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Longtime Pasco Circuit judge with 'zest for life' dies at 78

Ray E. "Gene" Ulmer Jr., who spent nearly four decades as a Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Court judge, died March 7. He was 78. (Courtesy Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Court)
Ray E. "Gene" Ulmer Jr., who spent nearly four decades as a Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Court judge, died March 7. He was 78. (Courtesy Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Court)
Published Apr. 3, 2018

WESLEY CHAPEL — Ray E. "Gene" Ulmer Jr., whose nearly four decades as a Pasco-Pinellas Circuit judge made him a fixture in the court, died March 7. He was 78.

Judge Ulmer was known for his practical jokes, the wisdom he dished out in court, and later, for painting murals in the children's waiting area at the Circuit Court in Dade City. He also sent four men to death row.

After 36 years, Judge Ulmer retired from the bench in 2010 as the longest-serving circuit court judge in Florida, according to a proclamation by the Pasco-Pinellas Court at his retirement.

A Clearwater native, Judge Ulmer lived in Dade City at the time of his death. He and Becky Ulmer celebrated their second marriage anniversary in February.

"I just miss him terribly," Becky Ulmer said. "I'm sad that everyone is so sad of his passing, but it shows me that he was loved by so many people."

Judge Ulmer followed a family tradition of judicial service when he was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1963, the same year he graduated from Stetson University's law school. He practiced law and worked part-time as an assistant state attorney until 1974, when Gov. Reubin Askew appointed him to the Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Court. He was 34.

Judge Ulmer came from one of the pioneer families of Pinellas County, where a road was named after them — Ulmerton Road, according to Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Judge Raymond Gross.

"The Ulmer name touched so much," said Gross. Judge Ulmer's father, Ray Ulmer, was long-time judge in Pinellas County.

But the younger Ulmer made his mark, too.

"He was a notorious practical joker," Gross said, "and if you left your office unguarded, you were likely to find some fake dead animal."

In Pasco County, Judge Ulmer presided over all divisions of courts, and was administrative judge for four years. He served in the criminal, civil, family law, juvenile dependency, probate and guardianship, and unified family court divisions. He was chief judge from 1993 to 1995.

"Whatever courthouse he was in, he would leave his touch there," Gross said. "He just had a real zest for life."

He was known for making attorneys chuckle, said Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Judge Robert Beach, and for spreading words of wisdom in court.

"He was a person that you looked forward to seeing, and I wish we had more people like him," Beach said. "He will be sorely missed."

Judge Ulmer sent four men to death row. In all four cases, the conviction or sentence was overturned. He told a reporter years later he was fine with that. Judge Ulmer changed one of the sentences himself to life in prison after defense attorneys presented new evidence.

Pasco County jail inmates once dubbed him "Raiford Ray," an homage to the Raiford state prison, for handing out maximum sentences for jail escapees. Eventually, he returned part-time as a Pasco-Pinellas Circuit judge.

"(Ulmer) had a great sense of justice," said Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper.

"He was not a complainer, he was a do-er," Tepper said. She knew him for more than 30 years. "He had the temperament that we all wished we had."

Outside court, Judge Ulmer painted, hunted, fished, studied karate, was a licensed charter boat captain and a licensed emergency medical technician. He was an adjunct faculty member at two local colleges, and loved art and music.

He was predeceased by his son, Ray E. "Trey" Ulmer III. He is survived by his wife, Becky Ulmer and his stepchildren from that marriage, Luanne Burns Thorpe and John Roger Burns; two other stepchildren, Michael Ballou and Lana Ballou Parker; and his daughter, Melinda Hauser.

Contact TyLisa C. Johnson at