For “12, maybe 14 years” (she can’t remember exactly how long) they spent their days together, he the protector, as she counseled friends and reporters; and connected politisphere dots only a brilliant mind and vast institutional memory are capable of.
If Willie could talk, he would have shared dozens of scoops, since he was always sidled up to someone on Florence’s white leather couches when gossip was shared, and weighty matters of importance were hashed through. Over the years, she has opened her home and “Hobbit House” guest quarters with friends from the fourth estate — old hands like Miami-based investigative reporter Carol Marbin Miller when she came to town for some records checking, as well as a parade of Tampa Bay Times reporters who would tag team and provide coverage during Session.
Newly elected Florida House member Peggy Gossett-Seidman — who Florence has known since Peggy was the first sportswriter ever allowed in the Miami Dolphins locker room — was a frequent guest when she came to Tallahassee to lobby in her previous elected position as a member of the Highland Beach Town Council.
Florence credits now-retired Florida journalistic legend Lucy Morgan with piquing her interest in cats after hearing about the antics of her and Richard Morgan’s late pair of Siamese cats, Lewis and Clark, and current housemates, Tonkinese cats Johnny (Cash) and Willie (Nelson).
This particular ginger cat came into Florence’s life as an adult of indeterminate age via Dara Kam, now senior writer at the News Service of Florida one day when she and Dara were working on Freedom of Information Act requests. Willie promptly plopped a stack of FOIA paperwork and later accompanied Florence home, to shed prodigiously throughout her house for the next decade-plus.
Florence credited Willie as the muse for her philosophical breakthroughs during their time together, although she also babied him big time, turning on faucets for his drinking pleasure and leaving bowls of water everywhere so he never had to walk too far for refreshment.
Here’s what Florence had to say about Willie:
“‘Willie was an exceptional, one-of-a-kind cat,’ said Alison Steele, an exceptional First Amendment lawyer and St. Petersburg’s leading authority on cats.
“People who prefer dogs and even people who are actively hostile to cats loved Willie. Year after year, Willie earned his keep escorting the Orkin man and the Benson’s air conditioning crew and the plumber on their repairs and maintenance visits. He snuggled close to me and to visiting family, friends and colleagues working remotely from my living room, encouraging us to sit down, shut up and finish the task at hand. Willie had been known to hit the send key on his own initiative, and he was usually correct in sensing when someone was over-thinking an email.
“Willie had superfans, among them the Gossett-Seidman family of Highland Beach, three of whom rolled into town Nov. 26. Willie was waiting by the front door as always, happy to greet strangers and overjoyed to see our oldest, closest friends.
“Everyone went to sleep happy, and everyone was stunned in the morning when it was clear Willie was dying.
“‘Your dad and my dad need him in heaven,’ said Peggy, who is usually right about these things. Willie’s primary care doctors had already closed up shop for the holiday week. But Tallahassee is a small and close-knit town, where miracles are a regular occurrence and kindness is easy to find. I had not seen my daughter’s volleyball teammate Dr. Lauren DiMartino-Combs, DVM since their long-ago Maclay graduation. But there she was, delaying her holiday plans to help this cat she had never met.
“In the backyard, Austin Seidman was preparing Willie’s final resting place. It took a lot of muscle to dig deep into the hard red clay and to carve a ‘W’ into the trunk of the tree that shelters the grave.
“Here, as in Grover’s Corners, ‘The morning star always gets wonderful bright the minute before it has to go’ ….”
(Editor’s Note: Florence — who has a habit of thinking her friends much more erudite than they really are — is referencing Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer-winning play “Our Town” with this quote.)
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