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    Civic leader Alfred A. McKethan dies

    The Brooksville native, philanthropist and Gator booster was a power in banking, road planning and citrus.

    By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK and CRAIG BASSE
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 2, 2002


    BROOKSVILLE -- Alfred A. McKethan, a Hernando County banker pegged as one of Florida's 10 most powerful people during the early 1950s, died Monday after a brief illness. He was 93.

    photo
    [Times files (1996): Kevin White]
    Alfred A. McKethan was "a giant in the generation that built modern Florida."
    During his prime, Mr. McKethan crafted banking legislation as head of the fledgling Florida Bankers Association. He helped decide where the roads would go as chairman of the State Road Board and pushed through plans for the original Sunshine Skyway. He had the ear of presidents and governors. In 1951, he even pondered a run for governor.

    "Alfred McKethan was a giant in the generation that built modern Florida," U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., said Monday. "His business, civic, philanthropic and public service contributed significantly to Florida's current position as a state where the future of America is first lived, and a state that is increasingly international in its outlook."

    Those who knew him remembered Mr. McKethan as generous, intelligent and outspoken.

    "There was nothing introverted about him," said Ed Price Jr., a retired state senator from Bradenton. "He was a very friendly person, but he could get hard-nosed when the occasion allowed for it."

    Jim Talley, editor of the defunct Brooksville Sun-Journal newspaper, called Mr. McKethan easygoing, a "Kentucky colonel type."

    "He was humorous in conversation, he was pointed in conversation, he was real observant," said banker Marion G. "Bubber" Nelson of Panama City, a 65-year friend who served with Mr. McKethan on the road board. "He just had a good way of talking and enthusing somebody and developing ambition. There were no crazy things about him."

    photo
    [Times files]
    Mr. McKethan speaks at the early 1950s dedication of the U.S. 19 bridge spanning the Pithlachascotee River in New Port Richey.
    Mr. McKethan, retired chairman of what is now SunTrust Bank/Nature Coast, was honored on March 22, 1994, by Gov. Lawton Chiles and the Cabinet for a life of service to the state. Mr. McKethan used the occasion to recall what he termed his most lasting achievement in government.

    It occurred when Fuller Warren was governor about 50 years ago and Mr. McKethan was road board chairman. Mr. McKethan asked for permission to close his offices on Saturday mornings because so little business was done.

    After much discussion, the governor and Cabinet voted to close all state offices on Saturday. It was an action that lasted far longer than any other he could recall, Mr. McKethan said.

    Evidence abounds of Mr. McKethan's power. It can been seen in:

    The original Sunshine Skyway. As chairman of the road board from 1949 to 1954, Mr. McKethan pushed through the project.

    Eckerd College. An elder in the Presbyterian Church, Mr. McKethan led a committee that picked a location for a college for the denomination. The committee selected St. Petersburg as the site for Florida Presbyterian College, now known as Eckerd College.

    Florida Citrus Mutual, the giant grower cooperative established in 1954. Mr. McKethan, a citrus owner and member of the Florida Citrus Commission, was one of the founders.

    The Southwest Florida Water Management District, created in 1962 to deal with flooding in 15 counties. Mr. McKethan was the first chairman of the district's governing board.

    While a member of the road board, Mr. McKethan ramrodded construction of State Road 50 from Bayport in Hernando across to the East Coast and of U.S. 98 from Chassahowitzka to Lakeland, including rights of way for future four-laning.

    That construction drew fire from interests in Miami. But Mr. McKethan never apologized.

    "I knew the need for (the roads), and that's why they were built," he said. A good road system through rural counties was necessary to enable tourists to travel to Miami, he argued.

    Mr. McKethan also modernized the state's banking industry, singlehandedly lobbying lawmakers on banking legislation before the Florida Bankers Association ever hired a staff, Dade City banker Hjalma Johnson said.

    "He is the dean of banking. No one has had more influence over the course of the banking industry and its ability to deliver services to the ever-growing state of Florida than the chairman," said Johnson, who credited Mr. McKethan with teaching him how to work the politicians in Tallahassee and Washington.

    While Mr. McKethan exerted significant influence across Florida, he was perhaps best known to the people he grew up with, people who called him Mr. Hernando County. He was born in Brooksville and never really left.

    "All of my life and my family before me, we have worked to make Hernando County a better place to live," Mr. McKethan once told a newspaper reporter. "My mother's people came here in 1842 when this was just a territory."

    His family gave property for a county hospital, donated money to a new county library, and created a $1-million trust fund for Pasco-Hernando Community College.

    And though he never ran for public office, Mr. McKethan kept close tabs on those who did.

    "Alfred for his lifetime was really the pulse and the heartbeat of Hernando County," said former Brooksville state Rep. John Culbreath, now a Tallahassee lobbyist. "We all looked to him for advice, even though we might not have agreed on the issue at hand. . . . You never lost respect for the man."

    Mr. McKethan used gentle persuasion, never an iron hand, to persuade people, said Chuck Smith, another former state lawmaker from Brooksville who began his political career by challenging a county commissioner whom Mr. McKethan backed.

    "Alfred McKethan was an excellent politician," Smith said. "You're not an excellent politician if you're mean to people or make them mad."

    Talley, the newspaper editor, said Mr. McKethan "by style and demeanor symbolized Brooksville's yesteryear, caught in the mid 20th century, though he prided himself on always looking "out yonder.' He left his mark, and it was a big one."

    Mr. McKethan didn't forget his alma mater, the University of Florida. In two donations in the spring of 1986, he contributed more than $1-million, adding to a string that university officials said totaled at least $1.8-million.

    In appreciation, UF named its baseball stadium after him.

    His retirement from SunBank and Trust Co., part of Atlanta's giant SunTrust Banks Inc., in January 1994 ended a busy 71-year career for "Mr. Florida Banker." It began in a tiny one-room office in rural Brooksville.

    Back then, his family's Hernando State Bank had assets of only $300,000, most of it from citrus growers who once helped to make Hernando County the world's tangerine capital.

    Alfred Augustus McKethan's life in banking started early. Before he was 15 years old, the ambitious youngster showed up one day at the bank at Main and Jefferson streets in downtown Brooksville. He worked part time and during the summers while attending Hernando High School. His first jobs in banking were emptying trash cans and washing windows.

    "There's not a job in this bank that I haven't done," he would later say. When he became president in 1947 of the Florida Bankers Association, he was 38 years old, the youngest person to hold the presidency.

    In 1984, Mr. McKethan sold his 76-year-old independent Hernando State Bank to the holding company of Sun Bank Inc. in a deal that reportedly netted his family $12-million in Sun Bank stock. Mr. McKethan became Sun's largest shareholder.

    "It was a hard thing to do," Mr. McKethan said. "I'd always been a sponsor of independent banking. I did a lot of soul searching."

    Mr. McKethan was married in 1935 and divorced 25 years later. He never remarried.

    Visitation will be from 3 to 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at the First Presbyterian Church of Brooksville. Services will be at 11 a.m. Friday at the church. Burial will follow at Brooksville Cemetery.

    The family encouraged donations to First Presbyterian Church of Brooksville, Hernando-Pasco Hospice or the Boy Scouts of America.

    -- Information from Times files was used in this obituary.

    Among Alfred A. McKethan's accomplishments:

    • Headed State Road Board that pushed through the original Sunshine Skyway.
    • Helped choose a site for the college now known as Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.
    • First chairman of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
    • Helped found Florida Citrus Mutual, the grower cooperative.

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