For Mark Shames, being a judge meant more than just handling cases. It meant a responsibility to better the community. It meant educating new judges and young lawyers. It meant preaching values of honor and integrity to all who embark on a life of public service.
It also meant being humble. When asked what he did for a living, Shames, who spent 21 years as a circuit judge in Pinellas County, would often reply, “I’m a lawyer.”
“Whether you were the police chief or whether you were someone he passed in the hallway or rode with in the elevator, he treated every single person with dignity and respect,” said his daughter, Megan Ford.
Judge Shames died Thursday at his home in St. Petersburg after a bout with cancer. He was 69.
He retired from the bench a little more than two years ago, capping a legal career that spanned four decades.
He was born in Floral Park, N.Y., and grew up in Westfield, N.J. He earned a bachelor’s degree in religion from Gettysburg College, where he met his wife, Barbara. They were married for 48 years.
They came to Florida in 1973 after Shames was accepted to Stetson University College of Law. He earned a degree there in 1976 and began a general law practice.
Those who knew him best remarked at the diversity in his friendships.
“He could relate to people of all backgrounds,” said Judge Pamela Campbell. “He was quite an inclusive person. And that enhanced his ability to be a good judge.”
One of his closest friends was Goliath Davis, the former St. Petersburg police chief. They met in a Leadership St. Pete program not long after Shames began his law practice. He would later represent Davis in a number of legal matters.
“He was my white brother and I was his Black brother,” Davis said. “Even during my controversies I could always count on Mark to defend me and see the righteousness in what I was trying to do.”
Shames was elected to the circuit bench in 1996. He was one of the few judges who spent time in all four divisions — criminal, civil, family law and probate. He also was known for his humor.
He sometimes kept a coffee mug on the bench that bore the text: “Feel free to get to the point.”
“Knowing him as a person and seeing him on the bench, Mark didn’t change,” said St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway, another longtime friend. “He was going to give the best answer. ... He was one of those judges who really called balls and strikes.”
In an email to court personnel Thursday, Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Anthony Rondolino recalled the 15 years he worked with Shames in the St. Petersburg courthouse.
“For much of that time he and I would rotate between civil and family assignments, taking each other’s section when we rotated,” Rondolino wrote. “It was great to have a ‘partner’ who would leave you a caseload that was current and well cared for and whose decisions could be relied upon.”
For the bulk of a decade, Shames was involved in the Florida Judicial College, an intensive program that trains new judges from throughout the state. He served as dean of the college from 2013 to 2015.
“Every new judge, for nine years, Mark had a direct influence on them,” said fellow Circuit Judge Jack Helinger.
Shames and Helinger met in law school and remained friends throughout their careers. Helinger considered him a mentor.
“There are moments for any judge that are challenging beyond belief,” Helinger said. “And he was a mentor to me when I had some of those challenging moments. ... His calmness and understanding of the situation would help me tremendously.”
Judge Shames was also known for his support for law enforcement. In recent years, he became the judge that would administer oaths to new St. Petersburg police officers. He always prefaced the ceremony with words about the importance of the job, and of having integrity.
Of the more than 500 people in the department, Chief Holloway guessed that Shames swore in more than half of them.
Last year, the department created the Mark I. Shames Rookie of the Year Award, which is given to new officers of distinction.
Among his many other civic activities, Shames served on the police department’s citizen’s review board, the St. Petersburg Planning Commission and the St. Petersburg Historic Preservation Commission. He was also a president of the St. Petersburg Bar Association.
In his personal time, he fished the waters of Tampa Bay, and enjoyed the outdoors around in the mountains of North Carolina. When he and his wife took a trip to Italy, he took it as an opportunity to learn to speak Italian.
He had planned for a long retirement. His cancer diagnosis came suddenly. But even in his final days, friends were struck by his upbeat attitude, and the grace with which he handled his illness.
“In a very subtle way,” Helinger said, “he was really helping us.”
Mark Irwin Shames
Born: Feb. 11, 1951
Died: July 9, 2020
Survivors: wife Barbara Shames, mother Reba Shames, sister Amy Luger, daughters Megan Ford and Elizabeth Reiss, four grandchildren.
Services: The family will hold a celebration of life at a date to be determined.