He was born Charles Crofford Dockery in May 1933, but Lakelanders grew to know and love him as Doc Dockery, a self-made man, the founder of Summit Consulting, a political kingmaker, an advisor to governors and author of two books.
On Monday evening, condolences poured into the Facebook page of his wife, former state Sen. Paula Bono Dockery, when she announced at about 5 p.m. that her “darling husband Doc died peacefully this afternoon at Good Shepherd Hospice House. Keep our family in your prayers as we grieve this wonderful man.”
Doc Dockery, 89, had been in failing health for several years. Paula Dockery said they came home from North Carolina last week and Doc Dockery was admitted to the hospital. Theirs was a love story of 34 years.
Dockery was born in Elkin, N.C., to Mildred Hurt Dockery and Doctor (his name, not his title) Albert Dockery.
In 1941, his father walked out the door and never came home.
“We didn’t know he was leaving. Just one day he wasn’t there,” Dockery told Florida Trend magazine. “It was about a week later, the furniture that my mother and dad had bought on credit was repossessed. That left us in a house we couldn’t pay any rent on and without furniture. My grandfather came and took us to live in the country.”
A year later, his father wrote to say he was coming to visit – told his son what day and time to expect him.
“He was supposed to be there early in the morning. I sat down on the shoulder of this dirt road all day waiting for him,” Dockery recalled for Florida Trend. “My grandmother came out at lunchtime and told me to come in for lunch — or dinner as we called it — and then I could go back out and wait. I didn’t go in because I thought I might miss him. He never came.”
Dockery said it was his grandfather, Henry Hurt, who taught him his work ethic as he labored beside him on the family tobacco farm.
“My grandfather was teaching me to dig ditches — we were laying water pipe at the farm — and he says to me, ‘Boy’ – he never called me anything but ‘Boy’ — he says, ‘Boy, if you can dig a ditch that you can be proud of, then you’ve learned something about work. Whatever you do, you do it the best,’” Dockery told the magazine.
Following his high school graduation, he worked at Sears Roebuck in Greensboro, N.C., and then enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, serving in Korea and becoming a public information specialist. His last military job was as a speech writer for the commanding general of the 9th Air Force at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, S.C.
It was luck – and Lakeland’s fortune – that Dockery wound up at Florida Southern College. He had been accepted at several colleges and decided he would attend the one that would take the most credits of his previous college. Florida Southern won out by one credit hour and he wound up on the north shore of Lake Hollingsworth to study journalism.
Dockery edited two trade publications while at Florida Southern, one for the Florida Plumbing Association and one for the Florida Roofing, Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors, according to a biography on Wikipedia. After donning a red cap and gown in 1961, he became the executive director of the Florida Roofing, Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors Association. He lobbied in Tallahassee and began interacting with politicians from across Florida.
Dockery had grown up in a Democrat household, but became a Republican when he met Claude Kirk, who was campaigning for the governor’s office. Dockery handed him 50 hard-earned dollars as a campaign contribution for Kirk’s first race in 1966.
Several years later, a friend talked Dockery into running for the Polk County School Board, assuring him he wouldn’t have to do anything because he wouldn’t win. But people liked the friendly, confident, hard-working, and smart young man. Dockery surprised his friend and himself by gaining a seat on the panel in a then-staunchly Democratic stronghold.
He didn’t win re-election, but he began to groom Republican candidates, taking them under his wing and finding the finances to back their campaigns. Over the decades, he became a kingmaker, not just in Polk County, but throughout the state and eventually earned his own funds to help his own GOP candidates.
In February 1976, he formed Summit Consulting, Inc., as a real estate holding company and consulting firm for other trade associations. It morphed into a self-insurers fund, which picked up business in Louisiana, Georgia, Missouri, and Oklahoma.
In 1984, Dockery and Tom Petcoff sold Summit to Alexander and Alexander Transportation Insurance for 420,000 shares of A&A stock. The stock more than doubled in value to $42 a share and Dockery became a millionaire.
The management team at Summit later bought the company and formed Summit Holdings and Dockery was eventually invited to become member of the board of directors of Summit Holdings, helping take the company public in 1997. The company is now owned by American Financial Group.
In 1985, Dockery met with then-Tampa Mayor Bob Martinez as the Republican was firing up a statewide campaign.
“I still remember when I first met him and I was just starting to run for governor. Someone had told me about Doc,” Martinez recalled Monday evening from his Tampa home. He said they met in Dockery’s office. “He was already engaged in political affairs and government affairs. I started talking. He knew of me because I was mayor of Tampa. And after we talked for about 30 minutes, he said, ‘Well, let’s stop all this talking.’ So I kind of looked up at him and he goes down in his desk, takes out two separate checkbooks and writes two checks, each for $3,000. So, that’s how I met him in a 40-minute spell. Great conversation. Liked him from the beginning and I think he liked me from the beginning.”
Martinez, who served as governor from 1987 to 1991, appointed Dockery to the High Speed Rail Commission, with hopes of connecting Tampa to Orlando with high-speed train service. Dockery became the chairman of the commission and the project became Dockery’s passion for his remaining years as he lobbied governor after governor with the hope of alleviating the growing congestion on I-4 as Hillsborough, Polk, Osceola and Orange counties grew in size.
“He was very committed to that concept,” Marinez, 87, recalled, lamenting that it has not come to fruition yet.
It was during the Martinez administration that Dockery met a brilliant, beautiful brunette – Paula Bono, who had been married to Mark Fisher, an aide to then-U.S. Sen. Lawton Chiles, D-Lakeland. The couple moved to Lakeland when Chiles left office and she finished her Master of Arts degree in mass communication. She and Fisher divorced in 1988 and she decided to become active in Republican politics. She and Dockery met at a Republican fundraiser.
Chiles was elected governor and supported high-speed rail when the Florida Department of Transportation and Florida Overland Express partnered to build a high-speed rail link running from Orlando to Miami. But Gov. Jeb Bush, for whom Dockery had campaigned, put it on the chopping block shortly after he entered office in 1999.
The next year, Dockery wrote a Florida constitutional amendment which required the construction of a high-speed rail network throughout Florida, beginning with a link between Tampa and Orlando. Voters passed the amendment.
Former Republican Congressman Dennis Ross of Lakeland credits Dockery with his 2000 win to the state Legislature, saying he took the young attorney under his wing during the 1992 campaign for President George H.W. Bush re-election. And he remembers the days of the rail amendment.
“I did not support high-speed rail and a constitutional amendment, but when it became part of the Constitution, I told him that it was our job as a Legislature to implement it and I would spearhead the legislation,” Ross said in an interview Monday evening. “And he was amazing, and the resources and the vision, the vision, and today, Brightline is the exact same concept that we were pushing through to get pased that I did get passed in the Legislature 22 years ago. With private dollars, private investment on state-owned right of way … because the interstate can only handle so much. He was a visionary and, unfortunately, the Republican leadership back then would not support it.”
Four years later, Gov. Jeb Bush got voters to rescind the amendment, criticizing Dockery and telling voters it was an expensive train, not a toy.
Girls Inc. board of trustees member Elena Nicholas fired off a letter to The Ledger’s editor.
“I would like to inform Gov. Bush and our community that Doc Dockery has been a longtime friend and supporter of Girls Inc. of Lakeland. In addition to his annual monetary contributions, Doc has sent 124 girls to the YMCA’s Camp Wewa and has hosted many girls to a fun-filled day at his family farm,” Nicholas wrote about the charity that helps girls in need. “Doc is quiet and anonymous about his giving, and we are blessed at Girls Inc. that he has found us to be one of his many worthy charitable causes. Doc’s contributions help us to achieve our goal of building strong, smart and bold girls.”
Dockery told The Tampa Bay Times in 2013 that he and Bush had mended fences.
“At one time, it got pretty rough but it wasn’t a lasting thing. I said some things I shouldn’t have said, and he said some things he shouldn’t have said, but it was never like I was never going to speak to him anymore,” Dockery told The Times. “One of the things that really bothered me about the Republican Party and Jeb was that I’d been pretty generous to Republican politicians and the party. And when I found out the party had transferred I think it was like $200,000 or $300,000 to Jeb’s committee to reverse the high-speed-rail amendment, that really, really hurt. I felt like Jeb was utilizing money that I had given to defeat something that was very personal to me.”
Paula Dockery decided to take the fight to the state Legislature, winning a seat in the Florida House in 1996, becoming the House whip in 1998 and then entering the Florida Senate in 2003. She remained for 10 years.
While she was in the Florida Senate, Rick Scott was elected governor. Doc Dockery told the Tampa Bay Times that Scott “lied” to his wife, promising to support high-speed rail in Florida, but wound up rejecting $2.4 billion from the Obama administration.
“I thought it was a done deal. How could you not do it? We had the money, all but $200 million, and we were talking with members of the eight consortiums that were putting it together — worldwide teams. I talked to three of them, and the consultants talked to all of them, and they assured me that they would pick up the $200 million gap,” Dockery told The Times. “I was shocked. How could you turn that down?”
But Scott didn’t want to put a win in Obama’s basket and listened to Tea Party supporters, who hated Obama’s stimulus plans and rejected the funding for the railway.
The Dockerys eventually left the Republican party, with Doc becoming a non-party affiliate in 2007. Paula also switched to non-party affiliate the day Donald Trump was inaugurated president. She registers as a Democrat for the primaries.
Political consultant Mac Stipanovich called Dockery an extraordinary man.
“There was always something new about Doc that you didn’t know,” Stipanovich told LkldNow. “In the beginning, I thought of him as a good-humored, obviously successful businessman and something of a policy wonk when it came to politics. Then I unexpectedly ran into him at the check-in desk in a hotel during the Republican National Convention in New Orleans. He introduced me to the very pretty, pretty young woman who was with him. It was Paula. ‘Doc, you are full of surprises,’ I said. I, of course, did not know then that I was witnessing the beginning of a relationship that would sustain him for the rest of his long and productive life.”
Martinez offered his condolences to Paula Dockery.
“I know they’ve had a wonderful relationship, a wonderful marriage, and I’m sure that she’s in a state of shock that a loved one is no longer going to be with her,” Martinez said. “But to have a lot of great years together — I’m sure they have very great memories, many things that they did together.”
Ross said he will miss Dockery tremendously.
“I never lost sight of the confidence he showed to me at an early age in my life,” Ross said. “And that’s had a tremendous impact on me. Politically, he’s probably had the greatest positive impact on me than anybody I’ve had a chance to be around throughout my career.”
South Florida Sun Sentinel opinion editor Steve Bousquet said Dockery loved Florida and its politics, was a fabulous storyteller, and enjoyed life so much — with an occasional Beefeater martini.
“We had so many great discussions about his life and his long and colorful career in Florida politics,” Bousquet recalled, first on Facebook and then in an interview. “Doc was very proud of his rural, small-town North Carolina roots, and for the past few years, we would have long talks about Florida politics. His career began as a young lobbyist for sheet metal contractors, as I recall. He was of a time when friendship and camaraderie mattered a lot more than party affiliation.”
Joe and Tracey Tedder also recalled the importance of Dockery’s friendship. After Tracey Tedder’s grandfather, former Polk Sheriff Monroe Brannen, retired in the mid 1970s, it was Dockery who extended a hand to say thank you to the longtime sheriff.
Dockery “took it upon himself to host a dinner, at the time at the Lakeland Country Club or Yacht Club, and invited dignitaries from the city, and the family, and people that were close to the Brannens,” Polk County Tax Collector Joe Tedder said. “And he hosted on his own dime, Doc Dockery’s own dime, hosted this dinner for a number of people at the Yacht Club, just to say thank you for his service. And that was something that meant a great deal to the sheriff and his family, obviously, and it was just the kind of guy that Doc was — just went out of his way to thank people and to show his appreciation for what people had accomplished in their life.”
Citrus Connection Executive Director Tom Phillips, who has had an occasional political tussle, said Dockery also took him to what was then called the Yact Club for lunch.
“My favorite Doc memory was when he took me to Lakeland Yacht Club for lunch and ordered a vodka or gin at lunch,” Phillips wrote on Facebook. “He looked at me and said …. ‘Kid, I’ll give you my advice after a drink. It will go better that way for both of us.’ Rest well sir.”
In addition to his wife, Dockery is survived by his children: Carl and Andrea Dockery and their daughter Katharine, and Michele Dockery Jones, her husband Fred Jones, and their son Justin.
Correction: South Florida Sun Sentinel opinion editor Steve Bousquet’s job was misidentified in an earlier version of this article.
Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native. She can be reached at [email protected] or 863-272-9250.