T.K. Wetherell was one of a kind.
A few days shy of his 73rd birthday, the former house speaker, former president of Florida State University and Tallahassee Community College entered Margaret Z. Dozier Hospice House, signaling the end of a 15-year battle against cancer. Friends said he died at 2:25 pm. Sunday. He will not be forgotten.
Wetherell was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003, a few days after being named president of FSU, the university where he once starred on the football team and devoted much of his energy.
He fought the disease with surgery, radiation and chemo treatments at the Mayo Clinic In Jacksonville, the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Sloan-Kettering Cancer center in New York and most recently at Duke University. He also went to Mexico and took a holistic treatment in Reno, trying every possible means of defeating his recurring cancer.
His staff at FSU marveled at a president who would go to Jacksonville on Monday afternoons, get radiation or chemo treatments, get up early on Tuesday mornings and get another round of treatment before returning to his office in Tallahassee to finish the work day.
“He never missed a day in the week,’’ said David Coburn, his chief of staff and longtime friend. “He was the toughest guy I’ve ever known. There was a lot of pain and suffering and so many surgeries. He tried every option, hoping he could stay alive long enough for someone to find a cure.’’
One of the treatments he sought involved sending a blood sample out of the country and getting back a chemo designed to match Wetherell’s DNA. Federal officials refused to let the treatment into the country because it had not been approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration. In typical Wetherell style, he found a way around the problem by having it sent to a Native American reservation near his summer home in Montana.
There he found a “medicine man” and got the chemo he wanted, friends recalled.
As a college president, Wetherell often took an interest in individual students and their problems.
Coburn’s wife, Mary, the vice president of student affairs at FSU, recalls days when Wetherell would come into the office with a note taken the night before when Wetherell encountered parents or students at dinner. Sometimes it was something as simple as a student who failed to get a letter noting he had made the dean’s list. Wetherell made sure a letter would go out.
“Walking across campus with President Wetherell was like walking with a rock star,’’ Mrs. Coburn noted. Everybody wanted to talk to him and he frequently wrote personal notes to those who helped him.
On campus, the staff nicknamed him “Elvis,’’ and noted when he was “in the house.’’ They also called him Wiley Coyote and Dennis the Menace,’’ recalled Betty Steffens, former general counsel at FSU. When he wanted a stained glass window put in one of the buildings, Wetherell made sure it depicted famed coach Bobby Bowden talking to players. One of those players wore a jersey with the number 28 – the number Wetherell wore when he played.
“There’s a lot of love out there for the old boy,’’ said former House Speaker James Harold Thompson, a Tallahassee lawyer from nearby Quincy. “We were lucky to have served with him.’’
Old friends recall his great sense of humor and his wily moves as a politician and president of FSU and TCC.
Former Secretary of State Jim Smith was a close friend who frequently drove him to Jacksonville for treatments. Smith and Wetherell have been close since Wetherell went to bat for Smith when he ran for governor in 1986. Smith did not win but he did carry Volusia County with Wetherell’s help.
Smith and his wife, Carole, were frequent Wetherell traveling companions and he presided over the Wetherells’ wedding to Virginia Bass Wetherell, a former legislator from Pensacola and former Secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Sometimes his humor skewered the highly political process of making laws.
One year as Florida House appropriations chairman, Wetherell decided to settle some of the last-minute budget maneuvering by lawmakers who wanted more money for special projects in their districts by appropriating a million dollars for work at “Silver Beach.’’
There was no such beach. Wetherell just used the fictitious spot to park money in the budget that could be used for negotiating at the end. Once he offered reporters a free lottery ticket for the first one that could find another item hidden in the budget.
Many of those who worked with Wetherell did not realize he was essentially deaf in one ear – the ear he turned toward lobbyists who came to his office seeking favors.
Former Chief of Staff David Coburn recalled the gatherings where Wetherell would carefully seat the lobbyists next to his bad ear, “make all the appropriate sounds’’ and then turn to staff when they left and ask “so what did they say?’’
Reporters loved him. He was always good with a quote and loved the give-and-take of being covered by an aggressive press corps. He answered questions. He did not hide from reporters. He was a reporter’s dream, and you always knew he was up to something interesting.
He came to Tallahassee as an FSU student in 1963 and returned as a legislator in 1980. He was elected to replace former Speaker Hyatt Brown, one of the best-known lawmakers of the day. Both were from Daytona Beach and Wetherell was celebrated by fellow lawmakers because, when he went back home to his district, he often returned to Tallahassee with his father’s smoked mullet to share with colleagues.
He attended FSU on a football scholarship and played on the 1963-67 football teams. He still holds the record for the longest kickoff return in FSU history. He went on to earn his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from FSU and later a doctorate in education administration.
His love of FSU football was without end. Last week, former FSU Coach Jimbo Fisher was in town to see his son win an award at a local high school. Smith took him to visit Wetherell.
“T.K. woke up and saw us and said “Hey Jimbo – keep beating the F—ing Gators’’ before drifting off to sleep again,’’ Smith said.