BY DONNA KOEHN
The Tampa Tribune
In the 1950s, Roy Speer's friends at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport didn't know exactly what their driven classmate would accomplish someday.
They just knew it would be big.
Speer, who died Sunday at age 80, came through in a way none of them could have predicted, achieving fame and a considerable fortune as a TV pioneer who realized people would buy jewelry, toasters and trinkets from their easy chairs. Even at 3 a.m.
As co-founder of HSN in St. Petersburg, Speer launched the shop-at-home phenomenon. Already a successful lawyer and real estate developer, he saw the potential in using a small local television station to sell directly to customers - little overhead, zero theft, happy folks to praise the goods over the phone, on the air.
Bruce Jacob, who later became the dean of Stetson, was a classmate who remembers Speer as a young man who never stopped working.
"He always had something going on to make money," Jacob recalls. "He was a good friend of everyone, but no shrinking violet. He never receded into the corner. He was outspoken."
U.S. District Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich dated Speer in law school and remained lifelong friends with him and his wife, Lynnda, whom he married in 1960.
The judge recalls a man from modest beginnings in Key West who took on a number of full-time jobs while attending Stetson, sometimes more than one at a time.
"He worked a night shift and then went to law school," she recalls. He often spent time at her house, even when she was on campus, enjoying free meals at her mother's kitchen table.
"When he married Lynnda, he called my mother so she would give Lynnda her recipes, especially the one for square-cut roast beef," Kovachevich says. "It had to be just right. Lynnda and I still laugh about that."
The judge believes Speer learned much from her own mother's business acumen.
"My mother was a shrewd businesswoman," she says, who mentored the young man in how to achieve success and treat employees.
Speer learned a saying that he often repeated: "Nothing ventured, nothing gained," Kovachevich says.
In addition to investing in real estate, including prime riverfront property in Tampa, Speer served as an assistant state attorney, a lobbyist for the city of St. Petersburg and the owner of a utility company.
Some employees found the businessman's stare intimidating, says Sam McClelland, a former radio talk-show host who worked the graveyard shift at HSN in the beginning in 1982.
At first, the broadcast could be viewed in only 10,000 homes in Clearwater. It went nationwide three years later.
Although he first hawked ice cube trays shaped like "busty ladies" and wind-up walking golf balls, it soon became obvious that people would buy clothes, perfume and household items.
"Roy was a serious man, but he wasn't mean," McClelland says. "When you talked to him, he'd look you right in the eye, just waiting for you to finish. I think it was his training as a prosecutor, the way he'd treat a star witness."
Speer was the money man at HSN, says McClelland; partner Bud Paxson was the idea man. The two men were on site every day, watching, asking questions of the hosts, looking for the right lighting to show off their merchandise. Their opposite personality styles worked, McClelland says.
In 1986, HSN went public, securing Speer's fortune. By 1990, HSN had achieved $1 billion in sales. Speer resigned as chairman in 1993.
That same year, the New York Times wrote that Speer, described as a "free-wheeling entrepreneur," had blurred personal interests and those of a publicly held company by allegedly giving his son lucrative contracts. In 1994, a federal grand jury indictment of the company's business practices was dropped.
In 2003, Speer, with an estimated worth of $775 million, made Forbes magazine's list of wealthiest Americans.
Jacob says Speer remained a financial supporter of Stetson, for which he also served as a trustee.
Speer and his family generally shunned the media, and his family did not return calls Tuesday.
Kovachevich says Lynnda's strong faith influenced Speer's life.
"He died in the arms of his wife, and went from the arms of his wife to the arms of Jesus," the judge says. "She believes that and so do I."
Published in TBO.com from Aug. 23 to Sept. 21, 2012