Legendary, tough, and strong-willed land baron and powerbroker Hamilton Forman died last night at age 90.
Forman once owned most of Davie and built a real estate empire in Broward County that has been shepherded by his son Austin for the past 20 years. Hamilton Forman controlled the North Broward Hospital District -- and turned it into a tax-subsidized political machine that leaned on well-heeled doctors to fund campaigns for years. He was also a driving force behind the formation of Nova Southeastern University.
Austin Forman was vacationing in Harbour Island in the Bahamas at the time and returned to Fort Lauderdale this morning, according to sources.
There's a lot to tell, but I'm going to start with recollections from Broward County Commissioner John Rodstrom, who grew up as a pal of Forman's son Collins and has a wealth of information about Hamilton. Here's what he
told me while biding his time during an impasse at today's commission meeting:
He was a pioneer, a multifaceted person who made many, many contributions to the community. In his later years, he traveled, and he was just a collector of artifacts. He had a collection that was unmatched by anything in this state, if not country. He loved Africa, but he went everywhere around the world.
He was very unpretentious. He had a large fortune; we don't know how much, we just know it was sizable. But he was the kind of guy that you'd never know it. He drove a car that wasn't befitting of someone of his wealth. He lived in the same house in Coral Ridge all these years, was married to the same woman (Doris, who died in 1999), and wore a straw hat. He was just a very stable guy and deeply religious.
He spent a lot of time working on longevity. He was very conscious of living a long life. He had all these different remedies. He carried a bottle of bee honey for his tea. He did all these unusual things.
When I was about 7 years old, he tells a story about Collins and I rough-housing in his home, and he claimed that we broke a vase from the Ming Dynasty. I don't remember that ever happening, but it was his story, and he stuck with it.
He was the guy who would call a judge and whisper in his ear. He had incredible power. He did things back in the 1970s that were unbelievable. He created a newspaper called Insight Broward. Its trademark, if you will, was a bull's-eye, as if you were looking down the barrel of a long-range shotgun, with crosshairs. He also controlled a newspaper in Sunrise called the Inquirer. They would write things about their political enemies and their friends. He didn't take any prisoners. In his prime, he was involved in elections at every level, state, local, federal. You couldn't get in the political world if you didn't sit down with him and ask for his support. The Forman family was very much in control.
It started with all of this land that became the Forman Dairy in Davie. There were rumors that he brought in the melaleuca trees to dry up the Everglades. The rumor was that how they bought all that land that became the Forman Dairy was there was a tremendous flood that put all this land under water. I don't know if it was in the '30s or '40s. They took pictures of flooded property and sent it the owners of the land and said, "This is what your land looks like, but we'll buy it from you." They bought it cheap, and the rumor was they brought the melaleucas in to dry it up.
I happened to have seen some of those rare artifacts from all over the world when I conducted an interview with Hamilton Forman back in 1999 regarding the creation of the Charter School of Excellence. Forman didn't like the story that I wrote -- it exposed the school's connection to a controversial Christian extremist named Bill Gothard -- and he didn't speak with me again, but the story wound up changing Florida law and won a national journalism award.
Classic Forman -- when he did things, including taking over Broward County, he truly did it his way, and he always went all the way. In fact, over by Broward General Medical Center, the flagship of the hospital district he ruled, you'll find a road called Hamilton Forman Way.
Naturally, he brought controversy -- and his family legacy continues to bring it. During the past several years, the family has been jarred with numerous scandals. There was the piece of land valued at $900,000 that the School Board -- over which the family held sway -- paid $2 million in 1994.
In 2003, there was the North Broward Hospital District scandals that prompted then-Gov. Jeb Bush to clean house, including removing Bill Scherer -- a Hamilton Forman protege -- from his position as general counsel. You can read a quick bit about the shenanigans there by clicking here.
Most recently, you have the recent controversy surrounding the Forman-owned Palma Nova Trailer Park, where the water was allegedly contaminated and people were recently forced from their homes.
Who knows what controversies existed in the '60s and '70s, but you can expect some when you're literally transforming a county the size of Broward.
"I think he can probably be credited with shaping what Broward looks like," Broward County Commissioner Stacy Ritter told me today. "Now, some people might not like that. But he changed Broward from a rural place to an urban place. He didn't just have the power to do it but he had the vision to be able to see a place that was full of tomato farms and cattle and turn it into a progressive urban county. I don't think many people thought it could become that way, and it changed as a result of Hamilton Forman."
A politician who knew Forman well is Broward Property Appraiser Lori Parrish. I caught up with her on the phone this evening and here's what she said:
If I think of the father of Broward County politics, it's Ham Forman. He put out the first palm card there ever was. He was 12 or 14 years old, and when they were young, [Hamilton Forman's brother Charles Forman] Doc and Ham had milk routes before school. When it was election time, they would have little cards with the milk touting candidates. Those were the first palm cards in Broward County. Ham owned a sandwich shop when he was a senior in high school and was the valedictorian of his class.
Ham was always the entrepreneur, and his brother Doc was the scientist, the vet. Doc discovered a cure for hoof-and-mouth disease, and Ham was very excited. He said, 'We're going to patent it and make a lot of money.' Doc was so proud that he published it in a medical journal that went all around the world, and then everybody knew.
The first time I ever sat down and talked to him was when I first ran for office in 1982 or 1983. Everybody was always scared of Ham. So I just called him, and he was very nice and a gentleman. I remember saying to him, 'Everybody thinks you're scary, but you're so nice.'" He could raise money, don't get me wrong, but he was a great mentor and a great advice giver, and he was an amazing historian. He could tell the best stories.
Ham courted relationships and would send his favorite candidates, including me, to the condos. Once, he got mad at the politicians in Broward County years ago; he was mad at the Republicans doing this stuff, so Ham bought a newspaper and started attacking the politicians he was mad at. That led to Karen Coolman [now Karen Amlong] getting elected. I believe she took out Joel Gustafson, and I think Joel Gustafson was one of the politicians Ham was mad at. Karen Coolman was the first female state representative from Broward County. Linda Cox was her aide, and she was elected, and then Anne MacKenzie was Linda's aide, and she got elected.
Once a condo leader was very mean to me and saying I was going to have to pay him money, and I wasn't going to do that. It was notorious at the time in Hawaiian Gardens and Century Village, and candidates would pay them. I refused. So I called Ham and asked him to talk to the guy. I don't know what Ham said, but that guy purred like a pussy cat after that day. Boom, one call, and the guy was so nice to me for years after that.
Years ago, only Dr. Sistrunk had a hospital in the northwest section of town, and Ham said that there needed to be clinics in all parts of town for all people. He integrated the North Broward Hospital District. Napoleon Bonapart Broward might have founded Broward County, but history belongs to Ham Forman.
He would buy tax deeds; he would come in and buy land. That's what Ham did. We called him the tiger. Just when you thought everything was quiet, he would sneak up on you. He was clever, and there are so many stories about him. We call them tiger stories.
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Austin is more like Ham politically, but Collins is more like Ham religiously. Collins is very devout. They both have Ham in them. I always call Collins the "little baby good one." You know, Collins would never swear. The last time I said that to him, he said, "Lori, I'm much older now." I remember the story where Austin learned to count. They were working on some development project in Sunrise and all these people were saying terrible things about the project, whatever he was doing with some land. And Austin goes to him and says, "Dad, I don't think we're doing so well here." And Ham said, "I've got three [majority] votes." And Austin always said, "That was the day I learned to count."
He would write handwritten birthday cards, handwritten postcards from all over the world. I write thank-you notes with red feathers; everybody needs a trademark, and that's sort of mine. The reason I use red feathers was Ham. Ham went to Vietnam once, and he sent me a thank-you note with a red feather on it. I loved them and had them made for the campaign. One day he said, "Lori do you have any of those red feathers? You stole the idea from me." I said, "A couple of thousand, Ham. How many do you need?"
I remember a birthday party he had at Bimini Boatyard. He was 70 or more, and he was wearing this paper jacket, like a windbreaker, but it was made of paper, and it had a map of the world on it. You know Bimini Boatyard? There are all these young, attractive waitresses there, and every waitress in the place flirted with him. We were amazed. He always had a straw hat. That came from growing up in Davie. And he wore these wild-colored silk shirts. He was a peacock. He was the most interesting person I ever met. He traveled to the most remote places in the world, and I think he climbed everything there was to climb. He was gracious and a gentleman. I think he did everything he wanted to do. I think Ham had a rich, full, happy life. If Ham missed something, he didn't miss much. He was remarkable.