We can’t end this week without talking about Phil Royal.
It was six years ago that Phil, an extraordinary community leader, rising political star, and beacon of hope to — no exaggeration — thousands, died while participating in the annual Key Training Center’s Run for the Money.
Short of the tragedy of Jessica Lunsford, this community has never been so shaken than when Phil died. Totally sudden. A young guy, in his mid 40s, successful, with a new wife and infant daughter.
He was a year into a campaign for sheriff that had seen unprecedented numbers of people donating, many of the $10 or $25 variety. Phil was a people’s candidate if there ever was one.
Phil knew everybody and everybody knew Phil. He had a smile that could tame a bull and an empathy for the less fortunate. Phil loved all walks of people. He was best friends with the bank CEO and retiree, business owner and waitress. School children idolized him. Fellow deputies wanted to serve with him.
So many of Citrus County’s rising leaders point their inspiration to Phil.
You heard the phrase about someone having that “rare quality?” I would go so far as to say Phil’s rare quality was unique to Citrus County. He had a special relationship with the community. Together, we would go places.
Frankly, I didn’t know all that much about Phil when he entered the 2016 race for sheriff. I knew OF him, of course. He was one of those rare people who earned his stellar reputation.
I prepared, or so I thought, for a popular Phil Royal campaign, something on the scale Sandra “Sam” Himmel usually draws every four years.
Oh, my, I had no idea.
Phil’s most recent campaign finance reports showed about $130,000 in donations — from 1,667 individual contributors. That is unheard of. No one tops 1,000 donors in a local race, and we weren’t even in the meat of the campaign yet. Those were folks paying a few bucks for a barbecue or ice cream social.
People just flocked to the guy. He had my attention.
(The Friday before he died, I sat at Phil’s table during the chamber of commerce candidate forum luncheon in the Historic Old Courthouse. We were shooting the breeze, and he joked, “I’m not sure I should be seen talking to you.”)
Monday morning, he started his 19th Run for the Money from the Old Capitol steps in Tallahassee.
I was in the Chronicle newsroom when I got a call from managing editor Charlie Brennan, whose wife Neale, was the Key Training Center Foundation director.
Charlie said that Phil has suffered a seizure. I asked if he was OK.
When Charlie said Phil died, I literally dropped the phone.
Preparing for today’s blog, I re-read my Chronicle stories about Phil’s death. I didn’t get far before the tears arrived, even all this time later, as I relived the anguish of my community coming to grips with such a shattering loss.
I cried then. I cried now.
This is a challenging time in our county. We’re all looking for someone to take the reins and lead us into something that makes sense. The hope is we’ll have a five-member county commission that wants to do that come November.
So I’m not going to say, “We need more leaders like Phil Royal.”
The challenge is to become more community like the one Phil Royal was eager to serve. Phil didn’t run 19 years for the Key Training Center because it would look good on a resume someday. He did it because he had a servant’s heart for Citrus County. He loved his community, warts and all.
I think we sometimes forget to see ourselves the way Phil saw us. A collection of brilliant oddballs, trying to figure out our place here but generally with a good heart for our neighbors.
I mean…that’s us, right? Phil may be gone, but the community spirit that linked with his isn’t.
It just needs a little reviving now and then.
We don’t need a Phil Royal to lead us. We need only be the community Phil Royal wanted to lead.
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