Florida’s First Lady at War

World War II was an all-encompassing event for Floridians who lived through it. Between calls for military service, blackouts, food and fuel rationing, and the retooling of industries to feed supplies and equipment to soldiers on the front, no man, woman or child was left unaffected. That extended to Florida’s first family as well. Governor Spessard Lindsey Holland was only about a year into his administration when the U.S. entered World War II, and naturally it became a defining feature of his tenure as the state’s chief executive. But Governor Holland wasn’t the only member of his household who went all out to support the war effort. His wife, Mary Agnes Groover Holland, played a vital role as well.

First Lady Mary Groover Holland breaks a bottle of champagne against the hull of the USS Shasta, built by the Tampa Shipbuilding Company (July 9, 1941).

First Lady Mary Groover Holland breaks a bottle of champagne against the hull of the USS Shasta, an ammunition ship built by the Tampa Shipbuilding Company (July 9, 1941).

Even before the United States officially entered the war, Mrs. Holland supported the Allies through humanitarian efforts such as the Bundles for Britain program. This arm of the British War Relief Society gathered donations of medical supplies, clothing, food and other essentials and sent them to Britain, which was at that time bearing the brunt of Hitler’s assault on Western Europe. In March 1941, Mrs. Holland visited the headquarters of the Bundles chapter at the Florida State College for Women to inspect the work being done there by the students and faculty. When she learned that some of the young women had not yet learned how to knit, she took a seat and put on a demonstration.

First Lady Mary Holland shows Norma Pennoyer of Coconut Grove how to knit (1941).

First Lady Mary Holland shows Norma Pennoyer of Coconut Grove how to knit (1941).

Once the United States was officially in the war and the federal government ramped up its efforts to mobilize the home front, Mary Holland used her position as Florida’s first lady to give civilian defense efforts a little extra publicity. When the State Defense Council organized drives to collect scrap metal for recycling into war materiel, she searched high and low in the Governor’s Mansion for items to contribute. She also hosted a very important delegation of Floridians connected with the scrapping effort – schoolchildren who had won a statewide contest to collect the most scrap metal. Six children were selected at the end of that contest to take part in the christening of a Liberty ship in Mobile named for Colin P. Kelly Jr. of Madison, who had been one of the first U.S. airmen to perish in combat after the attack on Pearl Harbor. While en route to Mobile, the children stopped off in Tallahassee and visited the Governor’s Mansion, where they had the opportunity to explore the governor’s desk and play Chinese checkers and darts with Mrs. Holland.

Florida's First Lady, Mary Holland, playing Chinese checkers with her house guests at the Governor's Mansion in Tasllahassee (December 1942). Seated around the table are Gwendolyn Willcocks, Allen Shelton, Mrs. Holland, and Albert W. Thompson (?).

First Lady Mary Holland playing Chinese checkers with her house guests at the Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee (December 1942). Seated around the table are Gwendolyn Willcocks, Allen Shelton, Mrs. Holland, and Albert W. Thompson (?).

Mrs. Holland’s efforts to recruit women for the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) were perhaps her most important contribution. In September 1943, Governor Holland appointed his wife chairman of the All-States WAC Recruiting Campaign for Florida, challenging her to enlist 1,000 women into the program. Mrs. Holland worked closely with the State Defense Council to appoint recruiters in each county and regularly attended WAC events to encourage the enlistees. “This is our war job – the task that we women can undertake in support of our fighting men,” she wrote in a letter to recruiters. “We cannot let them down.”

First Lady Mary Holland participates in the unveiling of a memorial to Colin P. Kelly, Jr. in Madison (June 16, 1944).

First Lady Mary Holland participates in the unveiling of a memorial to Colin P. Kelly Jr. in Madison (June 16, 1944).

Mary Holland’s contributions are just one example of the patriotic service to community and country that Florida women rendered during World War II. Check out our World War II in Florida exhibit, as well as the Florida World War II Heritage Trail, established by the Florida Department of State.

 

Florida Remembers Janet Reno

Florida native Janet Wood Reno made history when President Bill Clinton appointed her to serve as the first female U.S. Attorney General in 1993. Prior to her work in Washington, Reno had already made waves in Florida after becoming the first woman elected as state attorney in 1978. Janet Reno died at her home early Monday morning. She was 78 years old.

Portrait of Dade County State Attorney Janet Reno, 1978.

Portrait of Dade County State Attorney Janet Reno, 1978.

Born in Miami on July 21, 1938 to journalists Jane Wood and Henry Reno, Janet Reno grew up surrounded by intellectual stimuli.  When thirteen-year-old Janet announced to her mother, an investigative reporter for the now defunct Miami News, that she aspired to attend law school, her mother encouraged her to realize her dreams. “You can do anything, be anything you really want to be, regardless of whether you’re a woman….You want to be a lawyer? You can be a lawyer,” remembered Reno of her mother who died of cancer in 1992.  After graduating from Coral Gables High School in 1956 and Cornell University in 1960, she applied to Harvard Law School.  Upon learning of her daughter’s acceptance to the program, Reno’s mother “whoop[ed] with joy,” explaining that she had always wanted to become a lawyer, too.

Portrait of Janet Reno's father, Miami Herald crime reporter, Henry Olaf Reno, ca.1930. Attorney General Reno greatly admired who father, who immigrated to the United State at age 12 in the 1910s. He became editor of his high school yearbook and went on to enjoy a 42 year career as a journalist in Miami.

Portrait of Janet Reno’s father, Miami Herald crime reporter Henry Olaf Reno, ca.1930. Attorney General Reno greatly admired her father, who immigrated to the United States at age 12 in the 1910s. He became editor of his high school yearbook and went on to enjoy a 42-year career as a journalist in Miami.

In 1963, Janet Reno was one of just 15 women–in a graduating class of 500–to earn a law degree from Harvard. As a young lawyer in the 1960s, Reno overcame several hurdles before rising to political prominence in the 1980s and 90s. She applied for a clerkship with a law firm the summer after graduation, but the firm rejected her application because of her gender. “I felt mad,” admitted Reno. “[I] went and got a job at another law firm. I never let it bother me after that,” said the future U.S. Attorney General, who, fourteen years later, would make partner at the very same law firm that had originally rejected her on account of being female. She briefly served as staff director to the Florida House Judiciary Committee before mounting a failed campaign for a seat in the Legislature in 1972. “The loss was painful,”  according to Reno. But she wasted no time wallowing in defeat, and moved to Tallahassee where she quickly made inroads with the Governor’s Office, serving as assistant state attorney for the Eleventh Judiciary Circuit from 1973-1976. She then went to work in private practice, until Governor Reubin Askew appointed Reno to serve as Dade County State Attorney in 1978, the first woman in Florida to hold that position. In November 1978, Janet Reno won election to the post by a 74-point margin.

Janet Reno taking her oath as Florida's first female state attorney, 1978.

Janet Reno taking her oath as Florida’s first female state attorney, 1978.

As Miami’s senior prosecutor from 1978 to 1993, Reno faced repeated criticisms for her handling of several high-profile racially sensitive cases. Nonetheless, she remained steadfast in her intent to uphold the integrity of the judicial process. “I don’t ever want to be accused of pleasing one group at the expense of justice,” she maintained. Governor Lawton Chiles commended her for showing “great character and courage” as state attorney, and another colleague qualified the heated critiques of Reno noting that “some of the cases were not winnable. She had the courage to go forward with the prosecutions and maybe other prosecutors would not have. I can’t fault her for that.” During her fifteen years representing the Florida metropolis, Janet Reno was never one to stay holed up in her office. She kept her home phone number listed in the city directory, mentored wayward teenagers, and visited schools and women’s shelters with messages of hope and perseverance. On her approach with victims of domestic violence she said: “Despite what these women have been through, you have to show them how not to feel like victims. You try to work with them in every way you possibly can–serve as an example for them, show them they can be somebody, show them what they can do, what their daughters can do.”

Dade County State Attorney, Janet Reno, seated next to Director of Metro Public Safety, Bobby L. Jones during forum entitled

Dade County State Attorney, Janet Reno, seated next to Director of Metro Public Safety, Bobby L. Jones during forum entitled “Perspectives on Race, Crime, and the Criminal Justice System” held at Miami-Dade Community College, 1981. As state attorney, Reno unsuccessfully prosecuted four white police officers in the 1980 beating death of black insurance agent, Arthur McDuffie. The acquittal sparked outrage among Miami’s black community. Reno responded to this and other racial tensions by meeting with the community, speaking at schools, and opening her office to speak with blacks and Latinos.

Her grassroots approach in Miami caught the attention of the incoming presidential administration of Bill Clinton, who nominated Reno for appointment as the first female U.S. Attorney General in 1993. “Janet Reno is far and away the best candidate for this job that President Clinton could have nominated,” remarked Florida Senator Bob Graham.  After recounting the story of how her late mother built their family home brick by brick, Reno translated the family story into a folksy testimony of how she planned to approach the impending office. “… [T]hat house stands as a symbol to me, that you can do anything you really want to, if it’s the right thing to do and you put your mind to it,” she told the Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee confirmed her appointment as U.S. Attorney General in March 1993.

Portrait of U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, 1993. Reno was inducted into the Florida Women's Hall of Fame in 1993.

Portrait of U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, 1993. Reno was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.

The newly-appointed attorney general attracted heavy media buzz during her first month in office, a phenomenon many referred to as “Reno-mania.” However, the six-foot one-inch tall,  U.S. Attorney General, who described herself as a “54 year old awkward maid [with] a messy house,” rejected the fanfare of high-profile political life. She remained focused instead on the great responsibility of being “the people’s lawyer.” Reno refused to engage the suggestion that she only got the job because she was a woman, looking forward instead: “I don’t know whether that’s the case or not, but having been offered it [U.S. Attorney General] I’m going to do the best I can.” Early on in her tenure, Reno envisioned a legacy  tied to creating “equal opportunity for all the children of America” and doing everything she could to “put the families first.” Her platform included a sensible stance on crime, working with health and education officials to reduce juvenile crime, protecting the environment by enforcing anti-pollution laws, and upholding civil rights. Despite an ambitious, reform-minded agenda, the attorney general inevitably found herself at the center of numerous federal controversies. But Reno’s unprecedented willingness to assume responsibility for her decisions, whether perceived rights or wrongs, endeared her to many constituents. “I made the decision. I’m accountable. The buck stops with me,” she famously remarked after her regrettable decision to allow federal intervention of the Branch Davidian Complex in Waco, Texas in 1993 led to the deaths of dozens of people. “That was the hardest decision I ever had to make. I will live with it for the rest of my life,” conceded Reno. Though Janet Reno’s time in federal office was certainly not without indiscretion, many Americans found her honesty and candid delivery refreshing.  Reno served as U.S. Attorney General until 2001, earning the additional honorarium of longest serving attorney general of the twentieth century.

Janet Reno (left) poses for picture with first female president of the Florida Bar Patricia A. Seitz (center) and first female Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court,Rosemary Barkett in commemoration of Seitz's historic installation, 1993.

Janet Reno (left) poses for picture with first female president of the Florida Bar Patricia A. Seitz (center) and first female Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court,Rosemary Barkett in commemoration of Seitz’s historic installation, 1993.

Upon returning to Florida, she put in a bid for the 2002 Florida gubernatorial race, but lost the primary to Democratic opponent Bill McBride, and subsequently retired from political life. During the last decade of her life, Janet Reno enjoyed a quiet life in the Florida Everglades. “I don’t think I’m a gregarious person, in the sense of having a lot of casual friends. I have a few people I am very close to,” she explained to a reporter soon after winning the state attorney race in 1978. On November 7, 2016, Janet Reno, the trailblazing lawyer with the impeccable integrity, died in her home, surrounded by her closest family and friends.