TAMPA — The answer to a recurring question for people old enough to remember has helped solve a legal mystery in the Tampa courts.
Where were you in November 1963 when John F. Kennedy was shot?
Retired Judge E.J. Salcines was just starting his legal career. He had occasion to mention that during a speech one day in October, setting in motion a series of events that gave meaning to an old, brown ledger book that happened to bear his signature and the date.
Stored at the Hillsborough Circuit Court Clerk’s Records Center on Falkenburg Road in Brandon, the ledger dates to 1872 and contains 100 well-preserved pages with signatures of many prominent figures in local history who at one time practiced law.
City founders, politicians, civil rights activists and legal giants all signed it. They include West Tampa’s founder Hugh Macfarlane; the county’s first Hispanic lawyer, Francis Robles; Tampa’s 44th mayor, Robert E. Lee Chancey; University of Florida Hall of Fame athlete J. Rex Farrior Sr.; Congressman Sam Gibbons; and civil rights leader Francisco A. Rodriguez Jr.
The ledger bears a title, Attorney’s Registry, Circuit Court. Hillsborough County. But what is it, wondered Pat Frank, circuit court clerk since 2004?
"I’d given up hope of knowing," Frank said.
She even has a personal connection to the ledger: Her late-husband Richard Frank signed it on July 18, 1962. She clearly remembers the address he wrote next to his name — 1212 Florida Ave. "It was real rinky dink."
She added with a laugh, "I was his secretary then."
But Tom Scherberger, director of communications for the clerk’s office and formerly with the Tampa Bay Times, was determined to discover the purpose of the ledger.
"I don’t like unanswered questions," Scherberger said.
So he reached out to people still alive who had signed the pages. None remembered adding their John Hancock. But a light bulb went off for Scherberger when he heard Salcines at a speaking engagement.
It was the day a statue was unveiled in the judge’s honor, Oct. 27. Salcines noted during his keynote speech at the Old Hillsborough County Courthouse that his legal career started the week Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas.
That struck a chord for Scherberger and he retrieved the ledger to find Salcines had signed the ledger on Nov. 22, 1963, the day of the assassination. The link jogged Salcines’ memory.
In November 1963, when he passed the Florida Bar Exam, he and 10 other new attorneys were invited to pick the brains of veteran legal minds. When Salcines arrived for that meeting, he learned it had been cancelled because of the assassination.
Before he left, he was asked to sign the book. He still can’t remember why exactly, but now he has a theory.
At the time, bar exams were administered county by county, not by the state of Florida. The ledger appears to be a registry proving eligibility to practice law.
The first to sign, in 1872, was Stephen Sparkman, later elected to Congress and the man who spearheaded funding to dredge Tampa Bay’s shipping channel.
Beginning in 1925, the State of Law Examiners administered the bar exam, and from 1956 on, it has been done by the Florida Board of Bar Examiners.
Still, the ledger continued to accumulate names through Jan., 31, 1989, when Stephen Leon provided the final signature. Leon, who passed the bar in 1989 and now works as a mediator, has no recollection of the ledger.
Salcines guessed "it had become a tradition," with veteran attorneys telling new ones they should head to the clerk’s office and put their name in the ledger.
In the final years, just a few names were added each year.
On Wednesday, while flipping through the ledger at the clerk’s office in downtown Tampa, Salcines came upon the name of infamous mob lawyer Frank Ragano and was transported back to Nov. 22, 1963.
Ragano was among those in the room that day to advise the legal novices.
After hearing of the assassination, Salcines introduced himself to Ragano and asked if the event would be rescheduled because of the tragedy.
"Why? What happened?" Ragano asked him.
"The president has been killed," replied Salcines.
"I was the one who told him the news," Salcines said.
Years later, Ragano would write in his memoir, Mob Lawyer, that Tampa mafia don Santo Trafficante Jr. admitted to being involved in the assassination.
"A bunch of bull," Salcines said. "But it sold him lot of books."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.