John "Richard" Collins, who for three decades served as legal counsel for Monroe County government leaders and advised the School District through its darkest days in the 2009 financial scandal, died Tuesday at his home in Key West surrounded by his family.
He was 71, and a fifth-generation Conch who graduated from Key West High School in 1959.
The cause was complications from brain cancer, friends said.
In his last few years, Collins kept working as a lawyer despite brushes with illness, including the inability to open one eye. He wore a black eye patch to work at the School District administration building at Trumbo Road.
On Wednesday, those who worked with Collins remembered a consummate professional whose legal mind comforted his clients, who trusted him like a family friend who just happened to be an attorney.
County Mayor David Rice opened Wednesday's County Commission meeting with a moment of silence in memory of Collins. Rice was visibly choked up as he rose to honor his friend of 30 years.
"He was the kind of person that when he spoke, people would listen because they knew that he had done his research," said A.J. "Bookie" Henriquez, the longtime schools superintendent who first hired Collins to advise the district and board.
"He knew the law and when he recited it and gave an opinion to the School Board, they knew they were on safe ground," said Henriquez. "This was one of his major attributes. He was just that kind of guy. He wasn't going to give you the answer you wanted; he was going to give you an answer that was correct."
Henriquez was Collins' high school biology teacher in the late 1950s and kept track of the A student as he went to college and then to war and back.
In the 1980s, Henriquez needed an attorney for the School District and consulted Judge Ignatius Lester at the county circuit court.
"I said, 'Ignatius, I need to find an attorney to represent the School Board,'" Henriquez recalled. "I'm looking for someone who is a bright student of the law and who is going to give you straight answers. He said, 'Richard Collins is your man.'"
Collins left the School District attorney job in 2002 and served as county attorney from 2003 to 2006.
After his stint as county attorney, Collins was asked to return to the School Board by John Dick, who had just begun his first term.
Within three years, the public school system exploded in financial scandal that sent administrator Monique Acevedo to prison for embezzling $413,000 in public money, and ended the political career of her superintendent husband Randy Acevedo.
Collins knew the players on all sides of the scandal, but never veered from the work at hand, said Dick.
"Under challenging circumstances at the School District he always maintained that high level of ethics and integrity," Dick said Wednesday. "He was honest and full of integrity."
Dick stopped by the Collins home in Key West on Tuesday evening, en route to watch the primary election results roll in at the Harvey Government Center on Truman Avenue.
Collins was with his family, and Dick got the chance to say farewell to a friend of 20 years and a confidante since 2006.
"I stopped at his house," said Dick. "I knew he was on his last days. I talked to him."
Collins is survived by his wife of 35 years, Kathleen Collins, a teacher at Gerald Adams Elementary School; a daughter, Christine; and a son, Matthew of Naples; three grandchildren; and two brothers, Edward "Larry" of Lithia and William of Melbourne.
He was born July 18, 1941, in Key West, the son of Houston "Rip" Collins and Jesse Whitmarsh Collins.
Though his birth name is John, everyone in the Florida Keys called him Richard. Had anyone asked his family members about a "John Collins," they wouldn't recognize the name, friends joked on Wednesday.
He graduated from the University of Florida and then began a career in the Air Force that lasted from 1963 to 1968.
He served two tours of duty in the Vietnam War and was awarded the Bronze Star.
He returned to Florida and continued his education, earning a master's in criminal justice from Florida State University.
After graduate school, he returned to Key West and worked as a deputy sheriff, and later as a detective, before leaving the island for the Midwest.
He moved to Ohio, where he became chief of police in Brookfield Township, about 12 miles northwest of Youngstown. He was an assistant professor in the Criminal Justice Department at Youngstown State University.
Collins started law school in his early 30s at Akron University in Ohio, where he graduated in 1978.
He returned once again to Key West, where he started his own law practice before taking a job as an assistant state attorney.
He became the legal adviser for the Monroe County Sheriff's Office under Sheriff Billy Freeman Jr. He was an adjunct professor at Florida Keys Community College and St. Leo's University.
Collins finished out his legal career as the School Board's attorney, dutifully attending board meetings as the board endured a rocky transitional period from elected superintendent to governor's appointees, and painful budget cuts.
He retired in January, having built a statewide reputation as a skilled attorney.
He was serving as one of Gov. Rick Scott's appointees to the Judicial Nominating Commission for the 16th Judicial Circuit. The panel makes recommendations for judicial appointments across the state, including the Florida Supreme Court.
He was also very active in the American Legion Post 28 and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
A celebration of his life is set for 3 p.m. Saturday upstairs at the American Legion Post on Stock Island, 5610 W. Junior College Road.
His family requests that in lieu of flowers, memorial donations be made to the Miami Veterans Affairs Healthcare System, 1201 NW 16th St., Miami, FL 33125.
David Rice knew Collins for 30 years, and the two worked together when Collins became county attorney in 2003, during Rice's first term in office as a county commissioner.
Collins' tenure with the county was brief, ending abruptly in 2006 when then-County Mayor Charles "Sonny" McCoy fired him when he didn't show up for a meeting in the Upper Keys, said Rice.
Rice said he didn't know specifics about Collins' health problems because his friend didn't talk much about it. But those in Collins' close circles knew the attorney was battling cancer and post-surgery complications.
"Richard made far too many visits to the VA," said Rice. "He was not one to focus a lot of attention with what was going on with him."
Collins was a caring, intelligent fellow who kept in touch with people throughout the Keys when a law changed and he knew it would affect their lives or work.
He could translate legal jargon into plain-spoken English, friends said, and could quote statutes by their numbers from memory.
Rice warmly recalled his friend's stamina through medical treatment and hospice stays.
"He had the right attitude, he didn't give a s--t," said Rice. "He was in hospice making jokes about dying. The only thing that pissed him off was that Sonny McCoy outlived him."