By JESSIE-LYNNE KERR, The Times-Union
Gary Pajcic, a former football star who used the fruits of his successful Jacksonville law practice to help others from his boyhood blue-collar neighborhood, died about 5:30 p.m. Wednesday of a rare form of viral encephalitis. He had been on life support after having a seizure Sunday at his summer home on Amelia island. He was 58.
The death of the onetime Florida State University quarterback who became a talented lawyer, philanthropist and advocate stunned the legal community.
"Jacksonville has countless attorneys who are much better lawyers because of Gary's influence," said Hank Coxe, president of The Florida Bar, who as a young Jacksonville prosecutor was mentored by Mr. Pajcic. "He took me under his wing when I started and I am forever in his debt."
"What a tragic loss," said State Attorney Harry Shorstein, who hired Mr. Pajcic straight out of law school in 1972.
"Gary was one of the most talented trial lawyers I ever knew," Shorstein said. "He had a special ability to communicate and develop a relationship with juries. They liked him and trusted him. I don't know of anyone who has ever done it better."
His brother and law partner, Steve Pajcic, said he remembered that winning was not everything.
"First, he was the most loving, unselfish person. Second, he was a fierce competitor who knew that winning was not the most important thing. And third, he put his family first, but put his energy into helping those in need," Pajcic said.
Pajcic said he and his younger brother were close and they chose law careers so they could work together.
"He was like the other half of me," he said. "He was my best friend."
Mr. Pajcic grew up one of six children in the Woodstock Park neighborhood. He attended Annie R. Morgan Elementary and then excelled at Paxon High, where he played football and was named Florida's Scholar-Athlete of the Year.
He used his athletic prowess to earn a football scholarship to Florida State University, where he was the quarterback for three years. He eventually was named to the Jacksonville Sports Hall of Fame.
After joining the State Attorney's Office after law school, Mr. Pajcic quickly rose through the ranks and won the first capital felony case in Jacksonville after the reinstatement of Florida's death penalty. He left to start a private practice with his brother.
As the law firm prospered, the Pajcics reached back to help those who lived in their old neighborhood. The Pajcic Scholars Program, endowed with $1 million, gave University of North Florida scholarships to Paxon High graduates. Another $1 million went to Annie R. Morgan Elementary to supplement teacher salaries, which helped the school rise from an "F" grade to an "A" from the state.
Mr. Pajcic also sponsored six basketball teams for underprivileged children in the North Riverside area, even paying for college tuition for those who qualified. More recently, Mr. Pajcic gave $100,000 to the Warrick Dunn Foundation, set up by the former FSU football star to help single mothers buy their first homes, and another $100,000 to former Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel's Desire Street Ministries to help victims of Hurricane Katrina.
"We've lost an awfully good Floridian and a good friend of FSU and a good friend to education," FSU President T.K. Wetherell said.
When his brother, a former state legislator, ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1986, Mr. Pajcic was an important leader of the campaign and he was active working for other Democratic candidates, including Gov. Lawton Chiles and President Clinton.
But his boldest political move was believing Jacksonville was ready to elect a black sheriff. Mr. Pajcic chaired the successful 1995 campaign of Nat Glover.
"Gary was the kind of individual who left you with a 'we are pals' kind of feeling," Glover said. "His personality was consistent with the quality that allowed him to be convincing in the courtroom."
One of Mr. Pajcic's close friends and golfing buddies is Andy Cheney, president of Mercantile Bank. He introduced Pajcic to his wife of seven years, Sallyn, who was the bank's marketing director.
Other survivors include four sons, Curt Pajcic, Curry Pajcic, Ian Pajcic and Seth Pajcic; a daughter, Shaara Pajcic; his mother, Louise Pajcic of Jacksonville; four sisters, Sue Moonley and Kathy Johnson, both of Jacksonville, Mary Grace Evors of Fort Walton Beach and Phyllis Sharpe of Rockledge; and nine grandchildren.
"He was successful in what he did professionally, he was a great father to his kids, and he had more friends that you can count," Cheney said. "His was a life cut short too soon."
An autopsy will be performed to try to determine the cause of the encephalitis, which can be caused by viral infection from mosquitoes, ticks and other insects or by a bacterial infection.
Ron Sellers, FSU's All-American wide receiver and college football Hall of Famer, drove from his Palm Beach Gardens home Monday to be with the Pajcic family.
"Gary and I go back, starting together in first grade," Sellers said. "He really helped me be the athlete and person I am because he was such a great athlete. Words will never truly describe what a true champion he was as a human being. The Pajcics lost a wonderful son and father. FSU lost a great friend."
Sellers and Mr. Pajcic graduated from Paxon in 1965 and played football, basketball and baseball together.
"We had a pact to attend the same college and we chose FSU," he said. "We loved football. We loved basketball. We loved Jacksonville. The only thing we never talked about was politics."
Circuit Judge Kim Hammond of Flagler County competed with Mr. Pajcic for the job as FSU's starting quarterback and beat him in 1967 and was named second team All-American.
"I have kind of a different take on Gary because he and I were rivals as quarterbacks at FSU," Hammond said. "We had a special kind of friendship and it's gone on 40 years now. I always thought he would be there."
Chief Circuit Judge Don Moran said whether Mr. Pajcic was coaching kids or trying a case, he did it with enthusiasm.
"His goal was to win but he always did it with a great deal of professionalism," Moran said.
There will be a memorial service at 2 p.m. Saturday in the chapel at Episcopal High School at 4455 Atlantic Blvd., followed by a reception in the River Club on top of the Modis Building. Memorials may take the form of contributions to Creating Opportunities that Result in Excellence, c/o Duval County public schools, 1701 Prudential Drive, Jacksonville, FL 32207.
Highlights of the life of Jacksonville lawyer Gary Pajcic
ACADEMIC / ATHLETICS
Named Florida's Scholar-Athlete in 1965 while at Paxon High School. Became starting quarterback for Florida State Seminoles as a sophomore in 1966, was a three-year letterman.
Had active role in his brother's bid for governor in 1986, when Steve was the Democratic nominee. Also active in the campaigns of former Gov. Lawton Chiles and former President Clinton. Chaired the 1995 campaign of Nat Glover, who became Jacksonville's first elected black sheriff.
Becoming an assistant state attorney after law school, he won the first capital felony case in Jacksonville after the reinstatement of Florida's death penalty.
Was one of the first lawyers to sue Ford and Firestone over defective tires on Ford Explorers just three weeks before the companies had a nationwide recall. Last year, won a $10.2 million verdict against Ford Motor Co. for defective roof and seat belt systems in Explorers.
With his brother, established a $1 million endowment for Paxon High graduates from his old neighborhood to attend the University of Florida. Another $1 million was given to supplement teaching salaries at his elementary school, Annie R. Morgan. He sponsored six basketball teams for youngsters in the North Riverside area and paid for college for several of them, as well as gave $100,000 to the Warrick Dunn Foundation, which helps single mothers buy their first home.
Times-Union writer Bob Thomas contributed to this report