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Hooper: First black president of Florida Bar deserves noting

Eugene K. Pettis is the first African-American president of the Florida Bar.
Eugene K. Pettis is the first African-American president of the Florida Bar.
Published Sep. 25, 2013

Even in 2013, we're still noting milestone achievements by people of color, designating great achievers as the first black to gain a noteworthy position, the first Hispanic to earn a post or the first Asian-American to accomplish a feat.

Sometimes we in the media wonder, in the year 2013, should we herald such advancements?

Eugene Pettis makes a strong case that his status as the first black president of the Florida Bar deserves fanfare, not solely because of the achievement, but because he has a vision for the critical leadership role with tangible actions and achievable goals.

Pettis, co-founder of Haliczer, Pettis & Schwamm in Broward County, shared his vision during a speech at the George Edgecomb Bar Association's annual luncheon this week, and he challenged members to join him in seizing the opportunity.

"The success of these efforts start with you," Pettis told the crowd at the Tampa Club. "Gene was the first African-American president of the Florida Bar. That's not worth anything if we don't do more with that. If we don't do more with me having been the president of the Florida Bar, this is quickly going to be a footnote in history."

Pettis duly noted that he stands on the shoulders of predecessors who pushed for diversity long before the word became part of our everyday lexicon. Being in Tampa, he singled out long-time, prominent attorneys like Delano Stewart, Warren Dawson, State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, E.J. Salcines and William Reece Smith.

He pushed members of the predominantly African-American Edgecomb Bar to see beyond themselves and assume the mantle of these pioneering predecessors.

"They were committed to an outward view," Pettis said. "What can I do for mankind? Somehow, our generation has turned it around. And we've created an inward view, an inward view that really starts off with, 'What's in it for me?'

"We're on the top floors, we've got a window office but have we gotten too used to that now to have the edge to commit to the kind of change and leadership this community and every community across this state needs?"

Pettis, 53, joined the Bar in 1985 after graduating from the University of Florida's Levin College of Law. He's not the first to challenge the next generation, but I love that he's backing up the challenge with a specific approach to improvement. The Bar's William Reece Smith Leadership Academy is a priority.

The academy launched its inaugural class in June, specifically choosing attorneys that represent racial, age, gender, ethnic, geographical and practice-area diversity. It will focus on leadership, organizational and networking skills.

Another priority is Vision 2016, which will examine the practice of law, addressing issues such as technology, bar admissions and pro bono work. Pettis recognizes the legal profession must adopt to changing times.

He concluded by again insisting that every lawyer commit to new opportunities.

"In earlier years, advancement came strictly from the outside because they couldn't get inside," Pettis said. "Now that we're on the inside, we need to stand as one and make sure we make this profession and the Bar represent what we believe this country and these communities that we reside in represent."

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Pettis seems poised to deliver on the promise of his position and be so much more than a footnote. Being the first still means a lot, but being great means even more.

That's all I'm saying.


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