Tampa Judge Ralph Steinberg thought of the word “judge” as a verb, not a noun.
“It’s not something I wanted to be,” he told the Tampa Tribune in 2000 as he prepared to retire. “It’s something I wanted to do.”
Steinberg was appointed a Hillsborough County court judge in 1977. He then became a circuit court judge until his retirement in 2000, and he served as a senior judge until 2015.
A better title for the judge might have been Patient Listener Steinberg. Or Good-Natured Steinberg. Or even Magic Tricks Steinberg.
He showed his peers how to treat people, said Hillsborough County Judge Elizabeth Rice.
“For me, Judge Steinberg was just the model of this judge who had this wonderful temperament,” she said.
It wasn’t a career he always wanted. But it was a career he wanted to use to make the world a little better.
Steinberg died Aug. 2 at 92 of natural causes.
Steinberg grew up in New Jersey, raised by his mother after his father died when he was 6 years old. He found more family in baseball. When the left-handed pitcher was recruited to try out for the Cincinnati Reds, who trained in Tampa, his mother had other plans.
“Her goal was for him to stay in New Jersey and work in the furniture store,” said son Michael Steinberg.
But the young pitcher wasn’t deterred.
“So he got on a potato truck and he hitched a ride from New Jersey to Georgia and then made his way down to Tampa,” Michael Steinberg said.
Once here, Steinberg enrolled in the University of Tampa, and played for the minor leagues. After getting his degree, he joined the Army during the Korean War. He then used the GI Bill to attend Stetson University College of Law. In 1959, he was admitted to the bar.
During that time, Steinberg met and married Marlene, and the couple had Michael, Joanne and Susan. After less than 20 years practicing law, Steinberg was appointed a judge.
Throughout much of his career, he also coached boys youth baseball.
“And they know him as coach, not judge,” Michael Steinberg said. “He was like a second father to a lot of these guys.”
Planning your weekend?
Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Laughter in the court
Steinberg, who also mentored lawyers and was a member of Congregation Rodeph Sholom synagogue, had the title of judge for nearly half his life. It was work he took seriously. During his career, Steinberg advocated for a family law division for divorce and custody cases, the Tampa Tribune reported in 2000, and he championed mediation.
And if he could make people laugh, even better. Steinberg was known for magic tricks and practical jokes.
“He was just always such a delight to be around,” Rice said.
Until his death, Michael Steinberg and Susan Steinberg Sandler, both lawyers, often heard the same thing from judges, clerks and other lawyers.
“How’s your dad?”
People remembered how he treated them.
“He believed that everyone should be treated fairly,” Steinberg Sandler said.
It didn’t matter who someone was or what they’d done to end up in front of the judge.
“Nobody’s position was less in his eyes,” Steinberg Sandler said. “Everyone deserved to have their voice heard.”
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.