Eugene Pettis’ plan to lift others up the ladder
Published in 2017 Florida Super Lawyers Magazine on June 7, 2017
Through his office window, Eugene Pettis looks out over a changing downtown Fort Lauderdale skyline.
There’s a metaphor in that evolving view. Pettis grew up not too far from where his office is now, in what he remembers was then called the “colored” part of town. Black attorneys were a rarity at that time. No African-American had served on the board of the South Florida Water Management District, or in the University of Florida’s student government, and none had been president of the Florida Bar.
“I believe that my purpose here is to help pull some of the resources of this community together to truly make it a better place,” he says.
Pettis has a deep, resonant voice, the lanky grace of a former basketball player, and a way with people. He established the Pettis Family Endowed Scholarship for low-income students at Broward College, helped develop a mentorship program for black students transitioning into college, and helped fund scholarships at local high schools. Now he’s working with school, church and community leaders to establish a Community Education Alliance to improve the reading skills of underprivileged kids. He wants the community to “stop sitting on the sidelines observing these kids continue to fail.”
Helping others succeed for the greater good has been Pettis’ mantra, and mission, for most of his life.
Ever since he stopped fighting.
Gene Pettis grew up poor. The youngest of seven children, he put cardboard in his shoes to cover the holes. He thought that was what everybody did. His mother worked as a maid and, later, a teacher’s aide. His father was a cafeteria worker, then a maintenance man for the post office. They taught Pettis to be determined, overcome obstacles, and stand up for what was right.
As a boy, Pettis had a speech impediment. He tacked a “k” on the front of his words. Neighbor kids would ask him to talk and laugh at him. At school, he was told he couldn’t get speech therapy until second grade. But his first-grade teacher insisted he needed help, so his mother took charge. “She sat with me every night,” he recalls, “as I read from those green and beige books,” repeating every word until the “k” disappeared.
Determination, check. Overcoming obstacles, check. Then in sixth grade, he got a hard lesson in standing up for what’s right.
Two white teachers caught him running in the cafeteria, and took him to the office, where the P.E. coach pulled out a leather strop. They made Pettis pull down his pants and bend over. Then a classroom teacher whipped him. And whipped him. Until he could barely stand.
When Pettis’ mother found out, she confronted school officials. The teacher insisted he had hit Pettis only three times. But there was a witness—a girl behind a curtain at the school clinic who’d counted 67 blows. The teacher was fired; the coach suspended.
“I think a very important lesson in all of that horror was: Stand up against what's wrong,” Pettis says. “I don't care who you are or who is on the other side.”
At the time, though, he responded by rebelling. It was 1972, a racially tense time in Florida. He fought, he says, “anybody and everybody.” In his first few weeks of high school, a coach told him he’d be suspended if he didn’t stop.
A light bulb went on, and Pettis channeled his energy into busting barriers rather than heads. He became captain of the basketball team, and president and co-founder of the Horizon Club, the school’s first inclusive service club.
Service. Leadership. Teamwork. Check.
At the University of Florida, he planned on becoming a dentist like his older brother. Calculus changed his mind. “You’ve got to deal with the skills that God gave you,” he says, “and calculus and all of that was not my strength.”
Meanwhile, he had joined UF’s black student government, and was president of the black student union in his freshman year. “I saw two separate communities: black students and the rest of the university,” he says. “I wanted to change that.” So he got $50,000 from administration to fund events for greater black engagement. Then he aimed higher. He ran for the university-wide student government and became UF’s first African-American student government treasurer.
Willowstine Lawson, now regional director for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, met Pettis at college, and worked with him to change the school environment.
“There was a lot of adversity to deal with in Gainesville, on the University of Florida campus,” she says, “and I don’t think Gene stopped at any moment to be fearful of things that we may have had to go through.”
Earl Hall, co-founder of a firm a few miles from Pettis’ office, knew him at UF, too. “Eugene is very focused,” Hall says. “He’s a person willing to dedicate the time and effort for the betterment of all.”
When Pettis graduated from law school, he returned to his hometown. But he was told more than once he would be a firm’s first black hire and asked, “How do you feel about that?”
He would turn the question back on the interviewer: “How do you feel about that?”
By the time he sat down for an interview at Conrad, Scherer and James, he had had enough.
“I said, ‘Whether you hire me or not, I'm going to be a successful lawyer in this town,” he says. “One of the partners who was there, Gordon James, told me years later, ‘Gene, when you said that, I believed you.’”
At Conrad, Pettis came in determined to “work my tail off.” The chance to do so came sooner than expected. Rex Conrad asked him to assist in a medical malpractice case, a practice area he hadn’t been taught in law school. “That’s where they needed me,” Pettis says. “And I got in there and I learned it.”
He spent the next 16 years on the defense side of personal injury and medical malpractice cases, before expanding to work on both the plaintiff and defense sides in employment law, commercial litigation and professional liability.
After Conrad retired, Pettis teamed with firm colleague James Haliczer to co-found what is now Haliczer, Pettis & Schwamm, with offices in Fort Lauderdale and Orlando. Meantime, then-Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed him to the South Florida Water Management District’s governing board.
When he got a call asking if he was interested, Pettis recalls with a chuckle, “I said, ‘What’s the Water Management District?’” He found out—and spent eight years there, eventually becoming vice chairman.
Then, in 2005, he was elected to the state Bar’s board of governors. “There was very little diversity on the board when I got there,” he says. “Now I think people are getting engaged in the Bar from nontraditional areas. People are running [for the board] from the public sector. People are running from sectors that were not participating back in 2005.”
Eight years later, he was elected president of the Florida Bar, unopposed. Tampa attorney Renee Thompson says his legacy goes far beyond that.
Pettis created the Bar’s Wm. Reece Smith, Jr. Leadership Academy, and picked Thompson to head it. Its mission: Train young attorneys from different backgrounds to take the reins in their communities, in the Bar and on the bench.
“Gene is visionary. He sees the future ahead and always has,” she says. “He decided that he needed to spend his time cultivating this group of leaders so that when he left, he was entrusting the Bar’s future in good hands.”
Pettis says, “We are on the path, but you don’t turn around 100 years of history in a 10-year effort. We have a long way to go, and we need to continue to do it in a way that doesn’t encroach on anybody else’s opportunities but opens the door for any and all people who want to advance in the profession, and any and all people who want to make the community better.”
Pettis is focusing now on making a difference in his hometown, in schools and at his church, New Mount Olive Baptist, where he also serves as general counsel.
“As much as he’s a person who can lift you up, he challenges you to be better,” says his pastor, Marcus Davidson. An example was Pettis’ speech at this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast, Davidson says. “He basically said we can’t be at the same place next year, being satisfied with breakfasts and parades, and not making a difference in people’s lives.”
Pettis recalls the speech with a smile. Sitting at a small conference table in his office, he faces a wall of shelves filled with memorabilia from his alma mater, and plaques and trophies recognizing his community and Bar service. He pulls one off the shelf, a freeform statuette he presented to members of the Bar’s board of governors when he stepped down as president. It shows a silhouetted figure climbing a ladder and reaching back down to help another climb up. The quotation, written by Pettis, reads: “The true essence of life is lifting others to the table of opportunity.”
“That captures what I think it's all about,” says Pettis. “I don’t think any accomplishment is worth anything if I pull the ladder up behind me.”
Eugene Pettis’ parents, Cyrus and Sara Pettis, taught their children that hard work and strong values pay off. They scraped by on as little as $25 a week, and pushed their kids to go to college. All seven did.
In 1985, the White House picked the Pettises as a “Great American Family,” one of only nine selected and whisked to Washington, D.C., to meet with then-First Lady Nancy Reagan.
“I can’t think of a more deserving recognition for my parents, who sacrificed so willingly for their seven children to have a world of opportunity,” says Pettis. “Every day I live I realize even more: I am because of their love.”