A historic turn

Story by Richard Goldstein
Photos by Elise Giordano (4JM)

Eugene K. Pettis (JD 85) cruises through downtown Fort Lauderdale in his Porsche Carrera, first listening to NPR then whistling along with a Maroon 5 song. It’s one of those South Florida winter days when the sun glistens off the surf and amps up the city’s primary colors.

Pettis just gave visitors an inside look at his legal practice in the heart of the business district. He is heading for the more modest stamping grounds of his youth. They’re in the same city, if different worlds.

As the 52-year-old president-elect of The Florida Bar observed: “People see you on top and think you’ve always been there.”

The man friends call “Gene” is about to climb on top. In June, he assumes the presidency of the bar. Expected to surpass 98,000 members by September, it is the nation’s second largest state bar. His plans include broadening participation in the bar — he says an outreach effort has resulted in a record number of applicants to serve on bar committees. He wants to deliver leadership skills to practitioners through a new leadership academy. And as president it is his solemn duty to police lawyers’ behavior, disciplining those who behave unethically.

Discipline and an action agenda are standard fare for new bar presidents. In another way, Pettis is different from all who came before him. Like most big organizations in the South, public or private, The Florida Bar was a segregated institution for much of its history.

The white, male lawyers were worried that requiring black lawyers to join the bar would mean they would be forced to socialize with them. The idea that a black person would be elected president of the organization was so outlandish it didn’t warrant a mention during the debate leading to making the bar mandatory for practitioners in 1950. The social taboo was broken only a few years before 1971, when Gene started going to newly integrated Fort Lauderdale schools. But until this June, a black person has never served as bar president.

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As he hinted, Gene was not born into a life of privilege. Until the age of 10, he slept on a foldout cot in his parents’ 8-foot-by-9-foot bedroom. He unfolded the cot next to their bed to sleep at night and folded it back up in the morning. The youngest of seven brothers and sisters, there just wasn’t enough room in their little house on the northwest side of Fort Lauderdale for a room of his own, he said. Among his siblings still livingat home, his four sisters slept in a single room and his brother slept on the couch.

As a young child, Gene accompanied their mother Sara Pettis to the condominiums just off the beach. During the season, Sara Pettis took care of the chores for the owner and her guests. Gene drives his Porsche to the front of the condominiums where his mother used to clean for snowbirds from Illinois. During the early years of his youth, blacks were forbidden from swimming in the surf that echoes off the sun-splashed stucco. They had to take a ferry to Dania Beach — the “colored beach.”

The boardwalk beach opened to everyone in response to pressure from civil rights advocates. Gene would appear in South-Florida Sun-Sentinel feature photos enjoying the water during the summer of 1969. Gene explained it was still noteworthy to see black people at the desegregated beaches.

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At the beginning of school desegregation, Gene remembers children spilling out of the bus slugging it out in racially charged fights. When he made it to middle school, the busing of children like him to what were previously whites-only schools was in full force but tempers had cooled.

Gene’s mother ended her job cleaning condos and turned to a career as a teacher’s aide at the local school. His father Cyrus Pettis, a Korean War veteran, was head waiter at a local cafeteria and later did maintenance in the post office. Sara Pettis died last year at 90, still living in the same house where Gene and his siblings grew up.

Sara was PTA president and was instrumental in the construction of Dillard High gymnasium, still one of the largest in the state. She was even more active in looking after the character of her sons and daughters. After a stunt on a middle school bus got him suspended from it, she told Gene he could walk the 7.8 miles from school to home. Gene said he took to the streets and bridges with his mother surreptitiously trailing in her car. She picked him up after she figured he had learned his lesson.

Sara Pettis traveled without fail to his basketball games and other school events; she also made sure he did chores, homework and he stood up straight. “I often told her I wish I was born to the family down the street who didn’t seem to have the same strict rules,” he said.

The Pettis neighborhood wasn’t the mean streets of Fort Lauderdale. The working-class houses are small but the yards and facades are tidy. On the other hand, when Gene goes to the Broward County Jail as part of his public service work, he is greeted from the holding cells.

“Gene! Gene Pettis!” shout the men who recognize him from the old neighborhood. Today, Gene and wife Sheila live in an exclusive gated community. Those inmates remind him that his life might have gone a different way without the guidance of his mother or love of family. The fact that he was not the model student “gives me some sensitivity,” Gene said. “You can’t give up on anybody.”

At the start of his freshman year in high school he got into two fights, and a coach told him that he would be suspended from school if he got into any more trouble. He shaped up and was elected prom king and two-time captain of the varsity basketball team. He was accepted to the University of Florida, and before he was finished there he would be named a member of the UF Hall of Fame. And, of course, he got himself into and through law school.

Jim Haliczer, Gene’s law firm partner, notes that all of the children of Cyrus and Sara Pettis went on to professional careers. Like Gene, several earned advanced degrees.

pettis-mother-3“I think it comes from his mother,” Haliczer said of Gene’s success. “He comes from a very close family that, despite financial hardship, had all the right spiritual stuff in place, the intangible things, the things money wouldn’t buy.”

Even the Reagan administration noticed. Nancy Reagan declared the Pettises a Great American Family in 1985 and invited them to the White House at the outset of Gene’s legal career. His mother and father made it possible for him to go to college and Gene strived to make sure that they got a return on their investment.

The university “took somebody who society would have looked at at one point and said there is no chance he will be a success and you turn him into somebody who’s going to be president of The Florida Bar,” Gene said. “There’s something that happened in between those two points and the biggest institutional thing we can look at is my seven years at the University of Florida.

“You get this world-class experience at UF and then you get into the doors of the law school and you enhance even more skills,” Gene said.

Gene has paid the university back and then some. Both his daughters go to the University of Florida where Shardè is an undergraduate and Shenele is a 1L at UF Law. Gene has donated his time as a member of the Law Center Association Board of Trustees. And he has donated or pledged nearly $1.2 million to the university. Some of his time volunteering for UF Law has included helping the law school improve its minority outreach. Encouraging minorities to go to law school and involving minority lawyers in bar activities are part of his mission to strengthen the legal establishment.

Haliczer Pettis & Schwamm occupies the seventh floor of the Regions Bank building in a cluster of other office towers looming over the Fort Lauderdale business district. The firm has 16 lawyers and another 35 staff, including a second office in Orlando.

First thing on Friday morning, lawyers, legal secretaries and expert consultants gather in the conference room. They are making sure that every hearing, deposition, lunch and conference call is covered and accounted for during the coming weeks. They are also discussing the status of cases, the likelihood for success and strategies for how to achieve it. They are diving into the guts of civil trial litigation: the aftermath of personal tragedies involving public institutions, corporations and individuals played out with lawyers in the courts.

Gene has also served as lead counsel on cases of national notoriety. He defended the Broward County School District when it was sued over the brain damage suffered by 15-year-old Josie Lou Ratley. She had teased a boy about the suicide of his brother by text message. The boy sought her out and stomped on her head just outside the property but still within sight of the Fort Lauderdale middle school.

Gene’s personal office is covered with art recalling the civil rights era, with pictures of his family, recognitions of his professional and philanthropic accomplishments as well as news stories about his life and career. On the wall facing his desk is a painting by Anthony Armstrong of a black boy wearing a suit standing in a doorway under the sign “To the Colored Waiting Room.”

“This painting depicts the life story of a black boy looking out in the world wondering why his life is limited to the pain of poverty, racism, drugs and crime,” Gene said.

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As an undergraduate at UF, Gene started out in pre-dentistry — the same field as his brother Cyrus. He soon discovered that his interests lay elsewhere. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science: he was chairman of Accent Speaker’s Bureau, a member of Florida Blue Key, president of the Black Student Union and treasurer of the student body. During law school he declined to run for student body president to stay on track in his courses and to concentrate on moot court, which, he said, honed his advocacy skills. It turns out that what his mother had always told him was true — his proclivity for debate led him to become a lawyer. In the courtroom, he often serves as the voice and face of his law firm.

During the summer of 1983, Gene tapped into the Gator Nation. He worked for fellow Fort Lauderdale lawyer and African-American pioneer, George Allen (JD 62). Gene figures he has benefited from the struggle of people like Allen — the first black person to graduate from UF Law or any University of Florida degree-granting college.

After graduation, Gene moved back to Fort Lauderdale to practice. He soon became the first black person to sit on the South Florida Water Management District, appointed in 1991 by Gov. Lawton Chiles (JD 55). In 1996, Haliczer and Pettis decided to build their own firm, and were later joined by partner Richard Schwamm. Gene was elected to The Florida Bar Board of Governors in 2005 and won election without opposition as president-elect in 2011.

His public schedule is filled with appearances before bar associations, business groups, legal conferences for high-risk youth — some held at UF Law. During commencement season he was in demand as a keynote speaker, including at UF Law’s commencement.

“Build your career on service to others and I will assure you from experience — I assure you — that it will enhance the quality of your own life,” he told the 2013 graduating class.

With his outgoing personality and energy for public service it’s easy to imagine Gene pursuing public office. Gene responds, not unpersuasively, that he can do more to serve the public as leader of the bar than he could as a Washington politician.

But what happens when his term as bar leader is done? As other UF Law graduates have, he could make his way in the American Bar Association. If he were to win the ABA presidency, he would add to the five UF Law alumni presidents since 1972, the most of any law school. Stephen N. Zack (JD 71) was the last UF Law graduate to hold that position in 2010-2011.

Gene said he has no intention of running for the presidency of the American Bar Association, although wife Sheila is not so sure. The Detroit native, who met her future husband in an elevator in the Broward County courthouse while working for the sheriff’s office, said Gene has been talking to a friend recently about future public service, so she’s sure there will be another chapter to this story.

“I always ask him, ‘What are you going to do after this?’ and he says, ‘Well, I’ll find something. There’s something out there,’” she said.