This month Miami-Dade formally named the new children’s courthouse after my father, Judge Seymour Gelber and his long-time fellow judge, Bill Gladstone.
For a decade as a state legislator, I had regularly asked my Dad if he would like the honor of having something named after him. But he always declined, declaring, “you don’t serve to get your name placed on a dog park!”
When I told him last yearthe county commission had voted to name the new children’s courthouse for his and his good friend, Gladstone, his response was “Well, I guess I can live with that.” He was deeply touched.
My father’s life and journey is an American journey.
When my Grandma Rose, the oldest of 7 children, first came to the United States from Austria at the turn of the century she was only 14. The 16-day trip in steerage was tough for a young girl, but she took her responsibility seriously. Her family had sent her here to scout the terrain and see whether America truly offered an alternative to the harassment and diminished opportunity that defined their lives in Eastern Europe.
When she returned a few years later – with her entire family in tow– the journey was again filled with peril as the Gelber clan huddled together. Great Uncle Max developed an eye infection at sea that would prevent his entry at Ellis Island. Older brother Jack remedied the situation by beating him horribly around his eyes before landing making it impossible for the port doctors to diagnose the illness.
The journey to America was not easy. Freedom never is.
My father grew up in theGreat Depression. As a kid, he lived with boarders in a small apartment, bed sheets hanging throughout in order to provide a semblance of privacy for the many families trying to get by. He always told us he had no idea he was wanting because his parents simply made their lives full of meaning notwithstanding the challenges. While his baseball and basketball prowess was legendary, his academic instincts were entirely forgettable.
He went into the Army Air Corps in 1941 (for $1 a day). The war taught him that no one is better than anyone else, and that bad things can only happen when good people do nothing.
After World War II ended he returned to the state he trained in because he liked sunshine, and possibilities seemed to abound here. The G.I. bill allowed him to attend Miami law school and, upon graduation, he began a near uninterrupted path of public service for 65 years: as a legislative aide in the Florida state senate in the 1950’s where he watched Florida struggle with integration; a Chief Assistant state attorney in a wild Miami; an Assistant Attorney General in Tallahassee; a Chief Judge in the Miami-Dade juvenile court; a mayor (of Miami Beach); and even a professor (he earned his PhD in the 1960’s at FSU).
He and my Mom, a career schoolteacher who passed a few years back and was his opposite in so many ways, were a great pair.
Dad still works 3 days a week as a senior judge at 94; has his own social life; and lives with his family surrounded by grandkids constantly under foot. He still wears only his signature bowties as he has since he was a young man.
At the naming ceremony last week he declared how wonderful it was that today children are no
longer an “afterthought” of the justice system but he also made clear, “this building is not a monument to me, or even to all the good people that work on behalf of children. It is a challenge to us to do better, to do more.”
In a lifetime of public service my father has never had even a whiff of scandal. And I’m proud to say that while he joined many battles, they were always over principle, on behalf of people that had no voice, and never against a weaker foe.
It’s fitting that Miami-Dade’s children’s courthouse bears his name. He administered justice
based on the simple principles he learned in his life’s journey: everybody is born equal; every child deserves a chance, and some a second chance; the best way to teach is by example; and try to do right every day and history will treat you kindly.