Elizabeth Kovachevich The Judge is a Lady (Tampa Bay Life)

(Originally published in Tampa Bay Life in 1989)

Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich, right
Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich, right

By Bob Andelman

“If I had any respect left for Elizabeth Kovachevich, that disappeared when she locked me up. She had a good public image, but I discovered firsthand that she was willing and able to abuse her power … The hanging judge had a rope for every occasion.” — Denny McLain from his book, Strikeout

CLEARLY, Denny McLain thought the worst, wrote book while in jail, then got outy the last pitcher to win 31 games in major league baseball, was not a great fan of Elizabeth Kovachevich, a United States district court judge in Tampa. Few would be fond of the person who sentences them to 23 years in federal prison. McLain is more than a little direct in his criticism of Her Honor in his 1988 book, Strikeout. Remarking on her work in his trial on racketeering, conspiracy, extortion and describe her drug dealing charges, McLain uses the following descriptions: “sham,” “botched,” “farce,” “she went nuts,” “ringmaster of the circus,” and “outrageous.”

That was before McLain decided to acknowledge he was guilty of racketeering and possession of cocaine with intent to sell. It was written while McLain was serving 29 months behind bars, before the “hanging judge” commuted his sentence and put him on probation.

McLain has a new message, suggested to him by Judge Kovachevich: don’t believe everything you read in his book. He may have been hasty in his character attacks against Tampa’s most controversial jurist.

“I always had mixed emotions at what had gone on during the trial,” says the ex-Cy Young Award winner by telephone from Fort Wayne, Ind. “But she proved to me she had the ability to be fair. She showed us some insight that I didn’t know existed. She didn’t have any bitterness. She gave me back my life, my family. She turned out to be quite a lady. I can’t get over it.”

•••

During 1988, the name Kovachevich was synonymous with controversy.

Besides the McLain case, the single, 52-year-old has been strongly identified with two landmark AIDS rulings. She was responsible for the settlement reached in the complaint of Arcadia’s Ray brothers — Ricky, Robert and Randy — who sued the DeSoto County School Board when they were refused admittance to public schools because they had contracted AIDS.

And arguments in the case of Eliana Martinez — a mentally handicapped 7-year-old girl who is in the advanced stages of the AIDS virus — may outlast the Tampa child whose mother has been fighting to find her a place in public school. Kovachevich caused a maelstrom when she ruled that Eliana could only attend school if she was kept in a glass isolation booth. The idea was inspired by a 1976 made-for-television movie starring John Travolta, “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble.” Neither the Hillsborough County School Board, Eliana’s mother, Rosa, nor a federal appeals court found the ruling acceptable.

Those were just the most recent cases that put Kovachevich’s name in the spotlight as prominently as the defendants’ before her. Here are a few others:

* In 1987, Kovachevich ruled that a menorah in front of Tampa’s City Hall — celebrating the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah — violated constitutional safeguards separating church and state; for the city to light candles would suggest Tampa was endorsing one holiday over another. The ceremony was canceled over the protests of the Jewish community, which is awaiting a ruling from a higher court on the issue. (Kovachevich is a practicing Roman Catholic; Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman, who lit the first candle in 1986, is Jewish.)

* As an adjunct to the McLain case, Kovachevich removed his attorney, Arnold D. Levine, for evidence tampering and initiated a formal rebuke of Levine by a three-member panel of federal judges.

* When Clarence Ferguson, an employee of the National Marine Fisheries Service in St. Petersburg, was fired for absenteeism due to alcoholism — which the federal government recognizes as a disease — Kovachevich set off a national dialogue with her ruling. She said that as a federal employee with a disease, Ferguson should be considered a handicapped worker and was protected from being fired without first being helped. She wrote that Ferguson’s supervisors had a responsibility to help him before they fired him.

* Arthur Jones, multimillionaire inventor of Nautilus exercise equipment, sued ABC-TV’s news program 20/20 for $4 billion in 1988 for defamation of character, reportedly the largest libel suit ever brought against a news organization. Kovachevich ruled against Jones.

•••

Elizabeth Kovachevich never dreamed of becoming a judge.

After a successful private law practice in St. Petersburg and a term with the Florida Board of Regents — during which she gained notoriety for calling coed dormitories “taxpayers’ whorehouses” — friends started whispering the words “Judge Kovachevich” in her ear.

“I thought, well, they feel I have something to offer,” she recalls. “I was the first woman who ran for circuit judge (in Pinellas County). It wasn’t until after I got into the position that I realized I was doing what I was meant to do.”

Her first campaign sought to get Kovachevich elected and teach the public how to pronounce her last name (Ko-VATCH-uh-vitch). Remembering the old Burma Shave signs that she once saw while driving across America on Highway 66, Kovachevich found the method worked for selling candidates as well as shave cream.

“We put a KO on one sign. Then 50 feet down the road we put the VACH, then the E and the last sign would be VICH. And then we would run another set of them. KO-VACH-E-VICH, KO-VACH-E-VICH. It was like a choo-choo train. All the way up Fourth Street (in St. Petersburg), you could see the signs.”

Three Republican presidents have had a hand in guiding Kovachevich’s career. Richard Nixon appointed her to the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships in 1973. Gerald Ford first nominated her to be a U.S. District Judge in 1976, but it took until 1982 for Ronald Reagan — via former U.S. Senator Paula Hawkins’ recommendation — to finally appoint Kovachevich to a lifetime job wearing judicial robes in the Middle District of Florida. She spent two years in Orlando and then transferred to Tampa.

Republican Congressman Bill Young has been a fan of Kovachevich’s since she clerked for him back in 1960 when he was a state senator in 1960.

“She is very intense and determined to do what’s right,” according to Young. Kovachevich, he goes on, is “rather inflexible, but determined to do what in her heart she considers is the right thing.”

Bob Merkle, former U.S. attorney and Republican senatorial candidate, also comes across as being in Kovachevich’s corner. It was Merkle, incidentally, who brought the original charges against Denny McLain.

“She’s very bright, very personable,” he says. “While I haven’t agreed with everything she’s done, all in all I think she’s going to be a great judge. She’s everything you look for: she’s not distant or arrogant.”

•••

Tampa still hasn’t made up its mind about the fast-talking, no-nonsense redhead who daily admonishes slow-moving, jive-talking lawyers to move it or lose it.

“In show business,” she says with a laugh, “they would say Tampa is a tough ticket.”

When the Hillsborough County Bar Association asked its members to rate local judges, Kovachevich received the most negative response of the city’s nine federal judges. Hillsborough’s 56 judges, her rating was fifth from the bottom.

Dallas Albritton, president of the Bar in 1987 when the results were released, cautions against interpreting the results as negative.

“Only a small portion of lawyers (500 out of a possible 2,000) chose to respond. I would hope they were not just lawyers with an axe to grind,” he says. From his own experience, Albritton adds, “I think she’s a crackerjack judge. She’s no-nonsense; she recognizes hot air when she hears it. I like to appear in her court. She’s a lively judge.”

Not everyone is taken with Kovachevich.

“I think she did a terrible job,” says a man who appeared before the judge and prefers to remain anonymous while his case is appealed to a higher court. “I was told by my lawyer that the last judge you want is her.”

•••

Two AIDS cases presented before Kovachevich in 1988 drew nationwide attention to Courtroom E in downtown Tampa’s federal courthouse.

“She was faced with a potential media circus,” says Judy Kavanaugh, attorney for the Ray brothers. “Some judges are very sensitive to the press and very hostile. But she handles it real well. She really tried to be fair. I she was concerned about the Ray family. She was weighing that with her concern for the public interest.”

In cases such as the Rays’ and Eliana Martinez’s, judges like Kovachevich are faced with setting new precedents or giving new interpretations to established decisions. With respect to her consideration and rulings in AIDS cases, Kovachevich has applied 40-year-old tuberculosis and polio cases and a one-year-old New York AIDS case (Arline v. Long Island). Her general conclusion: discrimination against AIDS victims is illegal and doctors — not judges — should make medical decisions when someone is too ill to interact normally with society.

“(AIDS) is a communicable disease,” says the judge. “Tuberculosis was and is a communicable disease. The Ray order harkened back to the order on polio. Polio, when I was a child, terrified people, with as strong an emphasis on the word terror as you can make. You could see pictures of adults in these iron tombs, iron lungs. Until the vaccine was discovered, there was no hope for people.

“When I was a child back in Illinois, communicable diseases were dealt with on a quarantine basis. If you had chicken pox, measles, whatever — you were out of school. You were home. And everybody in that home was isolated. The notice was on the door and that was it. No ifs, ands, or buts. Public health dictated it. Here in Tampa, in the not-so-distant past she was concerned about the Ray family. She was weighing that with her concern for the public interest.”

In cases such as the Rays’ and Eliana Martinez’s, judges like Kovachevich are faced with setting new precedents or giving new interpretations to established decisions. With respect to her consideration and rulings in AIDS cases, Kovachevich has applied 40-year-old tuberculosis and polio cases and a one-year-old New York AIDS case (Arline v. Long Island). Her general conclusion: discrimination against AIDS victims is illegal and doctors — not judges — should make medical decisions when someone is too ill to interact normally with society.

“(AIDS) is a communicable disease,” says the judge. “Tuberculosis was and is a communicable disease. The Ray order harkened back to the order on polio. Polio, when I was a child, terrified people, with as strong an emphasis on the word terror as you can make. You could see pictures of adults in these iron tombs, iron lungs. Until the vaccine was discovered, there was no hope for people.

“When I was a child back in Illinois, communicable diseases were dealt with on a quarantine basis. If you had chicken pox, measles, whatever — you were out of school. You were home. And everybody in that home was isolated. The notice was on the door and that was it. No ifs, ands, or buts. Public health dictated it. Here in Tampa, in the not-so-distant past if you had tuberculosis in a communicable state, they picked you up and took you to the tuberculosis hospital.”

Kovachevich sought to establish precedent in the Ray case that would cause people who might discriminate or seek to exclude AIDS victims from school or the workplace to think twice. Kavanaugh believes the judge achieved her objective.

“I had at least seven more school exclusion cases (pending),” says the lawyer. “After the Ray decision I sent letters and said, ‘Here’s the Ray decision — let the kids back in school.’ The Rays also hoped it would have a ripple effect and it has. Decisions like the Ray decision send a message.”

In the Eliana Martinez case — which Kavanaugh was not involved — Kovachevich agreed the child should be allowed in public school, as in the Ray case, but only in a plastic isolation booth, which harkened back to the days of quarantine and iron lungs. Kavanaugh feels the judge’s ruling was only partially consistent with the Ray case.

“I think the legal standard that the judge enunciated is consistent,” says Kavanaugh. “I do not necessarily agree with the approach taken. I think further evidence would be required to put that child in a glass booth. I do not think Eliana Martinez needs to be in a glass booth.”

•••

The law requires that anyone accused of a criminal if you had tuberculosis in a communicable state, they picked you up and took you to the tuberculosis hospital.”

Kovachevich sought to establish precedent in the Ray case that would cause people who might discriminate or seek to exclude AIDS victims from school or the workplace to think twice. Kavanaugh believes the judge achieved her objective.

“I had at least seven more school exclusion cases (pending),” says the lawyer. “After the Ray decision I sent letters and said, ‘Here’s the Ray decision — let the kids back in school.’ The Rays also hoped it would have a ripple effect and it has. Decisions like the Ray decision send a message.”

In the Eliana Martinez case — which Kavanaugh was not involved — Kovachevich agreed the child should be allowed in public school, as in the Ray case, but only in a plastic isolation booth, which harkened back to the days of quarantine and iron lungs. Kavanaugh feels the judge’s ruling was only partially consistent with the Ray case.

“I think the legal standard that the judge enunciated is consistent,” says Kavanaugh. “I do not necessarily agree with the approach taken. I think further evidence would be required to put that child in a glass booth. I do not think Eliana Martinez needs to be in a glass booth.”

•••

The law requires that anyone accused of a criminal offense has a right to his or her day in court within 70 days of arrest. That’s a tall order for a judiciary that is already overworked and underpaid. But in Judge Kovachevich’s court, if it’s fast justice you need, it’s fast justice you’ll get.

“All she cared about was her precious docket and how many hours we were behind schedule,” wrote Denny McLain in his book, wherein he describes how during his months-long trial, Kovachevich extended the court’s typical day from seven hours to 9-1/2 hours, exhausting all parties involved. “To hell with my rights … the woman was obsessed with the clock.”

“I’ve heard she really pushes cases along, and that antagonizes lawyers who drag their feet,” says Bruce Jacob, dean of Stetson University’s College of Law and a one-time fellow student of the judge’s. “I admire her for trying to move cases along.”

“In our case, she did that,” confirms attorney Judy Kavanaugh, noting that the Ray case was scheduled for February but the judge abruptly pushed it up to October. “At the time, it was painful. But in our case, it made us get our act together.”

“She manages her time well,” says St. Petersburg attorney Tony Battaglia. “Judges who are very conservative have a great concern about the docket because everyone has a right to their day in court.”

Kovachevich brags about her ability to do three things at once while sitting in judgment on the federal bench. While hearing testimony in January at the drug trafficking case of Pedro Gomez, she could be seen reading, writing and occasionally making conversation or exchanging notes with one of her court clerks. Remarkably, she never skipped a beat through a parade of witnesses, objections or even a tired looking jury.

“I’ve been criticized by some people that did not realize I am capable of reading and doing two and three things at once and paying full attention to each one of them,” she says. “When I’m up on the bench and in a long trial, there is no way that paperwork can get out of this office without having it funneled in and out (of the courtroom). … It’s very fatiguing to do this. I’m not going to tell you that coming home at the end of the day you are not tired. Mentally, you are whipped! But if I only did one thing at a time, the two other things wouldn’t get done. And you multiply that in trials.”

And heaven help the attorney who doesn’t wrap up a case at precisely 4 p.m. Along about 3:55 in the Gomez trial, Kovachevich began staring at the clock on the wall as the lawyers examined, cross-examined, redirected and re-redirected.

“Any re-redirect?” she asked the prosecution.

“Just one question, your honor.”

“I knew there would be.”

And moments later, to the defense: “Any re-recross?”

“Just a moment, your honor.” It was five minutes after 4 and Kovachevich’s eyes were rolling in frustration. When the questioning was completed, the jury was led out. Before adjourning, the judge didn’t ask, she told the attorneys they had better be ready to wrap it up tomorrow. The underlying message: speed it up, fellas.

Numbers mean a lot to Kovachevich and she has quite a few of them committed to memory. To wit: She has more than 500 civil and 200 criminal cases pending at any given time. When she came to Tampa, her docket included cases as old as 16 years, many of which have only recently been concluded. She has done her part to raise the middle district’s case completion rate from 55th out of 94 in the nation to 2nd. The middle district judges are first in case completions in the 11th Circuit (Florida, Georgia and Alabama).

“I take a great deal of pride in that,” she says. “We provided resolutions for people. That’s what we’re there to do. We could sit and cogitate about it indefinitely and maybe we’d get through with one case in an elongated period of time. But what about all these other people waiting for our attention?

“I believe that Chief Justice (William) Rehnquist said it very well. He said that in our zeal for perfection we take so long to contemplate cases that other people are not getting any justice at all, just or unjust.

“We are getting our work out, getting our decisions out,” she concludes. “If people are not satisfied and they have a basis for appeal, fine. At least we’ve given them an answer.”

•••

“It is never a pleasure to sentence anyone. It is a duty to perform.” — Judge Kovachevich, before sentencing Bentley A.McFarlane to 15 years in prison on drug charges

•••

“She is singularly one of the most spectacular women I know,” says Roy Speer, a former Stetson University law school classmate of Kovachevich’s and now chairman of the board at the Home Shopping Network. He knows the federal judge about as well as anyone could.

As a student in the late 1950s, Speer used to go to school during the day and pay his way by working nights. Because Roy and Elizabeth were a bit of an item in those days, he was a regular at the Kovachevich dinner table in St. Petersburg.

“Before I went to work,” recalls Speer, “her mother used to feed me. I became like a dog — you feed ’em, they become very close.”

Speer was attracted to the future federal judge by her sense of humor, her high spirits and her fancy footwork.

“She was a fabulous dancer … one of the best,” he says. “She’s just a lot of fun to be around.”

Kovachevich was the only woman in her 1961 graduating class. There were at least two other future judges, however: Circuit Court Judges Fred Bryson and Vincent Giglio. Another Stetson alumnus of the period: State Attorney James T. Russell.

Although the judge prefers not to talk about her parents, they gently smile and look over her shoulder in two sets of photos behind her desk. Speer describes her mother as a simple person, “a great cook (with) a great sense of humor.” She must have made a good match for Kovachevich’s father, a retired postman who knew everyone in town and whom Speer affectionately calls “a clown … Very gregarious, like Elizabeth.”

Her parents’ serious illness in recent years has caused the judge to put aside her social life. It is one of the reasons she has never married, according to friends.

“She probably has one of the greatest devotions to her parents of any person I’ve ever known,” says Speer. “Elizabeth is an only child. She was always very close to her mother and father. It’s a very close-knit family. She has sacrificed her life to them.”

Hobbies are few and far between, with the little time left after working all week and caring for her parents. Kovachevich takes briefs and precedents home every weekend. She tries to find time to hit a tennis ball or run, however; photos and trophies in her conference room attest to the judge’s athletic ability.

•••

Elizabeth Kovachevich isn’t convinced that the controversy that always seems to swirl around her has anything to do with her being a woman.

“I don’t know if it’s having a woman on the bench,” she says. “Having this woman on the bench, I would think that’s a more obvious observation.

“When I was an attorney,” remembers Kovachevich, “good friends of mine would say, ‘I really like the way you practice law.’ And I’d say, ‘Why is that?’ And they’d say to me — and mean it as a compliment — ‘Because you think like a man.'”

“It’s still a boys’ club,” says Judy Kavanaugh, “but it is changing. Judge Kovachevich has had many controversial cases. She’s a tough law ‘n order judge. She’s known for that.”

Kovachevich thinks that women have a long way to go in the legal profession before men naturally treat them as equals.

“It takes more time,” she says, “for a woman to ‘prove herself’ to whoever is looking, than perhaps for a man and that is just the way of the world. When I became the first woman judge in Pinellas County, the bar did not endorse me for the position. I had lawyers come to me and say, ‘You know they’re just waiting out there on the streets to see what you’re going to do.’ And I was bemused by that. I could almost look out the office window and see everyone lined up on the street saying, ‘I wonder what she’s going to do next?'”

end

©2017 All rights reserved. No portion may be reproduced without the express written permission of the author.


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Joking Under Pressure: In the spotlight at UF’s amateur comedy night

Bob Andelman gets creamed. (Photograph by Bill Braunstein, Gainesville Magazine)
Bob Andelman gets creamed. (Photograph by Bill Braunstein, Gainesville Magazine)

By Bob Andelman

(Photograph by Bill Braunstein)

(Originally published in Gainesville Magazine, either 1979 or 1980.)

This was not going to be easy.

These people just lost a football game to Alabama 40-zip, were drinking heavily, and wanted to laugh to forget.

Me? I was just going out there to promote my ego. I’m the guy who makes the wisecracks at funerals, the guy who made puberty funny.

The site was the Orange and Brew, campus pub to the University of Florida, itself perhaps an inspired laugh. The idea was to gather would-be campus cut-ups under the banner of an amateur comedy night and test their mettle before a vicious group of opportunist hecklers.

I was there because no one would know me, and if I was bad I’d have little to lose. There were about ten others with me, plus hosts Mike Steinberg (a UF law student doing cute briefs on piano) and the comedy team “Organized Chaos.”

After a volleyball major made enough ethnic and racial slurs to alienate every member of the audience, I was called out.

Was I nervous?

Was I sweating?

Are you kidding?

Steinberg introduced me as a kid who was very shy and nervous about coming onstage. It was my first time, he said, asking for a big round of applause. I hugged a speaker for security. When the slight applause turned to rhythmic chanting and clapping, I made some sexual overtones to the speaker. Slowly, I walked onstage, and a quiet descended upon the crowd.

“Close,” I said, “but no orgasm.”

Good laugh, I estimated. I jumped onto a large screen TV projector and launched into my “Crusade to Personalize Shit.” I hesitated. “Is anyone here offended by the word ‘shit’?” I had assumed everyone had left some home before coming to the O&B.

The heckling began. I sweated a bit, then continued. I think I got the upper hand. Was I any good? My subject matter was somewhat different from the other guys. I did just one “druggie” joke, and a few cheap sex shots. My ending, I thought, was unique. I quoted a misnomer from Casey Kasem:
”Put your hands in your pockets and keep reaching for the stars.”

The rest of the program comprised of some very good, and some very bad humor. Drugs were the most popular subject, sex a queasy laugh, and stolen material easily detected.

After everyone had performed, the contestants were called back on stage for an audience tally. I knew I was in trouble here. Not only did I know no one in the audience, but one of the emcees leaned over and asked me my name in the middle of things.

Ira Cohen, a fraternity pledge who halted his act in mid-stream
to run to the men’s room, and Mike Brennan, a one-time WGVL talent show winner who was amusing but came close to making the medium tedium, were finalists in the audience applause-off. The rest of us left the stage, and Brennan proceeded to beat Cohen in a boisterous re-clap.

The evening wasn’t a total
loss, despite my loss. I was fairly satisfied with my performance,
and when it was over, Steinberg was threatening to take a few of us on the road with him, doing one-night comedy stands here, there, and at your place.

Will stand-up comedy hear the likes of me again?

Maybe.
 Maybe not.

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My latest book: Keep Your Eye on the Marshmallow! (Published 2013)

Keep Your Eye on the Marshmallow: Gain Focus and Resilience-And Come Out Ahead by Joachim de Posada and Bob Andelman
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Based on the landmark Stanford University study, the marshmallow theory details the results of an experiment where children were left alone with a marshmallow and told that if they didn’t eat it they would receive an additional marshmallow in fifteen minutes. Years later, researchers discovered that the children who had chosen to wait grew up to become more successful adults than the children who had eaten their marshmallows immediately.

In Don’t Eat the Marshmallow…Yet! and Don’t Gobble the Marshmallow…Ever!, Joachim de Posada revealed to readers that the secret to success is not merely superior intelligence or hard work, but rather the ability to delay gratification. Now, in Keep Your Eye on the Marshmallow, Posada uses the parable of Arthur’s struggles after reaching the top to teach us that adhering to the marshmallow principle is especially important in uncertain economic times. True success is more than just financial gain or recognition; it’s the ability to balance every aspect of life outside of work—including hobbies, family, and love—in order to enjoy your success, maintain long-term goals, and savor the marshmallows of life.

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“Wrap That Rascal!” Tampa Bay Weekly cover story, April 6, 1988

Tampa Bay Weekly, Wrap That Rascal, by Bob Andelman

“Wrap It Up!” cover story of Tampa Bay Weekly, by Bob Andelman, about Dunedin, Florida company promoting safe sex with t-shirts, etc., under the brand name “Wrap That Rascal.” (Thanks to Robert LaMonte for sharing)
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Profile: Legendary Tampa Bay sportscaster Chris Thomas! PLAYERS 1991

By Bob Andelman

(Originally published in Players, August 1991)

The green blinking light is pressed.

“Bobby from St. Pete, you’re at bat. Take a swing!”

“Okay! I was at the airport the other day and Phil was there. He’s getting on a plane going to Newark. I said, ‘Hey, Phil! Good luck!’ He said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do it!'”

For those who don’t know the players on a first-name basis, Chris Thomas explains to the rest of his listeners that “Phil” is Phil Esposito, president of the vaporware Tampa Bay Lightning.

Chris Thomas (WDAE)
Chris Thomas (WDAE)

“I have to think the National Hockey League is losing its patience,” opines Thomas, host of WFLA 970 AM’s “Tampa Bay Sports Line.” “It has been two months.”

“He looked really nervous,” reports Bobby from St. Pete. “I wondered if you have an update?”

“Naah,” says Thomas, waving his hand in disgust as if Bobby from St. Pete could see it. “Because the NHL doesn’t believe in the First Amendment and free speech, the league has a gag order in place.”

Bobby from St. Pete, satisfied, hangs up.

Thomas, 43, looks across the WFLA studio to his engineer in the next room, explaining to him on the air how the name Bob is a palindrome because it is spelled the same way backwards and forwards. Only Thomas can hear Jesse’s response in his headphones, but he tells the engineer, “Jesse, you are not a palindrome, you are a meathead.”

Four nights a week, Tuesday through Friday from 6:30-8 p.m., WFLA-TV Ch. 8 sportscaster Chris Thomas gives up his dinner break to spend 90 minutes talking to listeners on WFLA radio. It’s worth it, both to him and to listeners. There is no more commanding presence and personality in local sportscasting on either TV or radio. Thomas has all the elements, from a voice dripping with sarcasm and bombastic exuberance to an encyclopedic knowledge of sports and a devil-may-care attitude.

Moments before the radio show begins, he and his producer, Kevin, discuss upcoming guests.

“I thought we could get (former Colts quarterback) Earl Morrall,” says Kevin. “Did you ever talk to him in Baltimore?”

“Oh, sure,” says Thomas. “I know Earl.”

“Good talker?”

“Are you kidding? Guy’s in his 50s, still wears a crewcut!”

When the show starts, Thomas chats up his listeners a bit to warm up. “We’re going to have a special guest whose name escapes me,” he admits, cracking himself up.

During the first commercial break, Thomas confesses his only gripe with Tampa Bay sports fans: they’re too passive.

“They tend to sit back and listen,” he says. “We know they’re there. Sometimes I have to kick ’em in the butt. Sometimes I say, you’re killing me, you’re going to get me fired, my daughter’s not going to be able to go to a good college … Then they call.”

Even when they do call, Thomas says area sports fans don’t have the same fire in their belly found in Boston, New York, Chicago or Baltimore. “You listen to callers in big cities, they’re brutal! Rabid! They’re passive here,” he says. “There’s a latent audience of Bucs fans that want to go berserk, but what’s to go berserk over? It’s the worst team in the league.”

Back on the air.

“Is our guest on the phone yet?” Thomas asks Jesse. “He’s not? Play the music. I have to get my notes.” Turning off his microphone, Thomas thumbs through his bulging briefcase and asks the engineer: “What’s our guest’s name again?”

The man’s name is Cliff Charpentier and he’s just published his eighth book on fantasy football. Thomas knows the game well and makes conversation easily. Despite his bluster, he never hesitates, never takes more than a breath between one solid question and then another.

Charpentier does not light up the phone lines and Thomas grows bored. While the fantasy football expert drones on, Thomas turns off his microphone, coughs, and says, “Guy’s pretty exciting.” He then closes his eyes and his forehead bangs into the microphone, as if the sportscaster has fallen into a deep coma.

The feeling is not held back from his listeners, either. “Thank you for being on the Sports Line, Cliff,” says Thomas, disconnecting Charpentier. “Exciting guy, that Cliff,” he says, laughing. “Not quite in the Hoyt Wilhelm league … ”

Former knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm played Major League Baseball far later in life than most athletes. Thomas interviewed him one night for the show. “It was dreadful,” he recalls. “He kept doing this (clears his throat, with great difficulty) before answering questions. I thought he was going to die. First of all, why did you come on the show if you’re going to die? And if you’re going to die, don’t take me with you.”

Thomas never set out to be in broadcasting. His mind was set on journalism until he accidentally walked into the campus radio station at the University of South Carolina. “I heard this guy doing sports. He was horrible! I turned to this guy and said, ‘He’s horrible! He stinks! You ought to fire him!’ He said, ‘Who are you?'”

But Thomas won an audition and bulldozed his way on the air, working as both DJ and sportscaster. He worked in radio for years, in South Carolina and Baltimore, adding TV later on. This isn’t the first time he’s worked both media, either.

Back to the phones.

The blue computer screen to Thomas’s left indicates the name of each caller, their sex, topic of interest and how long they’ve been waiting. Cellular car phone callers usually get through quickest.

Mike from Clearwater: “I think you and Tedd Webb should get off Ray Perkins’ back.”

Thomas: “Hey, I haven’t mentioned his name in two days!”

Some callers are better than others, of course. They require the host’s full attention. That’s when Thomas puts down his latest Marlboro, his eyes narrow and focus on a point beyond the microphone, talking to it like the caller is actually in the room.

Thomas, like other talk show hosts at WFLA, has his regular callers. Kerry is distinguished by his horse laugh. Bill has a very distinctive voice. And Bill is a retiree from Detroit. Thomas prefers “open phones” to interviewing authors and minor celebs, which makes the job seem more like work.

Physically, Thomas is different than you’d expect from seeing him on TV. Instead of the de rigeour jacket and tie, he shows up at the radio studio in his golfing clothes, yellow shorts and multi-colored polo shirt. And where TV makes him look pudgy, he’s not. Thomas is tall, thin, tanned and taut. The camera, she lies.

Six calls later – and discussion of Arena football, Hugh Culverhouse, the Seattle Mariners behind him – it’s 7:55:01 p.m., time for the Fat Lady to sing.

“This is a marvelous country, ladies and gentlemen,” says Thomas as Kate Smith’s version of “God Bless America” comes up behind him. “It’s a land that I love … Stand beside her, and guide her … From the mountains, to the prairies … ”

A year ago, a listener sent him a tape of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America.” Thomas used it to close the show for a week or two as a gag. When he stopped, listeners demanded her return. Now WFLA promotes Chris Thomas and Kate Smith as “America’s Sweethearts.”

“Everybody needs a signature,” says Thomas with a shrug. “Not only that – it shortens the show by three minutes!”

Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman, Mr. Media Interviews
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A Day in the Life of Bill McBride and Alex Sink, 1989! FLORIDA BUSINESS

(Former Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride died suddenly today, December 23, 2012. It saddened me greatly as I always enjoyed interviewing him and just being in his company over the years. He and his wife, Alex Sink, were delightful people and I think I captured a moment in time with them pretty well in this profile, originally published in Florida Business/Tampa Bay, 1989.)

It’s Friday, almost 7 p.m., and Bill McBride is driving his pale blue Jaguar XJ6 — the one with the baby seat in back — to Simon Schwartz, where he’ll buy groceries to make dinner for a client who is coming by at 8 to meet his wife, Alex. She’s due in on the air shuttle from Miami any minute. That’s why he’s describing his life as one of Florida’s most influential attorneys while squeezing produce, grabbing six-packs of Amstel Light and Kirin Dry and directing the butcher to five juicy N.Y. strip steaks.

“If I’m tired, one of the reasons is our little girl has been waking up at 3 a.m. and not going back to sleep,” explains the Tampa managing partner of Holland & Knight. “And I’ve been staying up with her.”

Bill McBride and Adelaide “Alex” Sink are happily married with two young children, Bert and Lexie. They are a thoroughly modern couple.

He lives in a comfortable home in Tampa’s Palma Ceia neighborhood. She has a condominium in Coconut Grove, a suburb of Miami, because that’s where her job as a senior vice president with NCNB National Bank of Florida is. The kids — ages 20 months and 17 weeks — live in Tampa with Dad. Mom jets home to see them on the weekends.

“It’s a pretty interesting story,” says Jim Chandler, vice president of public affairs at NCNB National Bank of Florida. “They live lives in different cities and still make time to make babies.”

Commuting gained a whole new definition when Bill and Alex tied the knot three years ago. Not only do they commute to work, they commute to married life.

“Every once in a while we question whether Alex is working in Miami or in Tampa,” jokes Tamara Klinger, communications manager of the United Way of Dade County, where Sink is on the board of directors. “I think she spends most Fridays on an airplane.”

ALEX SINK: “When Bill came along … He was a professional, well established in his career and he was a Democrat. When he told me on the first date he was getting ready to go to the Democratic National Convention as a Gary Hart delegate, I thought, ‘This is the right man.’ Because I had made up my mind I wasn’t going to marry a Republican.” 

The shoes of McBride, 44, and Sink, 40, are not ones in which most of us would comfortably fit. McBride is one of three managing partners at Florida’s largest law firm, Holland & Knight, where he oversees 250 lawyers. Sink is among the highest ranking women at NCNB. They see each other primarily on weekends, but sometimes in one city or another as business needs dictate.

“We have a big office down there, so I have to go down a lot,” says McBride. “And her headquarters is here in Tampa with NCNB. So we go back and forth. If we didn’t have that relationship, it wouldn’t be easy.”

“I used to read about these marriages,” says Sink, who married McBride two years ago. It is her second time around, his first. “When the idea was first being thought about, you’d read about these high-powered New York/Washington couples and you’d think, ‘How foolish!’ And now I’m in the middle of it.”

Gregg Thomas, a partner at Holland & Knight in Tampa, says the lawyer’s co-workers have a great appreciation of McBride’s unusual lifestyle. “I think it’s just accepted that she’s on a career path that’s as important as his. I think it’s neat he’s taking as much care of Bert as he does.”

The McBride/Sink courtship lasted two years and was largely based on airline schedules, a warm-up for married life. When they finally wed, the pair shared shelter for nine whole months before a promotion and better money in Miami was too good to refuse.

“Bill was going into the office Saturdays and Sunday mornings,” remembers Sink. “I would go in on Saturdays and stay late. I became convinced that when you added up the hours we spent together, it’s about the same. I never thought we would go back to commuting. I stay late in Miami so when I come (to Tampa) for the weekend I don’t have to think about work. And he does much the same thing.”

Sink oversees NCNB’s consumer banking services in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. That translates into 75 bank branches, 800 employees and $2 billion in deposits.

“Her job in Miami is a good one,” says McBride. “My wife is the highest ranking woman officer in NCNB. She is on the executive committee of the Chamber of Commerce in Miami, she’s on the United Way Board of Directors. She’s a pretty formidable person in her own right. My judgement is she should continue. So for now, the babies are staying with me. (I’m) sort of Mr. Mom.”

“He has much stronger mother’s instincts than I do with our children,” says Sink. “He has different sides, but he’s very soft-hearted.” Then, believing that might be misinterpreted, she adds, “I mean, nobody’s going to accuse Bill McBride of being a wimp.”

They make an unlikely couple for more reasons than sheer geography. She is a delicate, pretty, exotic looking woman with Oriental roots (her great-grandfather was one of the original Siamese twins) who grew up in Mount Airy, North Carolina. He is a stocky, gentle man from Leesburg who went to the University of Florida on a football scholarship (a bad knee subsequently kept him from playing) and served in Vietnam with the Marines.

McBride was ready to settle down and have a family when he turned 40; Sink wasn’t.

“I wasn’t looking to get married,” she says. “After the first marriage, I made up my mind to work at my career and get financially independent. I didn’t care about having kids, so there wasn’t that pressure. When Bill came along … He was a professional, well established in his career and he was a Democrat. When he told me on the first date he was getting ready to go to the Democratic National Convention as a Gary Hart delegate, I thought, ‘This is the right man.’ Because I had made up my mind I wasn’t going to marry a Republican.

“It’s like religion,” says Sink. “My politics are very important to me. I couldn’t see myself living with someone of a different philosophy or someone who was apolitical.”

Politics are an integral part of McBride’s life and are becoming more so by the day. When Hart didn’t work out in ’84, he signed on first with Joe Biden and then Michael Dukakis in ’88. There’s still a yard sign in the garage. “I’ve always been a Democrat,” he says. “I may be the last one.” A supporter of Bob Martinez when he was the Democratic Mayor of Tampa, he has closely aligned himself to the 1990 gubernatorial hopes of Rep. Bill Nelson (D.-Melbourne), a friend since they met in Key Club while McBride was at Leesburg High School and Nelson at Melbourne High.

Nelson and McBride have a long history together. The congressman is a frequent house guest. While in Tampa, McBride fills his friend’s days and nights with meetings and social engagements to help Nelson spread his political base across Central Florida.

“When we have time together, we make the most of it,” according to Nelson. “Bill would fill every available minute with meetings — over breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Sink has been drawn to the campaign by her husband’s friendship with Nelson. “When the guy comes and spends the night in your house about once a month for three years, you can’t help but get involved with him,” she says.

The bond between lawyer and politician is their shared goal of excellence in Florida’s future. “I think he’s the best. I give him a lot of money. I’m a fundraiser,” says McBride. “And I’m going to work on issues with him.”

“(McBride) has specific ideas about what ought to be done and the kinds of individuals that ought to do them. I went to him first, saying that I wanted to be governor,” says Nelson.

While McBride lacks an official position with the Nelson campaign, he doesn’t lack for influence. “He’s broadened my support in Hillsborough,” says the candidate, “and he’s been a help in fundraising. He has poured everything — his heart and soul — into it.”

“Bill — I call him a man of no moderation,” says Sink. “He does things 110 percent.”

But what kind of a business manager is Barrister McBride?

“I’ve never had trouble walking into his office and bitching and moaning about something going on,” says Holland & Knight partner Gregg Thomas, a media law specialist in the firm’s Tampa office. “He is the only peer who criticizes me, and I criticize him regularly. It’s a good, constructive relationship.”

Bill Nelson says you need only compare McBride’s age with his position to know how talented he is. “Bill has had an extremely rapid rise at one of the state’s most prestigious law firms. Law firms usually defer to managing partners who are very senior. And what’s Bill, 43, 44? That sort of speaks for itself.”

The partners of Holland & Knight must think a lot of McBride; they elected him in Jan. 1988 to a three-year term as a managing partner.

“I’ve worked with McBride for the last 10 years,” says Thomas. “I’m always amazed at him. I think he’s the reason we’re doing so well in Tampa. Tampa is a changing market. Through McBride’s leadership we realized we needed to reach out and find new and developing clients. He’s getting us motivated about being lawyers and being involved in our community. Being not only marketing-oriented but community-oriented has come from McBride.”

Atop the book shelves in McBride’s office sits a colorful, bearded wizard in flowing robes who has certainly worked his magicks upon the holder of the office. From his office on the 21st floor of new NCNB Building in downtown Tampa, Bill McBride balances tremendous responsibilities as a managing partner at Holland & Knight and one of several heirs to the mantle of his personal mentor and law firm founder Chesterfield Smith. That would be enough alone for most energetic men. But McBride also finds time to be a member of Nelson’s campaign for governor, a barrage of regional transportation committees and civic groups.

He is a mega-manager.

“Bill McBride is one of the most dynamic men I have ever known,” says his friend and associate on many transportation commissions, Joe McFarland, president of McFarland & Fries Financial Services. “He is really a go-getter, in spades.”

BILL McBRIDE: “When I was in the Marine Corps,” he recalls, “we’d come back from the woods in Vietnam. The number one thing we wanted to get was ice cream. One time they said they were going to get ice cream for dessert and then the freezer broke down. There was a riot.” 

And don’t lose site of his responsibilities at home; the live-in nanny cares for the kids all day, but they’re McBride’s to deal with after 7 p.m.

“I work a lot,” he says. “I don’t play golf, but I’m not a nut. I do a lot of public service stuff, probably more than most people. And I have a lot of good friends that work with me. I get a lot of support from my partners. I’ll do the job at hand without too much messing around.”

Alex Sink — and no one seems to ever refer to her as Mrs. McBride — has a similar no-nonsense approach to her career. She has worked hard to rise to prominence within NCNB, starting 15 years ago as a branch planning analyst in Charlotte. That’s when NCNB only had one name — North Carolina National Bank, not NCNB of Florida, Texas, et al. At Wake Forest she studied math and married soon after graduation. Her first husband work took them to three African countries where she taught school. But the relationship soured and, after three years, Sink returned home and joined the bank at age 25.

“One advantage I had was that I was single,” she says of her advancement. “If I wanted to stay out late, I had the flexibility. If I saw ‘the boys’ were going out for pizza or beer — and provided they invited me along — I went. I didn’t have that sense of exclusion that a married young woman might. Today, I’m one of the old-timers … Maybe I’m one of ‘the boys’ now.”

As a senior vice president, she has come full circle in terms of her job focus. Sink is again responsible for finding new branches for NCNB, but she also works on increasing consumer lending and deposits, overseeing employee training and developing new products. She is on the road a lot.

“Alex has been a star for a lot of years,” says Jim Chandler. “She’s gregarious, friendly, very outgoing. She’s loaded with energy. She works probably 80 hours a week, never slows down.”

Chandler calls Sink “a member of the team,” noting an independent study by the International Leadership Center in Dallas which identified her as the second most powerful woman in Miami.

“I’ll tell you a little story,” says Chandler. “It goes back to my early days with the company. I was flying to New York with Thomas Storrs, the retired president of the bank, and Buddy Kent, who is now chairman of NCNB Texas. Storrs told Kent, ‘I just made some business calls with a lady who was the best prepared executive I’ve ever dealt with on your staff. Every ‘i’ was dotted, every ‘t’ was crossed. Her name was Alex Sink.’ That was part of the secret of Alex’s success — being recognized as good and thorough.”

Community service and involvement is a commitment stressed in the lives of both McBride and Sink. They give time and money to causes and projects they believe in. It gives them character; it is also the tie that binds them together.

“My civic work is very important to me,” says Sink. “Things like the United Way and the Chamber of Commerce are an important part of our lives.”

Ray Goode, CEO of The Babcock Co. in Coral Gables and vice chairman of public affairs for the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, says Sink does an “exceptional” job running the chamber’s state affairs committee. The committee is a political lobbying arm which promotes the chamber’s legislative package in Tallahassee. “She’s very knowledgeable about what’s going on in greater Miami and statewide,” according to Goode. “She has gotten to know the ‘actors,’ she knows where the sources are and knows how to work with these sources. She is a particularly relevant model to women who want to work and stay on the career path and start a family. She has proven that it can be done.”

“Alex has chosen to be a leader not only in her company but in the community,” agrees Tamara Klinger of the United Way of Dade County. “Each year, Alex has taken on a different role in the campaign and each year she comes through for us.”

As for McBride’s relentless devotion to community — he serves on the board of directors of United Way of Greater Tampa, Tampa Ballet, Tampa Downtown Partnership, Tampa Marine Institute and Tiger Bay Club of Tampa; founded the District VII Transportation Coalition and the Marion Street Transitway Coalition; works as a member of two state committees, the Gender Bias Study Commission and the Task Force on the Future of the Florida Family; and he is also chairman of a partnership conducting a human needs assessment for Hillsborough — he says that because lawyers have a legal monopoly on what they do, they have a greater responsibility than most professionals to give something back. “I trained under a lawyer — Chesterfield Smith — who said that’s how you should be. (The law) isn’t just a way to make money. You should work to make it better.

“Money has never been a motivating factor for me,” says the past-president of the Hillsborough Bar Association. “But I’ve been very lucky. I do very well — much better than I deserve. Maybe I do a lot of the free work to make myself feel better about leading such a luxurious life.”

A lot of lawyers do the same quality work. Who do you choose? Maybe the guy who gives back to the community. At least that’s the theme McBride follows. He says his motives are not entirely pure; he still has a law practice to build. But many would argue he has a hand in many more civic projects than would be necessary to impress the average citizen or corporate client.

Driving home from the grocery, McBride pulls into a drive-thru Farm Stores outlet. Being home a lot, McBride says he’s getting fat. “It’s a lack of willpower,” he says. “I like ice cream a lot. Don’t tell anyone I said so, but the best ice cream in the world is Farm Stores’. I think they pour as much sugar as they can in a carton with cream. It’s incredibly good. One of the best they have is chocolate chip.”

JOE McFARLAND: “Bill McBride is one of the most dynamic men I have ever known.” 

Ice cream, of all things, reminds the lawyer of his tour of duty in Vietnam. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps in ’68 and went into the jungles as an infantry platoon commander, company commander, and combined unit commander of Marines and Vietnamese popular forces. A sword from the Marine Corps hangs proudly over the family fireplace.

“When I was in the Marine Corps,” he recalls, “we’d come back from the woods in Vietnam. The number one thing we wanted to get was ice cream. One time they said they were going to get ice cream for dessert and then the freezer broke down. There was a riot.”

At the house, the children’s nanny could probably use a cold beer, not chocolate almond ice cream. She is frazzled from hours of chasing McBride’s son around the house. “Bert’s at the stage where he wants to run all day,” says a dad who probably figures he’s got a chip off the old block.

“You know,” says Bill McBride, “the complaint I hear most from guys my age who got married early is they didn’t spend enough time with their kids. The most important thing to me up until now has been the law firm. Having children at 43 doesn’t even remotely resemble having kids at a younger age. I would not have been as good a father as I hope I’m going to be.”

There are advantages to having a spouse living 300 miles away. Think of the frequent flyer points. McBride and Sink used theirs to take a vacation in Australia last summer. While they probably won’t be able to do anything that extravagant again until the children are out of diapers, they do have a fishing boat in the Bahamas for summer vacations and long weekends.

Sink calls. Her flight is running late; she’ll probably miss dinner with the client. McBride takes it in stride. He’s bragged of his cooking prowess and will have an opportunity to practice on a business associate. That’s later; right now he’s playing with Bert, who looks like his mother, and Cheryl Alexander — “Lexie” — who looks like her mother.

“My wife calls her Lexie. I call her ‘Myrtle’ because it rhymes with ‘Bertle.’ That’s what I call Bert — Bertle the Turtle.” No one in the family, it seems, goes by their given names. McBride turns to his son, William Albert, who is coloring the daily newspaper on the coffee table with huge crayons. “Bert,” he instructs, “say, ‘E-I — E-I … ”

“O!!” shouts the little boy to his father’s glee.

Gregg Thomas, who brings his kids over to play with McBride’s, believes there are limits to the boss’s “Mr. Mom” act. Like changing diapers. “I said, ‘Bill, Bert’s got a problem with his pants. You got a diaper?’ He says, ‘No, Alex will be home in 15 minutes.’ So there are some things he doesn’t like to deal with.”

McBride goes to bed every night at 9:30, right after Bert. He wants more children; Sink doesn’t seem so inclined. “I worry a lot that I’ll be 60 and my kids will just be going to college. But I kinda accept things as they come,” she says. “On the other hand, “Five years ago, my company wasn’t prepared for women on the career-track to have children. Today we have a lot of benefits.”

The McBride/Sinks will settle on the one family, one city concept before too long. Both parents acknowledge that it’s inevitable. But where will they live? Whose career will have to give way to the best interests of the family?

“I sort of think those things take care of themselves,” says Bill McBride. “It’ll work out.”

 

Sidebar: Don’t Drive, He Said

 

Bill McBride has seized transportation as an issue very important to him. His outspoken views on mass transit solutions, outlined in the January, 1989 issue of FLORIDA BUSINESS, show him to be a supporter of innovative solutions to Tampa Bay’s stalled traffic patterns.

“He has become one of the acknowledged experts on transportation in Hillsborough County,” according to Rep. Bill Nelson.

Joe McFarland has served on many transit committees with McBride, who succeeded him as chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce’s Highway & Public Transportation Council in 1987. “He didn’t know the first thing about our transportation problems the first day took over our transportation council. But he’s a fast study. What he doesn’t know, he’s quick to tell you. One of the first things he perceived was that busing was in trouble. He decided we needed a group from the power structure who could be vocal.”

The result was the formation of the Marion Street Transitway Coalition, which successfully pushed for construction of a regional bus mall in downtown Tampa.

McBride is widely credited with founding the District VII Transportation Coalition, the first regional (Hillsborough, Pinellas, Hernando and Pasco counties) organization in Florida to support area transportation needs and legislation. “He perceived we needed an overall constituency for regional transportation. He was the father of it. It was his baby,” says McFarland.

The credentials don’t end there. McBride is chairman of the Citizens Advisory Council to the Metropolitan Planning Organization; a member of the Rail Transit Study Management Team; co-chairman of the Hillsborough County Transportation Financing Alternatives Committee; organizer of the Advisory Committee on Hillsborough County Transportation Concepts; member of the Tampa Interstate Study Advisory Committee; and a member of Tampa’s Transportation Finance Committee (appointed by the mayor). — Bob Andelman

Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman, Mr. Media Interviews
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Review: The Sun (UK) gives Fans Not Customers 4 stars (of 5)

The Sun (London) review of Fans Not Customers
The Sun (London) review of “Fans Not Customers” by Vernon Hill with Bob Andelman

I was nervous when I heard yesterday today that The Sun newspaper in London (circulation: 2.385 million) would be publishing a review of “Fans Not Customers” by Vernon Hill and Bob Andelman today. But I guess I worry too much: Four out of Five Stars is a pretty good review, right?

Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman, Mr. Media Interviews
Order ‘Will Eisner: A Spirited Life’ (2nd Edition) by Bob Andelman, available from Amazon.com by clicking on the book cover above!


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Copyright 2012 Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman