on idealism, service and helping those less fortunate in society. Those who knew McBride knew Sink was “The One” — not because of her brains and beauty, but because she fished. Or, at least, she would fish to be with him, and together they created a remarkable family.

High Adventures

One of McBride’s many endearing traits was that he would sometimes overestimate his skillsets. For example, in a drinking session with longtime friends, he learned of their plan to go Heli-skiing, a dangerous off-trail extreme sport, where the starting point is accessed by helicopter and engaged in mostly by professional-level skiers.

Heli-skiers are usually wealthy enough to rent a helicopter and buy specialized equipment, and are in peak physical condition. McBride was neither.

The helicopter drops the skiers in a landing zone somewhere on top of the mountain. McBride knew a bit about landing zones; he had seen his fair share on active duty, but unlike his friends who were planning the trip, he was not a pro-level skier. They predicted trouble if McBride came along, and gingerly tried to dissuade him by emphasizing the many risks including avalanches and tree wells.

Undaunted, McBride joined the adventure, showing up with substandard rented tourist ski equipment. Even his ski jacket and pants were ill-fitting. But soon enough, the helicopter lifted off and headed toward the mountaintop, where the 45-degree descent would begin.

To the group’s amazement, McBride, a manifestly inferior skier, developed a technique the professionals had never seen. It was a kind of “fast-fall-forward, tuck-and- roll-back-to-the-upright-position” technique.  McBride  had mastered a marginally controlled descent by effectively falling down the mountain. As sweat poured from his body like a river, for a while the technique worked.

Down the mountain he went – falling, tucking and rolling back to his feet – as his friends laughed heartily. The hilarity stopped the moment McBride disappeared down a tree well. Ninety percent of skiers trapped in tree wells are unable to free themselves. Death is so common from tree well encounters, there is a term for it: Non-Avalanche Related Snow Immersion Death (NARSID).

In McBride’s case, the professional skiers were all down mountain from his position and therefore unable to offer any assistance. The professional ski patrol who were skiing with the group were in the process of making the sad call to headquarters when they saw a puff of snow come from up mountain, in the vicinity of where McBride had last been seen. This little puff of snow was followed by a head, then goggles, two skis, and a face. It was McBride wearing his familiar ear-to-ear grin.

In 2002  McBride set his sights on a different kind of adventure and goal:

He wanted to be Governor of Florida.  Even though he’d never run for public office before, McBride would defeat former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno in the Democratic primary but coming up short against the successful and popular Jeb Bush. Many were heard to say they would support him if he tried again.

On December 22, 2012, McBride enjoyed dinner with his family in his wife’s ancestral home in Mt. Airy, North Carolina.

After dinner, Bill walked out of the house alone, never to return.  If he had known he was not coming back, no doubt he would have asked his standard goodbye question: “Is there anything I can do for you?”

The McBride walk I remember was like the one Bob Bolt told about that night in Washington Square Park. On that night, U.S. Marine Corps Captain Bill McBride walked through the park as he did in life: with dignity, with honor and unafraid.

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