From PRIME, a special edition of City & Shore Magazine
By Eric Barton
Eugene Pettis’ daughters were 13 and 8 when they knocked on the door of a home in northwest Fort Lauderdale. They were just a half mile from where their father grew up, yet they had never seen what they did when the door opened.
It was Christmas Eve. Pettis and his family had signed up to buy presents for the kids who lived there. All seven of them.
The woman who answered the door had a baby on her hip and other youngsters scrambling around her feet. The oldest was 7. Pettis and his daughters distributed the gifts, and then they noticed something missing from the sad picture.
“There was not a scintilla of Christmas around the house,” recalls Pettis, 54. “Not a light or a tree or one single present. They were just not going to have a Christmas that year.”
As Pettis drove away, he noticed his daughters crying. He stopped the car.
“I want you to remember there are those not as fortunate as you are,” he told them. “I want this to be a defining moment in your life when you realize this.”
For Pettis, he didn’t need a reminder, having strong members of the suffering he and others endured during the desegregation of Fort Lauderdale. His story, especially the part about the horrible beating he took, is one he tells as a reminder of what it used to be like.
There’s also a lesson in his story about hard work equaling success. Pettis is now a sought-after trial attorney and served this past year as the first African-American president of the Florida Bar, achievements that might have seemed impossible when Pettis was a kid.
He was the youngest of seven children raised by a mother who worked as a maid for a family in Fort Lauderdale and a dad who waited tables at the Polly Davis Cafeteria in town. He didn’t realize he was poor. When he put a piece of cardboard in his shoe because the sole had worn out, Pettis figured everybody did that.
In sixth grade in 1972, two white teachers hauled Pettis into the office at Sunland Park Elementary for “horseplaying.” They beat him – by his count 67 times – with a leather strap until they were out of breath. It was then Pettis realized what it meant to be from “Black Town.”
“This was a tense time in desegregation in Fort Lauderdale,” he says. “It wasn’t a great time.”
It wasn’t much better a year later when he was bused to Rogers Middle School.
“They called me all manner of names when I got off that bus,” Pettis says. “I responded by fighting. I fought my way through it.”
One of his coaches called him aside during his first two weeks at Stranahan High. He told Pettis he’d be suspended if he fought again, and right there, Pettis decided he’d better try something new. “So many people talk about how a kid just needs one person to care, and right there was mine.”
He redirected that fight energy into studying and basketball, becoming the team’s captain. Things really changed for Pettis when he enrolled at the University of Florida.
“Gene was the guy you wanted to be around,” says Earl Hall, a lawyer in Fort Lauderdale. Hall became a little brother to Pettis in their fraternity and then followed Pettis into UF’s law school. “He was the guy on campus who everybody knew would go on to be something important.”
Not many firms in Florida were hiring black lawyers when Pettis graduated, but Conrad & Scherer brought Pettis back to his hometown with the promise of a job. In 1996, Pettis and Jim Haliczer founded their own firm, now called Haliczer Pettis & Schwamm.
As a trial lawyer, Pettis has a way showing juries that he’s the nicest guy in the room, says fellow attorney Jay Cohen. Pettis and Cohen met 20 years ago when representing different sides in a case that lasted four and a half months. Cohen says he learned just how hard Pettis worked and how nice he could be.
“While Gene came from tough beginnings, he also came from a very strong family,” Cohen says. “What you see in Gene is the result of a wonderful mother and father.”
Pettis tells his story regularly now, including earlier this year to an elementary-school class and in his commencement address at Broward College. During that speech, Pettis told the graduates to imagine they were on a ladder about to begin the ascent. He urged them to picture taking their dominant hand and reaching back, pulling up someone who needs help.
“Since that commencement that story has been told so many times by people who don’t even know Gene,” says Nancy Botero, vice president at Broward College and a UF classmate of Pettis. “There’s such amazing symbolism in it.”
Of Pettis, she adds: “He is the ultimate gentleman. He’s the kind of guy who reminds you that smart people don’t have to flex their muscles.”
Pettis’ daughters, now 24 and 19, are both at UF, one in law school and the other an undergraduate. He says that long-ago Christmas Eve affected them – and him – just as he hoped it would.
“When I was younger, I thought success depended on where you were born,” he says. “But I’ve seen kids from the most horrific backgrounds break the cycle. They do it because they’re given the chance to succeed.”