To many, Stephan P. Mickle may be remembered as a pioneer, an inspiration and a giant among UF alumni. But to his neighbor and friend Deacon James Turk, Mickle was the man with whom he spent Christmas Eve eating raccoon, as was their tradition for years.
“We walked down Southeast 12th Avenue at night eating ‘coon and drinking straight, straight…” Turk paused and smirked, “Iced tea.”
Although Mickle’s illustrious life and career were full of accomplishments, awards and honors, what mattered most during his memorial service Feb. 13 was what he meant to those closest to him.
Clad in face coverings and dark, formal clothing, about 60 friends, family and former colleagues of Mickle gathered at the Curtis M. Phillips Center at noon for the private service. Mickle, the first Black student to earn an undergraduate degree from UF, died of cancer Jan. 26 at 76 years old.
Pushing past oppressive racism and discrimination, he was nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1998 to become a District Court Judge in the Northern District of Florida, the first African-American to hold the position. Mickle was also a founding member and the first president of the UF Association of Black Alumni (ABA).
Inside the auditorium, attendees sat scattered in a social distanced seating arrangement, while onstage two portraits of Mickle flanked a large screen with an image of him smiling in dignified judge’s robes. An ornate bouquet of orange and white flowers sat in front of a lone lectern.
Speakers at the service included UF president Kent Fuchs, Levin College of Law Dean Laura Rosenbury and family members such as Mickle’s brother, Darryl Mickle, and nephew, Cotie Jones.
Though the speakers received explicit instructions from the priest to keep their speeches between two and three minutes, it soon became clear that none would be able to compress all they wanted to say about Mickle into that amount of time.
Laura Rosenbury, the dean of the UF Levin College of Law, described his leadership and emphasized he will continue to be an inspiration after his death.
“Judge Mickle broke down barriers not for his own benefit, but for the benefit of people he would never meet,” she said. “Thousands of African-American students have realized their dreams at the University of Florida because of Judge Mickle’s strength.”
Some speakers highlighted the admirable qualities of Mickle’s personality, such as Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, who served alongside Mickle.
Walker mentioned Mickle’s brilliance but noted this alone wasn’t what made him a great judge.
“Every party, every lawyer who ever appeared before Judge Mickle, every judge who served with him, will tell you that Judge Mickle had a wise and understanding heart,” he said.
Following the speeches, a projector played a slideshow behind the stage as the soulful sounds of Anita Baker’s “Giving You the Best That I Got” filled an otherwise silent auditorium. Images of Mickle during his childhood, college years, his wedding, awards ceremonies and family pictures flashed across the screen.
The Rev. R.B. Holmes gave an impassioned speech afterward about the importance of family and leading an honorable life — two things Mickle never lost sight of.
“Judge Mickle was an outstanding husband; he loved Evelyn. Judge Mickle was a faithful father; he loved his children. Judge Mickle was a loving son, who made his parents extremely proud of his accomplishments,” Holmes praised.
The ceremony concluded with a procession of Mickle’s family members walking slowly through the aisles and out of the building accompanied by the iconic voice of Aretha Franklin. Some exchanged quick words with people they walked past.
Once outside, they watched a 21-gun salute from the parking lot, where seven uniformed officers pierced the quiet, overcast afternoon with three shots each into the air. A rendition of “Taps,” the solemn bugle call characteristic of military funerals and ceremonies, followed the gunshots from the bell of a trumpet.
Moments before, Holmes ended his speech by imagining Mickle’s soul entering heaven.
“My spirit can hear the ageless saying: ‘All rise!’ Here comes the judge, to meet the righteous judge!” Holmes thundered. “Home at last! Ever, ever, ever, ever to rejoice living an honorable life!”
Ben Crosbie is an Alligator contributing writer. Follow him on Twitter @benHcrosbie.