1. Archive

Dade City's roots spread to national associations


Consider these odds: two friends, both with roots in the same small town, both trained as lawyers and each expected to head one of the nation's largest professional associations _ in the same year, no less.

Hjalma E. Johnson, chairman of East Coast Bank Corp. of Dade City and one of Florida's most widely known community bankers, will be president of the American Bankers Association in 2000. Johnson, 63, is past president of the Florida Bankers Association.

Martha Barnett, a longtime corporate lawyer and lobbyist for Holland & Knight, Florida's largest law firm, is the sole candidate for president of the American Bar Association in 2000. Barnett, 50, is known for her pro-bono work on behalf of the victims of the 1923 Rosewood massacre.

The two, both well-connected Democrats, are good friends who share roots in Dade City, a tight-knit east Pasco community they credit for nurturing their successful careers.

"It is a remarkable coincidence that two people from a town of 3,500 would end up probably leading two of the largest professional associations in the country," Barnett said.

"It's really amazing to think about," Johnson added. "Even to have two people from the state . . . in the leadership group of the American Bar Association and the American Bankers Association in the same year would be highly unusual."

Banking wasn't Johnson's original career plan. A University of Florida engineering graduate, he joined Procter & Gamble as a sales engineer and later sold data processing services to banks for IBM.

While at IBM, he took night classes at the Birmingham School of Law. A professor on the board of a Birmingham bank encouraged him to consider banking. "He said, "If you'll come into banking and you don't like it, then you can catch the elevator up to the law office on the fifth floor and you can join my law firm.' I shook hands and that's how I got into banking."

Johnson, born in Bradenton, built his banking career at the Dade City-based Bank of Pasco, which he headed from 1971 to 1985 before selling it to First Union for $36-million. He now heads East Coast Bank Corp., a holding company for an Ormond Beach bank.

An affable and energetic man, Johnson is hard-nosed about lending. "When you lend money, whether it's to a city or a corporation, you need to be prepared to collect it." In 1975, he flew to New York City to collect a $1-million municipal bond as the city faced financial collapse. After much haggling with bankers at J.P. Morgan Guarantee Trust Co., Johnson got his money. "I said I'm not leaving the city of New York until the money is paid. They talked to the city comptroller and they paid the check."

Johnson's career hit a low point in 1988 when former directors of North Florida Bank Corp. of Madison County accused him of fraudulently attempting to alter records while he was the company's chairman. The suit was dropped after Johnson, who admitted to serious errors in accounting and legal procedures, agreed to sell his family's stake in the company.

Eager to "improve the profession," Johnson became active in the Florida and American bankers associations. As first vice president of the American Bankers Association, Johnson will automatically be president starting in October 1999. His goals: to lobby for legislation extending banks' financial services and to improve bank services in poor areas.

"I'm not surprised at all that Hjalma would wind up at the top of the banking world," said longtime friend George Neukom, a Zephyrhills citrus and cattle farmer. "He is a can-do fellow who gets things done."

Johnson, who owns a home and cattle ranch in Dade City, has known Barnett since she was a girl. He was close to her late father, Dr. William "Willie" Walters, a longtime family doctor in Dade City.

After Barnett left Dade City, she and Johnson found themselves in the same political circles in Tallahassee and Washington. They both attended President Clinton's inaugural ball in January.

"I think she is an outstanding credit to her family, to her friends and to her community," he said.

"I've already talked to him about how there's a natural bond that we have, and we should use our positions to do some joint endeavors," Barnett said.

In 1973, Barnett joined Holland & Knight, becoming its first female lawyer. Representing clients in the phosphate industry, she became a partner six years later. "She has been a great leader of the firm," said senior partner Chesterfield Smith, citing her promotion of women's equality at the firm and her Rosewood work.

Barnett led the effort to win legislative reparations for victims of the 1923 Rosewood massacre and their descendants. Many survivors of the rampage against the small black community fled to Lacoochee, near Dade City, and became patients of Barnett's father. "A case like this is every lawyer's dream," said Barnett, who was born in Lacoochee. "It reminded me all the time of why I went to law school."

Bob Sumner, a Dade City lawyer and friend, says Barnett embodies her father's ideals. "When you get into a large law firm and make lots of money, and you are in a very high position, quite often people sit back and lose sight of the important things in life," he said.

Barnett has been active in the American Bar Association for 10 years. She was the first woman to head the bar association's House of Delegates, a key policymaking group, and she is expected to become the second woman ever to head the association, which has 380,000 members.

If elected, she hopes to work on restoring public confidence in the legal profession, improving race relations and fighting for an independent judiciary.

Though Barnett lives in Tallahassee, she keeps ties to Dade City. "It was a wonderful nurturing community for me," she said. "When I left Dade City I did not realize that I was a little fish in a little pond. I thought I could do anything in the world."

Martha W. Barnett

AGE: 50

TITLE: Lobbyist and partner in the law firm of Holland & Knight.

CAREER: Holland & Knight's first female attorney and partner, specializing in administrative and governmental law. Past chair of the House of Delegates for the American Bar Association; sole candidate for Bar president in 2000. Helped win legislative reparations for victims of the Rosewood massacre and their descendants.

ROOTS: Raised in Dade City, where her late father, Dr. William Walters, was a respected family doctor. Barnett and her husband, Richard, have two children and live in Tallahassee.

Hjalma E. Johnson

AGE: 63

TITLE: Chairman of East Coast Bank Corp.; president of Investment Advisors Inc., both of Dade City.

CAREER: Built his reputation as chairman of the Bank of Pasco, 1971-85. Past president of the Florida Bankers Association. Currently first vice president of the American Bankers Association; will be its president in 2000.

ROOTS: Moved to Dade City in 1970. Family friends of Barnett and her late father. He and his wife, Laura, have one son and live in Dade City.