Steve Uhlfelder, former University of Florida student body president, State University System Regent, Tallahassee attorney, all around policy wonk and advisor to governors both Democrat and Republican, passed away last week at the age of 76.
I had known Uhlfelder for more than 40 years and frequently had occasion to interview him when I was Tallahassee Bureau Chief for the New York Times Florida newspapers. Not to mention during my stints as higher education reporter and, later, editorial writer for The Sun.
Ironically, the only time I ever found Steve to be uncooperative was the first time I ever reached out to him. When I was a young reporter for the recently exiled from campus Independent Florida Alligator, in 1974.
I had been assigned to do a look back on the student uprising of 1972, after then-UF President Stephen C. O’Connell ordered the arrest of 66 Black students who refused to leave his office.
As it happened, Uhlfelder was student body president at the time. But he was no radical, nor even a little bit anti-establishment. Even in that spring of his hot-blooded youth, Steve was a can’t-we-all-just-reason-together kind of guy.
As Ron Sachs, Alligator reporter and later editor, recently recalled to The Tallahassee Democrat, “there was Steve with a bullhorn and megaphone preaching that their (Black students) points were credible, if they stayed peaceful. That had a lot to do with the university finally, addressing the lack of Black professors, Black Studies, and a more robust Black student population.”
Naturally, any recounting of the events surrounding UF’s “Black Thursday” would not be complete without quotes from the very UF student body president who so deftly wielded that bullhorn.
Funny thing, though. When I finally ran Uhlfelder down, he flatly refused to talk about it. He sounded angry that I even had the temerity to ask.
It was my first ever conversation with him, and Steve made it clear that “no comment” and “I don’t want to talk about it” was all I was going to get.
Fast forward several years.
I had graduated UF, got a job with the Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, bounced back to GNV after just one year to become a Sun reporter, and began covering the Board of Regents as a part of my higher education beat.
Uhlfelder would become a member of the BOR, so we would come into contact quite a bit. Later, when I was a Tallahassee Bureau Chief, Steve was already becoming an influential lobbyist, political advisor and attorney.
And as far as I can recall, he never again told me “no comment” in regard to any issue whatsoever.
Which is how I came to have my eerie encounter in a dark bar with Steve Uhlfelder.
It happened one night at Clydes & Costellos, a Tallahassee watering hole then much favored by lawmakers, lobbyists, government functionaries…and reporters hustling for tomorrow’s scoop.
Steve and I were having a drink, and talking about not very much at all. And then it occurred to me to ask why, those many years ago, Uhlfelder refused to talk to me about his role during the UF demonstrations.
His face darkened. He grew sullen. And then he said:
“O’Connell blackballed me.”
Understand, as a UF law school graduate and student body president, Uhlfelder should have been able to write his own ticket. Large Florida silk stocking law firms should have been bidding for his services.
But that’s not what happened.
Uhlfelder told me that O’Connell was bitter over the way Black Thursday had marred his presidency…his UF legacy. And fair or not, O’Connell blamed Uhlfelder personally for his role in those events. And that, as a result, a lot of doors that should have been open to him were slammed shut.
Because O’Connell wasn’t a career academic administrator. He was a former Justice of the Florida Supreme Court, which made him more or less royalty among the state’s legal hierarchy.
Through sheer determination and perseverance Steve finally did manage to elbow his way into the profession. That he eventually made it to Tallahassee and into considerable legal and political relevance was testament to his talent. All this despite O’Connell’s petty act of revenge.
So what’s so eerie about that little chat? Glad you asked.
As Steve was telling me about his struggle to land a job after UF, the door to C&C’s opened.
And Stephen C. O’Connell stepped in.
For the same reasons that I had come to know and frequently talk to Uhlfelder, I had also had frequent contact with O’Connell.
And I will say this about the old scoundrel. Whatever his political faults and offenses – and they were legion – on a personal level O’Connell was almost impossible to dislike. He had an old honeysuckle-won’t-melt-in-my-mouth southern charm that tended to endear him to whoever he happened to be talking too (although I imagine it was lost on the Black students he had arrested).
Freeze frame here: Let me do a little stage setting’
Clydes & Costellos was sort of a dark and dingy place…as befits the favorite haunt of people who don’t necessarily want other people to know who they are and what they are doing.
When the door opened and O’Connell stepped in, the light of day was behind his back, and it took him a moment to adjust to the dimness of the saloon.
He looked around.
And saw me.
He broke into a big grin.
And started to walk toward our table.
Then O’Connell saw who I was sitting with.
No big surprise there. The guy I was sitting with was all but staring daggers at his old nemesis.
At which point O’Connell stopped in his tracks.
And walked right out of Clydes & Costellos.
I looked at Steve.
He looked at me.
And his glower turned into a delighted grin.
Because it turns out that George Herbert was absolutely correct.
Living well is indeed the best revenge.
And Steve Uhlfelder had lived very well indeed.