I was born in Miami in 1940 when Victoria Hospital still existed as a full-service hospital with a maternity ward and Miami was a sleepy Southern town.
There was still alligator wrestling at 27th Avenue and Northwest Seventh Street at an Indian Village called Musa Isle. I lived in one house in the Shenandoah section when it was known as the Jewish neighborhood.
My friends and I had the freedom to ride our bikes from home to elementary school. A kid could go alone on a bus to downtown and feel safe.
My family of four lived in the same house for my entire childhood. We had a close neighborhood of 10 single family houses, where everyone knew everyone, and sitting on the front porch seeing your neighbors was an evening’s entertainment.
The first time I lived away as an adult, other than college at Tulane, was in 1965 when my wife, Rosetta, myself and my 1-year-old son, Mitchell, went to Washington D.C.
We moved there where I started my career as an attorney in the Criminal Division of the United States Justice Department.
In a year, I wanted to do trial work, which led me back to Miami and ultimately allowed me to be a part of a special time in the city’s history. It was an era that would profoundly change the place where I grew up.
I applied for a job as an assistant U.S. attorney, arriving at 7:30 a.m. for an interview. I was struck by the boss, U.S. Attorney William A. “Bill” Meadows. I remember him at the soda machine, getting a Coke at 7 a.m.
My memory may be failing me, but I’m pretty sure he would usually eat a Moon Pie with that Coke, a Southern tradition for breakfast.
I was lucky enough to get the job and it was the beginning of great friendships and a discovery of a part of Miami that I had not known before.
From 1966-1970 while I was an assistant U.S. attorney, Miami’s federal criminal scene was much different than it is today. We tried small drug cases, [even lent $20 to agents to make controlled buys], interstate stolen car cases, and an occasional fraud case. Back then, a $2 million fraud case was considered huge.
We could not even conceive of today’s multi-billion dollar Ponzi schemes. While the criminal prosecutions were not as large and complex as they are today, the federal court was busy making life-changing decisions.
The late C. Clyde Atkins was ordering school busing to complete integration, and he courageously allowed a poet, Alan Ginsberg, to recite what was then considered an obscene poem.
Today, Ginsburg’s best known work Howl is taught in schools. He once told me that he received much more obscene and angry mail over Ginsberg’s poetry than he received for the busing decision.
Judges Peter Fay, Joe Eaton and James Lawrence (Larry) King were courageously dealing with community-changing issues on a regular basis. It was the Civil Rights Era and Miami was still the South.
We worked in a small, compact office where we also met as a group once a week. Bill Meadows came from Goodman, Miss., and had been a circuit court judge in Miami when he accepted the appointment as U.S. Attorney.
With Meadows’ background as a native Mississippian and member of the Miami “good ole boy” network, one would hardly have imagined the diverse makeup of the U.S. Attorney’s office.
The office had between 15 and 17 full-time attorneys, as compared to the 200-plus today. This group included seven Jewish men, the first Hispanic lawyer in the office’s history, its first black lawyer and one of the few females to ever have served in the office.
The diversity of today’s office shows we were on to something.
These were the city’s most ambitious lawyers. Yet the spirit was collegial, “one for all.” We shared cases, we shared credit, and we shared a mission: to make Miami a safer place to live.
Meadows fostered that spirit. He never considered a person’s religion, appearance or background, only at what they could do and how he could help them do it better.
Meadows was the type of boss who would always back you up in public. He would discuss any problem in private, resolve it, and never do anything but give a single cohesive statement of the office view.
If he did not share your view at the beginning and he could not persuade you to change, then your view became the office view.
Unfortunately, this attribute is rare in public service today, where everyone wants to cover themselves.
There were some comical times as well. When it was “duty” day, one assistant would take in new law enforcement cases and citizens’ complaints.
I remember two in particular. One octogenarian came to the office and, when asked “could I help you,” he responded repeatedly, “I’m 85, my wife is 83 and we don’t need any help.”
I finally found out what he needed. He thought his wife was having an affair with a 33-year-old Secret Service agent.
Another woman complained that her thoughts were being stolen electronically. After a half hour of her story, I asked for her phone number so I could have the FBI call her. She responded simply, “phone – I don’t have a phone. They are stealing my thoughts through the walls.”
Our group, along with some who came before and some who came after, meets every September as a memorial to Bill Meadows. The spirit may not be there all year, but on that day, everyone seems to go back in time to what was, to many, a golden era.
From two U.S. District judges, Jose Martinez and Fred Moreno, who worked with Meadows, to three former U.S. Magistrate judges – Mike Osman, the late Jack Eskenazi, and the late Ted Klein – to Neal Sonnett, past president of the National Criminal Defense Association, and for the too-many lawyers to name who are listed in Best Lawyers in America, for all of them, working with Bill Meadows remained the highlight of their legal careers.
Certainly in a memory of Miami, this was a golden age.