Fite died suddenly Monday morning of an apparent heart attack. He was 54.
The news shocked friends and colleagues, many of whom were struck speechless. Fite had a 15-year career in local politics and had spent 25 years at the head of a grocery store chain.
Calhoun County Coroner Pat Brown said Fite died at his home in Jacksonville at 7:30 a.m. and that an autopsy would be conducted to verify the cause of death.
He was married to Judy Fite, and had two children by a prior marriage: Leamon III and Jerrod. He also helped raise Judy's children, Laurie Mcleod and Wes Fite. He had two grandchildren.
"I would just like to say he was a wonderful husband and father, and he's going to be greatly missed," Judy Fite said.
His partner in the grocery business, Mike Sanders, said he regarded Fite as his best friend, closer than a brother.
Fite was born in Anniston and graduated from Anniston Academy, which later became the Donoho School. He attended Jacksonville State University.
A career in politics
As a state representative, Fite served on the education policy, government operations, and tourism and travel committees.
Fite was finishing up his seventh year as a representative and had plans to run for a third term, his friends said. Before that, he served four years on the Calhoun County Commission.
In 2009, Fite enjoyed what might have been his most successful year as a state legislator. Six of the seven bills he sponsored became law, including a bill to fix a loophole that excluded Medicaid-eligible women from coverage for breast and cervical cancer treatment.
Alabama House Speaker Seth Hammett said Fite was just coming into his own as a lawmaker. He sent an e-mail praising Fite's work and said in a phone interview Monday the House plans to take up a bill that Fite had sponsored unsuccessfully in the past. It would establish civil penalties for those who use computers to solicit sex from children. Under the proposed law, anyone convicted of this crime could have their property seized.
"We'll do it in this next session," Hammett said. "We'll do it in his memory."
Gov. Bob Riley said via e-mail that he was saddened by the news and had called Fite's mother, Ruth, to express his condolences.
Fite represented House District 40, which sprawls from Calhoun County's mountainous eastern border to the banks of the Coosa River in the west. It encompasses the small cities of Jacksonville, Piedmont and Ohatchee and rural byways such as Wellington and Nances Creek.
He first became involved in politics in 1994, when he challenged sitting U.S. Rep. Glen Browder for the Democratic nomination for the seat currently held by Mike Rogers. Fite had another unsuccessful run for the nomination in 1996.
Browder said even throughout the campaign, he remained friends with Fite, never sharing a cross word with his primary opponent.
"This is a shock to all of us," Browder said. "He was a young man politically, and he had done a good job in Montgomery."
Fite was elected to the Calhoun County Commission in 1998. Fellow commissioner Robert Downing remembers him as a fighter for the people when the chemical weapons incinerator was coming to town.
"We had numerous meetings (with federal officials), and things were happening very fast," Downing said. "The incinerator was scheduled to be completed and fired up, and Lea felt like we were lacking in some protective measures and he fought very hard to get those."
Downing remembered his friend fondly, saying he was a man who liked his job and had a good head for business and politics.
"He will be missed," Downing said. "I just liked him a lot."
Following the family business
Grocery stores were in Fite's blood. His father and grandfather were both in the business, and Fites were operating grocery stores in Anniston as early as 1922.
Teresa Bragg, manager of the Food Outlet in Jacksonville, had a close working relationship with Fite.
"He was a good employer," she said Monday while employees and customers at the grocery store continued on with business as usual. "He was very hands-on in the business part. Day to day he involved himself in every aspect of the business."
Sanders said the Food Outlet stores employ around 180.
Bragg said Fite checked on the store and employees every day, and that the staff was like a family.
"(We) were very shocked and upset," she said of the store's staff learning of Fite's death. "We're very concerned for his family."
Fite's grandfather opened a store in 1930; by 1955 the business was among the top three supermarkets in Anniston. Sanders and Fite started Lea & Mike's Discount Foods in the 1980s. The name was later changed to Food Outlet.
Fite was an aggressive businessman. In 1991, his store took out a full page ad criticizing a Winn Dixie promotion and another attacking the opening of a Gregerson's in Oxford. At one time, the Food Outlet chain boasted 12 locations in Alabama and Georgia.
Today there are six Food Outlet stores; five in Calhoun County and one in Pell City.
"A prominent fighter"
People in political circles who knew Fite were in disbelief Monday.
Rep. Barbara Boyd of Anniston, a fellow Democrat in the Legislature, was distraught over the news. She said Fite was someone she always could depend on.
"I had a great respect and admiration for Mr. Fite, and I will miss him dearly," Boyd said.
Admiration for Fite crossed party lines. Rep. Randy Wood of Anniston, a Republican, sometimes commuted with Fite to Montgomery. The news hit him just as hard.
"Lea was a very personable guy, a very great individual," Wood said. "Everyone loved him. He had ways where you could disagree with him, but you didn't make him mad. He was a down-home, friendly, loveable guy."
State Sen. Del Marsh of Anniston, another Republican, called Fite a "very competent legislator."
"Lea and I had a great relationship," he said. "I'm shocked, and I didn't know Lea had any health issues. Right now, I'm still trying to deal with the shock of it all."
Anniston Mayor Gene Robinson said the last time he saw Fite he seemed to be the "pillar of health."
"Lea will be missed," he said. "He was a very prominent fighter for our county."
Calhoun County Administrator Ken Joiner went to Fite's home after he got the news.
"Lea was very community-oriented and was extremely concerned about his constituents and how he handled their affairs and always interested in helping young people," Joiner said. "Just a good all-around guy."
Rep. Steve Hurst, D-Munford, said he last spoke with Fite on Sunday afternoon. It was a conversation about ordinary things, the needs of the community, plans for the next campaign. Fite sounded well and was in good spirits, Hurst said.
"I got to know Lea when Lea was on the County Commission and I was in the Legislature," Hurst said. "We worked together for several years. He and I talked a lot about politics. He always tried to help his constituents. He was very generous with his money. He gave away thousands of dollars in groceries from his stores. He's gonna be missed and … he and I developed a great friendship."
Calhoun County Commissioner Rudy Abbott, who holds Fite's old commission seat, said he and Fite spoke every day about the needs of their overlapping districts. He said most of Fite's good deeds went unsung.
"He loved schools and the school kids, and he loved the volunteer fire department," Abbott said. "I'd say those were the closest to his heart. He was always trying to find ways to help them."
The governor's office plans soon to contact the local parties to discuss a special election for Fite's replacement, Riley spokesman Todd Stacy said Monday.
Fite's wake is set for 5-8 p.m. Wednesday at Gray Brown Service Mortuary on Wilmer Avenue in Anniston. His funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday at Iron City Baptist Church, Alabama 9 in Anniston, with burial to follow at Forestlawn Gardens in Anniston.
Entertainment editor Deirdre Long and staff writer Megan Nichols contributed to this story.
Notable legislation sponsored by Lea Fite, District 40 representative (D-Jacksonville)HB 147 — Enacted in 2009. Requires coverage of breast and cervical cancer treatment for women who are eligible for Medicaid.
HB 149 — Enacted in 2009. Allows residents to fly American flags on their property without regard to restrictions that would prevent such a display.
HB 249 — Enacted in 2008. Required the former McClellan Joint Powers Authority to be subject to the state Open Meetings Act. Co-sponsored, by Reps. Randy Wood, Steve Hurst and Barbara Boyd.
HB848 — Enacted in 2007. Established a fee to pay for a mental health officer for Calhoun County. Co-sponsored by Reps. Steve Hurst, Barbara Boyd and Randy Wood.
— Source: Alabama Legislative Information System
Career timeline1980s — Opens first Lea & Mike's Discount Foods with Mike Sanders
1994 — Unsuccessfully challenges U.S. Rep. Glen Browder in Democratic primary.
1996 — Runs again, unsuccessfully, for Democratic nomination for Third Congressional District.
1998 — Elected to Calhoun County Commission.
2002 — Elected to Alabama House of Representatives.
2006 — Re-elected to Alabama House.