The Gelber-Gladstone Children’s Courthouse is Named

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.

Congratulations Dad.

UPDATE: Travis Makes the Grade(s)…Happy Holidays

Last year at this time I updated you about the journey of my little brother, Travis Thomas. Travis had been abandoned at birth and was being raised by his great aunt when Big Brothers&Sisters matched us together 25 years ago.

For his entire life, Travis lived in one of Miami’s more impoverished neighborhoods. Few kids seemed to make it out, and the well-known success stories appeared limited to those who became professional athletes.

Unwilling to accept a future he didn’t want, a few years ago Travis charted his own way out. With the support of his wife (and a baby on the way) he returned to school to make his claim on the American Dream. After proving himself at Miami-Dade College and then at Nova University, he graduated with honors and declared he wanted to be a dentist.

When he took his dental school admissions test, Travis scored among the highest students in the nation.

Last December he was admitted to dental schools all over the country but chose the dental school at Tufts University which awarded him a generous academic scholarship to help defray some of the huge costs of attendance. I was especially proud being a Tufts undergraduate myself.

So a few months ago, we moved Travis, his wife Wilsa and their 4 year-old child Travis Jr., to Boston to bear the cold and ice, and to follow their dream in this amazing adventure. Many friends pitched in to help the Thomas’ through generous donations of winter clothing, appliances and money and, of course, heartfelt words of encouragement.

While I should no longer wonder about how Travis will perform, Joan and I were still a little nervous when first semester grades came out this week.

How would Travis compare to the finest dental students in the nation?

Well, Travis’ first semester grades are in and he didn’t disappoint. All A’s and a couple B’s, including an A in the dreaded gross anatomy course.

Time to exhale. Couldn’t be more proud of Travis and Wilsa.

Happy holidays to all!

Richard Sharpstein

Famed Miami defense lawyer Richard Sharpstein died yesterday. It was a great loss to his family, the legal profession and our community. Like many, I felt like I was a friend of Richard’s because he made so, so many people feel that way. He was clever, brilliant, insightful and, always, an original. As a federal prosecutor I regularly crossed swords with him, once on the high-profile Mercado case where he represented one of the police officers we prosecuted. Even as adversaries he was always a class act.

Richard was an amazing lawyer, in part, because more than most he intuitively grasped where the jury was in a case. He understood the signals and clues that people project. It made him a wildly successful lawyer, and an equally popular friend.

On a personal level he was also very compassionate. Years ago he stepped into the life of my nephew Josh who was a friend of his own son, Michael. Josh had recently lost his father and brother to cancer. Josh wrote on his Facebook page yesterday: “In some of the most difficult moments of my childhood, he was always a bastion of kindness, empathy, and humor. His house was a sanctuary and second home for me”

On a few occasions I had the pleasure of watching him and his buddy Robert Hertzberg on one of their regular outings to the Miami Jewish Home for the Aged where they would regale the elderly residents with an authentic “Borscht Belt” routine. Richard’s instinctive comedic timing had them rolling in their walkers. His marvelous smile revealing a connection that was always personal and special.

Sometimes it’s difficult to separate someone’s death from their life. For me, I choose to remember his life. Richard was kind, and funny, and easy – so Sharpie please rest in peace.

My Dad, Mandela and a lesson in leadership

My Dad, Seymour Gelber, was elected Mayor of Miami Beach in 1991, in the midst of a national tourism boycott of Miami-Dade County. It was sparked by the refusal of municipalities across Miami-Dade to honor Mandela during his visit here after his release from 27 years in South African prisons.

During Mandela’s imprisonment Yasser Arafat and Fidel Castro had made statements of support of Mandela, and when Mandela acknowledged them publicly, Cubans and Jews in South Florida were offended.

So when Mandela visited, city commissions across the county refused to honor Mandela by granting the traditional proclamations awarded to virtually anyone. This snub sparked a well-organized (and well-deserved) national tourism boycott in the black community that embarrassed our County and hurt us financially.

Upon his election as Mayor, my Dad quickly decided to issue a City Proclamation for Mandela. Given that the two major constituencies in his City were Cubans and Jews, he expected some blowback.

Immediately, disapproving letters showed up in the newspaper followed by obscene shouts from passer-byers in public. The name-calling quickly progressed to threats.

My Mom was shocked when one caller to their house told her that her husband “should burn in an oven.”

Most of his fellow commissioners were incensed and even publicly considered revoking his right to issue a proclamation.

In the face of such anger and fury, I wondered if my Dad would back down.

Actually, Dad doubled-down, and announced he would additionally issue Mandela the City’s highest award, the Medallion of Honor.

He told his detractors to pound sand (or less cordial words to that effect).

He told me, “I’d rather be on the right side of history than the right side of an election.”

Soon thereafter the boycott ended as other municipalities followed suit and made appropriate gestures and the County and boycott leaders reached agreement.

As for my Dad, his angry constituents overwhelmingly re-elected him each time he chose to run.

Testing is still not teaching

This week Education Week announced its Quality Counts State Report Card. Florida received a “B-“ and was ranked 6th nationally so immediately the usual suspects engaged in the typical self adulation.

I don’t relish being the guy that is constantly throwing cold water on the party, but a closer read of the report shows all is not well. You see the report grades the 50 states on a variety of education areas and where Florida did well is not nearly as important as where we tanked.

The report gave Florida top grades for its accountability and assessments. In other words, we were top notch in the amount of testing we have in our schools. This should come as no surprise to Florida teachers who seem forced to spend more time giving tests than actually teaching coursework.

But testing is not teaching and, in fact, in the category of “achievement” Florida was subpar. We earned a “C-“ because too many of kids are not proficient in math or reading, and our state’s graduation rate was ranked 44th in the nation.

Of course you get what you pay for and, indeed, our poor achievement score was very close to the “D+” we received in funding education. According to the Education Week report Florida ranks near the bottom in every relevant education spending metric.

So before we uncork too many champagne bottles, Floridians should know that the failure of Governor Scott and the legislature to adequately support public schools has created a real achievement deficit in our state. Getting straight A’s for having lots of tests is not the same as getting A’s on the tests. Weighing a malnourished dog every day doesn’t make him any better.

Until folks in Tallahassee understand that testing is not teaching, we will continue to celebrate mediocrity at the expense of true achievement.

A Holiday Story

Twenty-four years ago Big Brothers&Sisters matched me up with a 6-year-old little gap-toothed boy living in a poor Miami neighborhood I knew only as a place to avoid driving through.

Travis, who had been abandoned, had bounced around relatives, eventually settling in with a great aunt. She became his primary caretaker and called on Big Brothers to give Travis some additional influences.

Our backgrounds couldn’t have been more different, but we found common interests. Watching Hurricane football, going to bad Chuck Norris movies, and cruising in my ‘66 Mustang Convertible to name a few.

I liked having a little kid I could boss around; he liked knowing someone who could drive; we both liked having a brother.

But Travis’ life wasn’t easy and his prospects were uncertain. Through the years, I watched as his friends from childhood went to jail, or died, or faded into the vortex of the inner city. His aunt – whose home was surrounded by abandoned dwellings that usually hosted crack dealers – did all she could to keep those influences away from him. She also made sure Travis had faith in his life.

But I always held my breath, wondering whether he would escape the fate of so many others. As a federal prosecutor, I had seen my share of people whose lives jumped the tracks.

Travis had a work ethic but lacked a seriousness of purpose, especially about school. I tried to push and prod and even bribe, but it didn’t seem to take.

But we stuck together through the years. When I met Joan, he proudly stood by me at my wedding. He was only 13.

Over the next decade Travis watched me grow a family and saw the joy it brought me. He saw my vintage Mustang get replaced with a Honda minivan, and Hannah Montana elbow out Chuck Norris. He saw me embrace the responsibility of being a spouse and a parent.

But Travis couldn’t seem to find his own way, and I was beginning to lose hope.

But four years ago, a light went on. Travis met a girl and returned to school, enrolling at Miami-Dade for a two-year degree. When he married Wilsa in a beautiful ceremony, I was his best man.

When they prepared for the birth of their child, Travis became even more serious. He announced he would become a dentist, a profession that interested him since childhood when he was teased about the space between his front teeth.

At first I was worried his goal was unrealistic, but then figured at least he was motivated. After two years, he graduated Miami-Dade and enrolled at Nova Southeastern on an academic scholarship where he sought out health science courses.

Travis became a driven student, regularly making the dean’s list and never giving up on his dream of being a dentist.

Earlier this year he took his dental school admission test. I held my breath again. He called me as he left the testing center. He scored in the 93rd percentile and his organic chemistry score was over 97 percent. He was so proud. I was without words. Joan wept.

Here is how Travis answered a question on a dental school application that asked if he believed he grew up “disadvantaged?”

“I grew up in one of Miami’s poorest neighborhoods. I was abandoned by many who you would think would have nurtured me, and raised by my grandmother’s aunt. I remember, as a young boy, hiding inside my house for days after a drive-by shooting. But through it all people – sometimes perfect strangers – inspired me to never give up and to always believe in myself. So yes, I did have a disadvantaged life by most definitions, but that life has made me better prepared and more appreciative of the opportunities and blessings I do have.”

Gelber with TravisTravis applied to dental schools across the country. Friends chipped in for his airfare and accommodations to get him to his interviews, and he borrowed luggage, ties and overcoats.

This past week he heard back from most of the schools he applied to. He heard back from Tufts University and the University of Florida, from Nova in Broward County, and Temple in Philadelphia, and Boston University.

They all had one simple message: Accepted!

Merry Christmas Travis and happy holidays to all.

FCAT debacle proves change in order

Today’s announcement that over 70% of Florida students failed the newly calibrated writing FCAT
means either our school system has horrible problems teaching, or our Department of Education is filled with idiots. Either way, change is in order.

Florida’s overemphasis on testing is insane. We have become a school system whose entire purpose seems to be to prepare kids for minimal competence tests. But testing is not teaching, and Florida’s singular reliance on the FCAT is proving to be extremely destructive to a school system that was already floundering from funding neglect. This episode is but one of a litany, and our Education Commissioner, frankly, seems not up to the job.

This week millions of school children will tragically believe they failed an exam that is portrayed as the most important measure of a Florida student. But the failure will not be
theirs, but that of the legislature, governor and education commissioner who have let them down. How does a Governor who sought a $1.5 billion public education cut his first year in office argue with a straight face that he wants to “raise the bar.” And what does this say about
the legislature’s mad rush to tie teacher salaries directly to test scores that seem situational at best.

Education Week ranks Florida as having more tests and measurements than nearly any state, but our high school graduation rate is still abysmal, and half our graduating seniors need remediation in college. You can weigh a malnourished dog every day – that doesn’t improve its
health.

I suspect the Board of Education will direct the Commissioner to recalibrate the writing FCAT to avoid individually informing most of Florida’s school kids that they failed. Hopefully, this episode will, once again, cause folks to rethink the sad organizing principle of Florida schools – that testing is some how teaching.

The FCAT is not a solution, it’s a test.

Thinking of Mom

What follows is my blog post from a few years ago on Mother’s Day. I miss Mom and especially miss that my kids had only a few years of her great grace and wisdom.

THINKING OF MOM

At a luncheon last month, a woman asked me a question I have heard countless times before. “Are you related to Edith Gelber?” I nodded and responded as I always have. “She was my Mom. Where did she teach you?”

She told me my Mom had been her French teacher for a few years at Florida A&M decades ago. Although my Mom had taught most of her 40 years in K-12 public schools in South Florida, our family had spent a handful of years in Tallahassee in the mid and late 1960’s (where I learned the difference between “dinner” and “supper”). My mother, who taught French, Spanish, Latin and English, spent the time teaching at A&M. My Dad, a journeyman prosecutor, worked in the Attorney General’s office. My sisters and I attended Leon County public schools.

The woman told me that she had never forgotten my Mom. “She was so inspiring and her enthusiasm was infectious.” I have heard my Mom described that way a thousand times from her former students. I know only teachers can truly understand the pride that comes with teaching, but as a son who regularly receives the grateful thanks of his mother’s students, I have a pretty good notion of why people teach.

She told me my Mom was one of the few white teachers at A&M back then. My Mom was a woman who judged you not by the color of your skin but by your ability to conjugate verbs. She had started her career in the 1950’s teaching in Harlem and strongly believed public education was the great equalizer.

The woman told me that she recalled, like it was yesterday, attending my Mom’s class the days right after Martin Luther King was assassinated. “We were all so out of sorts.”

She told me, “Your mom wore sunglasses to school, and my girlfriends and I quickly figured out that she had obviously been weeping all night. In a funny way, it was comforting to us. It was something I will never forget.”

My Mom was an amazing woman, a devoted mother and a marvelous teacher. She just wanted children to feel good about themselves, and to have the tools they needed to reach their potential. Whether she was teaching 3rd graders or college sophomores, she believed in her heart that every child had the right to succeed.

To Juliette Love, Florida A&M Class of ‘70, thanks for sharing with me.

And to my Mom, I miss you every day. Happy Mother’s Day.

Lugar’s Defeat is America’s

I first met Indiana Senator Dick Lugar 20 years ago. I was running the U.S. Senate’s investigation’s committee for my boss, then Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia. Nunn and Lugar were singularly focused on preparing our nation for the new type of security threat that was emerging from the ashes of the former Soviet Union. They were concerned that nuclear weapons, dangerous materials (highly enriched uranium) and weapons know-how (out-of-work scientists) would end up in the hands of fanatics willing to do the unthinkable. They were equally concerned that our
national security apparatus had not adequately revised itself to address these new threats, especially the threat posed by terrorist groups. The committee I led circumnavigated the globe, inspecting nuclear facilities, meeting with foreign leaders, reviewing domestic agencies and reporting back to our bosses in the Senate.

Senator Lugar, at that time, launched a bid to be his party’s nominee for President. Though no one expected him to beat out Bob Dole for the nomination, Lugar ran a spirited, single-issue campaign. His lone issue: our nation needed to be better prepared for a terrorism attack. In the mid-1990’s, it was not a concern that even registered with most Americans.

Once, while waiting for a meeting to begin, we were sitting alone together so I made small talk by asking him how his campaign was going. His answer, in typical fashion, was straightforward and authentic.

“I suspect my chances are dim, but I’m intent on using this platform to ring a bell that Americans desperately need to hear.”

Lugar’s quixotic campaign was heroic. While the Senate was becoming increasingly partisan, holding hearings on nonsense like Whitewater and Travelgate and whether the President had inappropriate moments with an intern, Lugar choose to focus his efforts (and campaign) on real challenges like preventing the unthinkable. I regret that there were not more Richard Lugars in the Congress. I think if there had been, 9-11 may have been just another day in September.

Tebow

When I was the Democratic Leader in the Florida House, Tim Tebow made a ceremonial visit to the floor of the Legislature after leading the Gators to a national championship. My colleagues fawned on him, grabbing photographs and autographs. The Speaker at the time, Marco Rubio, was the most excited. Marco, a football player himself and mega-fan couldn’t contain his joy. Tebow made his way through the chamber and ultimately settled at my desk which, as protocol demands of the minority leader, was in the very back row of the Chamber. Tebow was handed a football and asked to throw it across the Chamber to Marco Rubio.

Marco took off his jacket; steadied himself and prepared for what would unquestionably be the softest pass ever thrown by Tim Tebow. Tim tossed it like a softball pitch and Marco easily caught it, but made the mistake of asking for another throw. Now Marco had done nothing to personally wrong me (other than advancing a totally right-wing political agenda), but sometimes your lesser instincts get the better of you. I leaned toward Tebow and told him that Marco confided to me that he thought Tebow threw like his grandmother.

Tebow showed only the slightest of smiles, and then proceeded to hurl a bullet at our unexpecting Speaker. Rubio tried to corral it but fumbled. Mission accomplished. Sorry Marco.

Lots of folks have tried to create controversy around Tebow and his strong expressions of faith on and off the field. No matter your religious beliefs, this exceptional young man who draws inspiration from his faith and his family should put no one off. Tebow seems authentic about his good works, and his humility and selflessness stand out especially among so many other athletes who seem to lose themselves in the shadow of their own self-importance. Hard to argue with that.

Good luck Tim.