Manatee County attorney Mickey Palmer remembers his mentor, Chip Rice

MANATEE -- H. Hamilton "Chip" Rice Jr. was a mentor to many, including Manatee County Attorney Mickey Palmer.

On Thursday, Palmer looked out of his office window, across the Manatee River and thought about Mr. Rice. Mr. Rice, who served as the Manatee County attorney from 1983 to 1997, died Thursday morning at the age of 79.

"I like to say the county commission created the office of county attorney, but Chip Rice made the office," Palmer said.

Palmer was overwhelmed with memories of Mr. Rice, who was one of the first Florida lawyers to become a board certified city, county and local government lawyer. Mr. Rice also held multiple executive positions in The Florida Bar's City, County and Local Government Law Section and Florida Association of County Attorneys.

"I really think as I look back on my career, he was my No. 1 mentor," Palmer said. "I learned an awful lot from him. What I will remember most about him is his calm measured way of approaching every crisis."

When Mr. Rice, who graduated from the University of Kentucky, became the third in-house Manatee County attorney in 1983, he worked to turn the new, struggling office into the law office it is today. Mr. Rice was often referred to as a "true Kentucky gentleman," and Palmer said he will never forget his Southern accent.

"He was determined to make this one of the most respected offices in the community," Palmer said. "This office continues to enjoy a lot of the benefits and continues to have the reputation to this day that Chip laid."

Under Mr. Rice's leadership, the county attorney office grew both in number and respect, Palmer said.

"The office really took off in terms of reputation and personnel," Palmer said.

Mr. Rice, who served in the U.S. Army and Army Reserves, hired Palmer in 1987 as an assistant county attorney. During 10 of the 13 years Palmer worked as an assistant county attorney, he "matured more as a lawyer and learned so much about the practice of law" because of Mr. Rice.

Since 2012, Palmer has occupied the office his mentor occupied for more than 13 years.

"He saw something in me," Palmer said. "I am very indebted to him to this day."

Mr. Rice and his wife, Lester, had moved to Tampa, but Palmer said he saw Mr. Rice about eight weeks ago at Tampa General Hospital where they shared old stories.

"We had a great conversation at that time," Palmer said. "I felt very fulfilled that I went to visit him about two months ago."

Sue Revell, executive director of the Manatee County Bar Association, said Mr. Rice's generation of attorneys is "unique."

"They were mentors for another generation of attorneys," she said. "He worked with people. They didn't work for him."

Pat McVoy, who worked as an attorney in the county attorney's office during Mr. Rice's tenure, called him "truly special."

McVoy said Mr. Rice was able to pull the in-house county attorney together and make it work. Mr. Rice would always get to the office early and stay late.

"He truly was a gentleman who was devoted to doing the best job that could be done and very diplomatic and very caring about the work and the issues we had to deal with," McVoy said.

After he left the county attorney's office, Mr. Rice became a senior attorney with Lewis, Longman & Walter P.A., serving as general and special counsel to several local governments, including the Manatee County Port Authority and several fire districts. Mr. Rice retired in 2013.

Christine Jenkins, who always called him Mr. Rice, said he would bring her a little treat every Monday morning.

"He thought of everyone else before himself," said Jenkins, a legal secretary at Lewis, Longman & Walter. "Everyone in our office here at Lewis, Longman & Walker, as well as those we worked with at Holland & Knight's Bradenton office, would tell you that he was the ultimate caring and giving human, as well as a great lawyer. He had time for everyone, and shared his passion of the law, especially with all of the young lawyers."

In 2012, The Florida Bar's City, County and Local Government Law Section honored Mr. Rice with the H. Hamilton "Chip" Rice Award, which was established in Mr. Rice's name to honor the section's "strongest advocates for mentoring and education of future local government lawyers," according to a proclamation from the Manatee County Commission declaring Jan. 29, 2013, as H. Hamilton "Chip" Rice Jr. Day. Mr. Rice was only the third attorney in the section's history to be presented with an award in his name.

Susan Churuti, who is in private practice now, was the Pinellas county attorney when Mr. Rice was the Manatee county attorney. Churuti received the award named after Mr. Rice in 2013.

"He was a wonderful person, very beloved by the local government bar and the Episcopal Church community," she said.

Churuti said Mr. Rice would often speak to young local government attorneys.

"He would tell them local government law was a profession not a business," she said. "He was proud of what he did for Manatee County."

Mr. Rice will be remembered for his leadership, Churuti said.

"He had wonderful leadership skills and led by example," she said, adding he had a great sense of humor. "He was just a natural leader in a lot of respects in a very collegial easy-going way."

Mr. Rice, who received a Lifetime Achievement in Community Association from his local bar association, was also involved with a number of community nonprofits and was a chancellor and senior warden at Christ Episcopal Church.

Survivors include his wife, Lester; his son, H. Hamilton Rice III and daughter-in-law, Kim Rice; his daughter, Margaret Rice Owen; his stepson, Phil Bartles, Jr.; his stepdaughter, Sarah Kathryn Bartles; son-in-law Bret DeBenedictis; and five grandchildren.

Mr. Rice's funeral will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at Christ Church of Bradenton, 4030 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Christ Episcopal Church Rector's Discretionary Fund and the Brain Injury Association of Florida.

Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024 or at caronson@bradenton.com. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.