Robert E. Beach never thought he’d be a lawyer, much less a judge.
Raised in southern California by a single mother during the Great Depression, he moved to Florida in the early 1950s and worked as a bartender to put himself through college and then law school.
In 1959, he landed his first job as a personal injury lawyer. A decade later, he was appointed to the Pinellas-Pasco circuit bench.
Fast forward to 2018, and the 87-year-old is one of the longest serving judges in Florida.
On a recent afternoon at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, where Beach served drinks in his bartending days, the judge sat in a plush leather chair and reflected on his 50-year judicial career, punctuated by his passions for swimming and exploring the world.
"I’ve enjoyed every minute of it and it was a great way to spend my life. I didn’t expect it when I was young. I had no idea," Beach said. "I’m just happy I got here."
• • •
Growing up, Beach led a nomadic life with his mother, living all over the West Coast in rooming houses, tents, apartments — even their car.
"We had no money," Beach said. "But my mother loved to travel."
He ventured out on his own at 16 and found he could make a living as a bartender, working in California and later in Las Vegas. But by his early 20s, Beach felt he was partying too much. He needed direction.
So he moved across the country, settling in Florida for its sunshine.
By day, he was an English student at the University of Tampa. At night, he served drinks at the now-defunct strip joint Chesterfield Show Bar in Tampa.
After graduation, a friend encouraged him to get a law degree. Beach was accepted at the Stetson University College of Law and took up some shifts at a St. Pete Beach bar and the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.
He passed the Florida Bar exam in 1958 and later worked for a St. Petersburg law office for nine years, taking on personal injury cases. He also dabbled in politics, serving as the Pinellas County campaign chairman for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, who was defeated by Lyndon B. Johnson.
When two judge vacancies opened up in 1967 on the Pinellas-Pasco circuit, Beach decided to apply.
"As a lawyer, I was working seven days a week coming to work early in the morning, working late in the evenings," he said. "I had little, if any, time for my family and I would say I just got burned out."
In January 1968, he was appointed by then-Gov. Claude R. Kirk.
"I only hope," Beach told the Tampa Bay Times at the time, "I can do as good a job as the judges now serving on the bench."
• • •
Beach has presided over every kind of case. Early in his judgeship, he was nicknamed the "marrying judge" because he wed 40 to 50 couples a year. He still chuckles when he remembers a bride in a fur coat who insisted on being married outside the courthouse, on a bridge above a pond.
She lost her footing and fell into the water, pulling the groom in with her.
Beach also served as chief judge, criminal administrator and civil administrator. But above all, he enjoyed his time in the criminal division.
"I loved having the lawyers bring these challenging issues, questions to me and I loved the arguments and the trials and making the decisions," he said.
Among his most high-profile cases: the trial of Raymond Robert Clark, charged with the 1977 kidnapping and shooting death of a 49-year-old businessman. The case was tried by Bernie McCabe, now the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney, and the late Susan F. Schaeffer, who was the public defender on the case and eventually became a circuit judge.
Clark died in the electric chair in 1990.
"Back in that day, that was a pretty sensational trial," McCabe said, adding, "Judge Beach was probably one of the best trial judges I ever appeared before."
What set Beach apart, he added, was his patience and decisiveness.
"I think most of us practicing before him knew once he made up his mind, it was time for you to shut up and move on," McCabe said.
Beach also made a shift in his lifestyle while on the bench. At age 37, he quit smoking and took on swimming. He’s now highly regarded in the realm of Masters Swimming. When he was 50 years old, Beach tried to swim the English Channel and was just 2 miles away from reaching the French shore.
Last July for his 87th birthday, Beach swam the 1.25-mile distance from Alcatraz to San Francisco.
Swimming wasn’t just good for his health. It provided the judge with a sanctuary to mull over challenging court rulings.
"If I had a very difficult case that required a lot of thought to it, I could think about it as I was swimming without any interruption and come to a decision," Beach said.
Outside of the courtroom, he mentored aspiring lawyers. In the early 1970s, he met Pamela A.M. Campbell, now a Pinellas circuit judge. At the time, she worked for the clerk’s office delivering mail to judges. Beach urged her to go to college and to take jobs in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.
"He was always the one that was encouraging me to take on new challenges," Campbell said.
What makes him unique, she added, "is that he lived such a hard, humble background" that helps him relate to anyone who appears before him in court.
On Dec. 31, 1993, Beach retired as a full-time judge. The next day, he was enrolled in the senior judge roster so he could fill in for judges across the state. He’s been doing that for 25 years, making him Florida’s longest-serving senior judge.
He swings by Campbell’s office occasionally to talk to her interns, bestowing the same advice he gave her decades earlier: Accept challenges. Take risks. Stay humble.
• • •
Beach’s time on the bench is coming to a close. Every three years, senior judges must get recertified to stay on the roster. Beach is up for renewal this year, but plans to let it expire.
"At my age, why not end it?" he said. "I’m not getting that much work anyway."
Twice divorced, he wants to spend more time with his four children, four grandchildren and four great-grand children. He’d like to do more traveling in the United States and continue going to swim meets. He’s visited about 125 countries, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. This year, he’s going to Albania, the only European nation that’s still on his list.
He’s planning a road trip to California in a used Chevrolet van that he’s outfitting with a mattress.
It’ll be like his childhood, vagabonding through the west with nothing but the road ahead.
Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] Follow @lauracmorel.