TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In an hour-long memorial ceremony filled with heartfelt and whimsical remembrances, former Florida State University President Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte was lauded Wednesday as a legal lion and visionary who transformed his native state and the university he led for nearly a decade.
D’Alemberte, who died last month at age 85, compiled a lengthy career that included stints as a reform-minded state lawmaker and president of the American Bar Association, as well as serving as law-school dean and president of FSU. His legacy includes being one of the main architects of the state’s current judicial system and pushing to include cameras in courtrooms.
His memorial held at the university’s Ruby Diamond Auditorium attracted a long line of legal, political and educational leaders who long held sway in the state, including Buddy MacKay, the state’s last Democratic governor.
The crowd also included two current Florida Supreme Court justices, former state Senate President John McKay and former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, who made an unsuccessful run for governor in 2018.
FSU President John Thrasher, who wore one of D’Alemberte’s signature bow ties given to him by D’Alemberte’s widow, Patsy Palmer -- said D’Alemberte had a “profound impact” on the state, the nation and even the world through his push while American Bar Association president to have U.S. lawyers assist nations in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But Thrasher added that “for all of his notable achievements in each of these roles, his most significant impact was on each one of us.”
Thrasher noted that it was D’Alemberte, seen as a liberal Democrat, who nominated him as FSU president despite misgivings some in the university community had over Thrasher’s tenure as a Republican legislator and chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.
“He never wavered,” Thrasher, a former House speaker and senator, told the crowd.
Jim Apthorp, who served as chief of staff for the late Gov. Reubin Askew, recalled how D’Alemberte, then a legislator from Miami-Dade County, had flirted with running for governor in 1970, only to quickly dispose of the idea after a political science professor told him, “There’s not a chance in hell you can win.”
Indeed, most of the remembrances shared during the memorial were personal. Martha Barnett, a Tallahassee lawyer and also a former president of the American Bar Association, credited D’Alemberte with transforming the landscape of FSU, noting that he was responsible for a redesign of the law school with the addition of a rotunda and green.
D’Alemberte, who served as university president from 1994 to 2003, mandated that all new buildings on campus be built in the red brick design that he called collegiate gothic, she said.
He changed more than the looks of the university, though. She noted that he anticipated the impact of emerging technologies and the need for the university to be out in front of it.
“As surprising as this sounds now, the first innovation he introduced at the law school when he arrived was a fax machine. It was controversial with the faculty,” she said only half-jokingly.
Like other speakers at the memorial, Barnett painted a picture of a tenacious and persuasive man who often was able to sway people to help in his bigger goals.
“Sandy was, in many ways, a Pied Piper. It was hard to say no to him. There were times when I hesitated to take a call from Sandy,” she said, adding that he would be able to convince her to join his efforts in causes that she had previously never heard of.
Barnett recalled attending a gathering at the FSU College of Law for the rededication of a bronze statue that honored D’Alemberte’s dedication to the university. The university had moved it from the College of Medicine, which he pushed to create during his tenure as FSU president, and placed it at the FSU College of Law, “where it belongs,” she said.
“I took a moment yesterday to sit next to Sandy on his bench. I felt close to him, and I was able to think about his extraordinary life. I found myself hoping that my phone would ring and that just once more it would be Sandy with one of his crazy, visionary life-changing projects for me to take on,” she said.