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
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
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.”
Eugene Pettis, far left 2nd row, and extended
family are honored by First Lady Nancy Reagan.
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.”
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