20 SUPERLAWYERS.COM A T TORNE YS SELEC TED TO SUPER LA WYERS WERE CHOSEN IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE PROCESS ON PAGE 26.
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.
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
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
ABOVE: Gene Pettis in his sixth-grade
RIGHT: Tenth-grader Pettis played
football on the Stranahan High School
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
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.”