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Politicians, friends remember Russell

The former Pinellas-Pasco state attorney was hailed for his role in cleaning up Florida government.

Published January 10, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - They told a lot of stories about Jimmy Russell at his funeral Tuesday.

They remembered his famous temper. They joked about how short he was. And they hailed the prosecutor who jailed murderers, drug dealers and corrupt politicians for nearly a quarter century.

"Jim Russell physically was not a very large man, but in every other way he was a giant," said U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores.

The 5-foot-5 Russell, who died of cancer last week at age 78, served as the Pinellas-Pasco state attorney from 1969 to 1992. The man who named him to that post, former Gov. Claude Kirk, was among the crowd of more than 100 people who attended the funeral at St. Luke's United Methodist Church.

Afterward, Kirk said appointing Russell as state attorney was one of the best decisions he ever made, noting Russell's role in cleaning up Florida government. Russell put three Pinellas commissioners behind bars in the 1970s and jailed the chairman of the Pasco County Commission in the early 1980s.

Once, in the 1980s, two officials from Central Intelligence Agency came to visit Russell to ask him to go easy on a drug trafficker who was facing serious prison time, said Russell's successor, State Attorney Bernie McCabe. Russell sent them packing.

"You probably wouldn't be here if this guy was selling drugs in your neighborhood," Russell told them, according to McCabe.

Russell cultivated the image of a lock-'em-up lawman, McCabe said. But he also helped found the drug treatment program Operation PAR, and started one of the state's first pre-trial intervention programs to give first-time offenders a second chance.

Russell endured, but did not relish, the many jokes about his height, recalled his friends. Former Pinellas commissioner Charles "Chuck" Rainey recalled the time he was driving Russell somewhere and the prosecutor kept criticizing his driving.

Finally, Rainey told him, "Jim, if I thought you could reach the pedals I'd let you drive."

And childhood pal Bill Davenport said he teased Russell that he would always refuse an office or hotel room above the third floor because he couldn't reach any higher than the 3-button on elevators.

Russell's son, James Jr., said his father told many stories about himself, but the one he told most often was about how at age 16, during World War II, the St. Petersburg native had enlisted in the Navy. He later wound up piloting a landing craft under enemy fire during the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

When Russell boarded the bus at the enlistment center, the other recruits teased the baby-faced teenager that he belonged on a bus full of Boy Scouts, not sailors going off to war.

"He had to prove he was just as tough as, or tougher than, the guys on that bus," Russell's son said. "I think he spent the rest of his life proving it."

Russell took up boxing in the Navy, and all his life was a battler, his son said. In the same spirit, he battled cancer, convinced he would win.

On the day he died, Rainey said, there was a clap of thunder in the skies. "That was Jimmy," the former commissioner said. "He had arrived and was reorganizing."

[Last modified January 10, 2006, 19:26:02]

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