They were two of the strongest women I’ve ever known, stronger than most men too.
Janet Reno and her sister, Maggy Hurchalla, are both gone. Maggy, 81, died on Saturday from complications after a second hip replacement operation.
Reno died at age 79 in 2001, after several years of declining health due to Parkinson’s disease.
It’s hard to believe they’re gone.
Reno, born in 1938, was the nation’s first female attorney general, a longtime Florida prosecutor, and probably the state’s best-known woman for many years.
Both owed their strength in large part to their parents, who worked as reporters in Miami for many years. Janet has often described her mother’s decision to build a new home for the family on a 21-acre farm they purchased in rural South Miami.
Jane Wood Reno learned masonry, electrical, plumbing and more to build their four children’s home. It was a family affair. Janet learned to make butter, which the family sold to make ends meet, and kept the house her mother built until her death in 2016. Visitors to the house in the last days of her life included former President Bill Clinton and many others.
Reno’s father, Henry Olaf Reno, took the short and catchy name after immigrating to the United States from Denmark. He spent 43 years working as a reporter for the Miami Herald. Her brothers, Robert, a Newsday columnist, and Mark, described as an adventurer in a family known for adventure, died in 2012 and 2014.
As a state attorney, Janet spent years bullying state lawmakers. Her fellow state attorneys convinced her of the need to sit in the front row of all final appropriations committee conferences, as her mere presence was enough for prosecutors and law enforcement to be well financed. At the time, the same committee members were responsible for dividing state money between the two groups.
Reno had nothing to say. She just sat and watched them. It was fun to watch.
Often we dined together in Tallahassee after long days at the Capitol. Sometimes we cooked it at home. Other times we went to local restaurants with others. Years later, when she was the nation’s Attorney General, we dined at a great little Italian restaurant in Washington, D.C.
It was an interesting experience. The crowded restaurant stood and applauded her as we entered. After Waco, she had become one of the most easily recognizable personalities in the country. The chef and owner of the restaurant came out of the kitchen, took the menus from us and brought out what he wanted us to have. It was good food. I must admit we killed a few bottles of a good red wine that night.
Luckily his FBI escorts who sat at a back table on guard as we discussed the world’s issues got us home safely for the night. Janet insisted on paying her share of the terribly expensive tab in cash. She said she once wrote checks for her part, but people stopped cashing them after she became attorney general. I was pretty sure my editors at the St. Petersburg Times at the time would have paid her bill as well, but she wouldn’t.
No one was more independent. Except maybe his sister Maggy.
I didn’t meet Maggy until years later, after she started fighting officials in South Florida. She was a strong advocate for the Everglades and all other life-threatening environmental issues in Martin County, where she lived and served five terms on the Martin County Commission.
Maggy’s environmental fame made headlines more recently after she spent more than seven years battling a rock mining company that had a project in Martin County. The company won a $4 million verdict against Maggy and sent sheriff’s deputies to her home to seize her 2004 Toyota truck and an old kayak. The truck was previously owned by Janet Reno.
She was still fighting the lawsuit when we caught up with her and husband Jim Hurchalla for lunch in Cashiers, NC two years ago. It was a fun lunch that probably convinced the Zookeeper restaurant that we had to pay rent because we were there so long talking and remembering Janet.
Maggy appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case in 2021. She got the Toyota and kayak back. The deputies returned them.
Maggy loved getting out in her favorite kayak and speeding across South Florida lakes or mountain streams. Like her sister, she was fearless.
Janet and Maggy loved working with Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte and his wife and partner, Patsy Palmer.
Sadly, D’Alemberte passed away in 2020 while her case was on appeal. Sandy successfully defended me when prosecutors tried to send me to jail for refusing to reveal a source. The Florida Supreme Court’s 1976 decision continues to protect Florida journalists from overzealous prosecutors seeking sources. D’Alemberte another great soul.
Small world, isn’t it. We are losing too many lions.