Statesman, Leader, Father
The passing of William J. “Billy Joe” Rish leaves an empty place in the lives of his family and friends, but this crusader for the common man will always be remembered for his strong Christian leadership. By Jason DehartStatesman, Leader, FatherFormer Florida Rep. William J. Rish leaves a legacy of hard work, devotionBy Jason Dehart
The passing of William J. “Billy Joe” Rish leaves an empty place in the lives of his family and friends, but this crusader for the common man will always be remembered for his strong Christian leadership.
Rish died in May from cancer at the age of 75. Raised in Wewahitchka, he rose from humble beginnings to become chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee in the Florida House of Representatives. Perhaps his biggest claim to fame happened while serving on this committee, during which he led the impeachment hearings of three Florida Supreme Court justices. He spent more than 30 years as the city attorney for Port St. Joe, and was also a longtime real estate businessman.
“He set a fine Christian example, and it spilled over in all walks of life,” says his son Jay Rish, 39, president of Century 21 Gulf Coast Realty in Port St. Joe. “His first love was God, then his family and then his business. He never let his priorities get out of whack. Having said that, being a principled Christian doesn’t mean he was meek. He would stand up to anyone for what he thought was right.”
Former Port St. Joe Mayor Frank Pate – who held that post for 30 or more years – knew Rish for 58 years and remembered him as feisty and a “great all-around man.”
“He has been missed already here by a lot of people, including myself,” says Pate, 83. “Every day I miss him and think about him. He had a great character and was a great Christian man. He worked every day of his life – there wasn’t a lazy bone in his body. I wish he could have stayed on a few more years. Seventy-five isn’t old today.”
Jay Rish says he and his father shared a special father-son bond.
“He was always the compass, the moral compass and barometer to right my ship in good times and bad,” he says. “No doubt, having his counsel in all phases of life like that is indispensable. One cannot measure that kind of advice, and it’s also fatherly advice and it can be tempered in a fashion that transcends normal relationships.”
Paula Pickett, director of the Gulf County Tourism Development Council, says she knew Billy Joe Rish all her life. He was a church leader and mentor to her, both personally and professionally.
“He was someone who would challenge you to think,” she says. “He really inspired you to do that. Also, if he ever saw somebody who needed something, he discreetly made sure they’d get it. He was an unsung hero in many cases.”
Jay Rish says his father was not a “weathervane” politician.
“I think what you had was a man of conviction,” he says. “Too often, politicians want to stick their finger in their mouth and stick it in the wind and go with the prevailing sentiment, whether it’s right or wrong. I think my father had two main things going for him. First, he was a man of principle and conviction, and he also was in step with most people. He was a leader, a born leader.”
“He led by his Christian beliefs and his work ethic,” Pickett says. “And a combination of those got a whole lot done for a whole lot of people. He very much identified with the plight of the common man. His perspective on things brought you to the perspective of the person who was going to be impacted. He approached every issue by how it was going to affect the person at the bottom of the totem pole.”
Says Pate, “He was a great fellow. One of a kind. Not many like him left today.”