by Jan Pudlow
In his best Southern drawl, with a hearty laugh that revealed the glint of gold teeth, Chesterfield Smith liked to say he was a “cracker from Arcadia” and “just a country lawyer.”
More like cracker with cosmopolitan connections who earned a countrywide reputation of being such a bold and visionary attorney that he was dubbed “America’s Lawyer” and “the conscience of the legal profession.”
He thought nothing of hobnobbing with the power-elite at Coral Gables’ Riviera Country Club, while sitting near the golf course shelling a bushel of white-acre peas former ABA President Martha Barnett had selected from Tallahassee’s Tomato Land and shipped to him on dry ice.
Giving a rousing speech about the independence of the judiciary at a chief justice’s investiture at the Florida Supreme Court, he tossed in a homespun, “Dadgum that!”
Boosting the early career of former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, he got away with greeting her in a crowded room in New York City as “Hey, Baby Doll!”
Both down-to-earth and dignified, folksy and famous, Smith had infectious charm that dazzled the influential upper echelon, yet he had the courage to speak his mind in a loud, booming voice when the powerful did wrong.
“I care about things. I have always wanted things to be better than they are,” Smith said in a 1982 interview with The American Lawyer. “If the house is not neat, I want the house to be neat. If people are poor, I want them not to be poor. If the laws don’t work, I like to change the law. I have never been satisfied with the status quo.”
As Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead said shortly after his “dear friend and role model” died July 16 at the age of 85: “Chesterfield Smith was the quintessential American patriot and lawyer. He remains Florida’s version of Atticus Finch standing firm for justice, who played out his life on a larger-than-life stage with real-world consequences.”
Catapulted to national fame during his reign as president of the American Bar Association in 1973-74, it was Smith who changed the stodgy image of that group into a bold activist vehicle that brought the first public call to investigate President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal. Smith’s straightforward rationale resonated when he declared at a news conference: “No man is above the law.”
That famous statement, carried on the front pages of the nation’s major newspapers, Anstead said, was “no political gesture, but a plea to save the bedrock of our constitutional system, the rule of law. Whether the issue was the rule of law, racial justice, or funding the courts, Chesterfield Smith never stood on the sidelines.”
In his home state, Gov. Lawton Chiles and the Cabinet honored Smith in 1997 with the designation of “A Great Floridian.” Long before then, Smith’s reputation had spread nationwide.
While ABA president, Smith was among the 60 most influential Americans named by U.S. News & World Report, honored as fourth in the “law category” in the issue called “The Most Influential People in 12 Fields—As Ranked by Their Peers.”
In 1975, Time magazine named Smith among 35 “non-candidates truly qualified to be president of the United States.”
Thanks, but no thanks. Smith never aspired to hold public office.
His son, Chesterfield “Chet” Smith, Jr., senior assistant attorney general and chief of state programs litigation, said his dad was offered many opportunities for public office, but turned them down.
“He was urged to run for high and low office: governor, senator, president, you name it,” Chet Smith said. “I really think his lifesaving decision was not to succumb to public office. That’s an intoxicating thing. You see lots of good people quit doing what got them in a position that people think they are so good they should lead us. But he never took that bait.
“I think he would be quite raw about it and say, ‘Well, how many 15-minute periods of time do you think it would be for me to have the governor sitting here? I can have him right here in 30 minutes, if that’s how long the plane takes.’ He chose to do it through the law firm and make the law firm the institutional vehicle of his authority. He would say, ‘This is the way you get it done, not by being a legislator or elected person.’”
In his extraordinary career as a lawyer for 55 years, Smith earned the moniker “Citizen Smith” while he perfected his many roles:
Mover-and-shaker with friends in high places influencing political appointments and policies.
One of the first to conceptualize and build a national law firm as founder of Holland & Knight, now the country’s eighth largest firm, that made pro bono service and diversity cornerstones of the practice.
Father of Florida’s Constitution, as chair of the first Constitution Revision Commission that brought an end to the “Pork Chop Gang” era, helping replace an obsolete Constitution drafted by unreconstructed Confederates in 1885, ushering Florida into modern statehood.
Former president of The Florida Bar, in 1964, leading the charge to build a new stately Bar Center high on a hill in downtown Tallahassee, and advocating passionately for the Clients’ Security Fund to pay restitution when a lawyer embezzles a client’s funds.
Mentor to talented women and black lawyers, back in the days when there was a lot of talk but not much action. As Joseph Hatchett, former Florida Supreme Court justice and 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge, said: “To some of us—the poor, blacks, and women—Chesterfield Smith provided hope and assistance at a time when hope was hard to come by and assistance never available.”
During a celebration of Smith’s 80th birthday in Tampa, members of the Holland & Knight law firm put together a program that included a spoof of his voice mail that began: “Hello, this is Chesterfield Smith. If you are calling to secure a judicial appointment, please press 1. If you are attempting to obtain a veto of critical legislation, please press 2. If you are calling to complain about my driving, please press 3. All other messages may be left at the beep.”
Nearly six years later, Smith’s big, kind heart stopped beating in a Coral Gables hospital room, a dozen days shy of what would have been his 86th birthday. Those who mourn his passing describe a man who truly was great and actually did live a most remarkable and robust long life.
“We praise Chesterfield today, and we celebrate his life, knowing that he will be appreciated far into the future for his relentless work against doing wrong and his steadfast stands for doing right. Chesterfield needed no radar and no opinion poll to guide his actions. He was a strong man of good convictions,” eulogized Marilyn Holifield, the first black lawyer Smith invited to join Holland & Knight more than two decades ago and certainly not the last.
When ABA President Dennis W. Archer, a former Michigan Supreme Court justice, took the podium at Coral Gables United Methodist Church at Smith’s memorial service, he said: “Few in the legal profession leave a legacy such as his. His irrepressible faith in the law drove him to speak out in the struggle for all that is fair.
“Chesterfield recognized that lawyers are in a unique position to heal. In my view, he approached his life work as a healer who brought comfort and solace to people in need, his clients, organizations like the National Bar Association, and to his country,” Archer continued.
“Chesterfield Smith came to the annual meeting of the National Bar Association, the largest African-American bar association in the world. And in a way that only he could do, Chesterfield began to heal the wounds of racism and discrimination felt by members of the National Bar because of the past exclusionary practices of the ABA. The result was that Edward F. Bell became the first NBA representative in the House of Delegates. And I attended my first ABA meeting in San Francisco in 1972. The rest is history.”
The history of Chesterfield Harvey Smith begins with his birth July 28, 1917, in small-town Arcadia, Florida, land of cattle ranches and citrus groves.
He described his mom, Grace, a social columnist for the Arcadian newspaper, as a “happy mom.”
His father, Cook Hall Smith, had an “up-and-down life,” Smith told NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw in his 1998 book, The Greatest Generation, in a chapter devoted to Smith in the “Famous People” section:
Smith’s father “was a schoolteacher for a while, then ran an electrical appliance shop near the town of Arcadia when power first became available to the remote cattle ranches in Central Florida. When Florida went through a boom-and-bust period in the ’20s, Chesterfield’s father went out of business and on the road, looking for steady work. Eventually the family returned to Arcadia, where Smith finished high school at the top of his class without making much of an effort. He enrolled at the University of Florida as a pre-law student, but he’d stay only a semester at a time, dropping out to make money and raise a little hell.
“His childhood sweetheart, Vivian Parker, who was his wife for 43 years before she died of cancer, was quoted as saying of Smith in those days, ‘He was just a poker-playing, craps-shooting boy who wouldn’t settle down.’ Smith agrees that this is a fair and honest description.”
After Smith’s death, Brokaw told the The Florida Bar Journal: “Chesterfield was in the front ranks of ‘the greatest generation,’ and an all-around good guy. It gave me great pleasure to describe his remarkable life and values in my book. And I only wish I had known him longer.”
John Arthur Jones, partner at Holland & Knight, knew Smith about as long as anyone still living.
“I knew him in the fourth grade,” said 82-year-old Jones, recalling Smith, four years older, was “Big Man on Campus” at DeSoto County High School, graduating at age 16.
“Everybody knew Harvey. He just had a natural bent toward leadership,” Jones said.
Smith’s uncle, “a state representative forever,” Jones recalls, was also named Chesterfield Smith.
“I guess the town wasn’t big enough to have two Chesterfields. I didn’t know him by anything but Harvey. Whenever he went back to Arcadia, the people called him Harvey to aggravate him and remind him of his roots.”
Another reason he was called Harvey, Smith once said, is that he thought Chesterfield sounded sissified, so he went by his middle name until the military put an end to that.
“He swears on his 35-cent cigars that his family tree goes back to illegitimate connections with Lord Chesterfield,” wrote the editor of the San Jose Post-Record in 1973, quoting Smith as joshing: “But we haven’t had the money to go along with the name for the last 100 years.”
Growing up in Arcadia, young Harvey was a soda jerk at his uncle’s drug store.
“You got an extra bit of cream if you were on his good side,” Jones said. “I made sure I was on his good side.”
Being on Smith’s good side paid off for Jones more than once.
Rather than wait to be drafted, both Jones and Smith enlisted as $21-a-month privates in the 31st Dixie Division of the Florida National Guard, mobilized for active duty in November 1940.
At Officer Candidate School in Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, where they both trained as artillery officers, Jones just couldn’t get the hang of shooting his rifle using an alidade, a telescopic site used for determining direction.
“The dadgum thing was like a mirror. Everything was backward, and I had a devil of a time learning that. Harvey would take me out on the drill field and help me learn how to use the alidade. He was always helping people,” Jones recalls.
Another time, the regimental commander was worried about the records and assigned Smith to take charge of straightening things out.
“This was a civilian army and the colonel knew enough about Chesterfield to put him in charge. Here he was a sergeant in charge of two lieutenants. That sticks with me: the early recognition by other people of the fact that he had abilities beyond the usual.”
The pair split up when Smith was sent to the 94th Infantry Division, and Jones was assigned to the 95th. While Smith’s division was in the thick of the war, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, Jones’ division held a defensive position. Jones and Smith were playing out the war in dramatically different arenas, until their paths crossed in Germany one snowy January morning.
Jones had taken over the burgomaster’s house and was just getting out of bed when his first sergeant informed him another artillery outfit had come to town.
“I walked through the snow banks and saw the vehicles in the village. I asked, ‘Who’s in charge?’ And someone said, ‘Well, Capt. Smith is around here somewhere.’
“It was Harvey Smith. His outfit was going south. I was getting ready to go north. We visited for 15 minutes, and I didn’t see him again. What he did was give me a Browning submachine gun. I carried a pistol and a MI rifle. He gave me a Browning automatic 45-caliber submachine gun. I took it and carried it the rest of the war.”
By the time Smith got out of the service in the fall of 1945, he had been awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, and was later promoted to major. Sandy D’Alemberte, former president of the ABA and Florida State University, tells of the time he was at a gathering of Smith’s oldest friends. Though Smith kept a framed silk map of France, once sewn inside his battle jacket, on his office wall, he never talked much about his war days. But among his old buddies, he shared a few war stories while smoking big cigars and sipping strong drinks.
D’Alemberte had to chuckle while telling how Smith won the Purple Heart. After the Battle of the Bulge, on the way to the Rhine River, the soldiers were resting when the never-before-seen first jet fighters, called Messerschmidt 262s, developed late in the war by the Germans, came roaring overhead. Smith admitted he was so amazed at seeing the newfangled jet planes that he just stood there gazing skyward when a machine-gun bullet clipped his shoulder.
“It was his curiosity that got him wounded,” D’Alemberte says with a hearty laugh.
As Smith told Brokaw: “It didn’t hurt, but I did have to file a report, and that meant I got the Purple Heart. When VE Day came and they were sending people home on a point system, that little ol’ nick was worth 10 points.”
The most poignant war story Smith never told his son was delivered in a memoir written by a war buddy in the 94th, Dr. Jim Wendell. Smith shared that wartime account with his son, Chesterfield Smith, Jr., in 1995, detailing how he had summoned the burgomaster and ordered him to lock the townsfolk in the Jewish slave labor camps, and invite the slave laborers to trade places and live in the local homes.
In a letter to his father, Chet Smith wrote: “You never mentioned this to me, nor have I ever heard it before. I have been proud of you many, many times, but never more so than when I read about the above-referenced incident. I am sure that someday, when Taylor and Chetty (his daughter and son) are older and understand the dark but important part of their Jewish heritage, they, too, will be exceedingly proud of their grandfather.”
Smith was lifted out of war-torn Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1945. He decided to use the GI bill to put himself through law school. Along with $3,500 he had saved in military pay, and the $4,000 he made shooting craps on the 12-day voyage back home, he had a good start with his young wife, Vivian, whom he had married in Mississippi on January 29, 1944, while in the service.
Vivian, daughter of an Arcadia cattle baron, was an elegant, refined woman who studied music at the conservatory at Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga., and trained as a concert pianist.
When the soldier she had married returned home, he had a new outlook on life.
“Something happened to Chesterfield’s attitude in the war. I don’t know just what, but he was a serious man when he returned,” Vivian Smith once recalled.
“The way I was going before the war, I don’t think I would ever have made it through law school,” Smith told Brokaw. “But after the war, I felt I had something invested in my country—five years of my life. I said to myself, ‘Boy, you’ve got to settle down and make something of yourself. Otherwise, you ain’t ever going to amount to nothing.”
During his youth he’d caddied at Arcadia’s nine-hole golf course where the lawyers played. He admired lawyers. He liked lawyers.
“All the time during the war, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer,” Smith told The Tampa Tribune.
But his childhood friend Jones returned from the war and landed at the “cow college in Gainesville” unsure what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Jones tells how his old war buddy Harvey helped him out once again during those days at the University of Florida.
Jones had a car, but lived on campus and had no garage. Smith, along with Vivian and first-born Rhoda, rented a house with a garage, but had no car. So Jones parked his car in Smith’s garage and shared many Sunday dinners at the Smiths’ place.
“I’m complaining about how I don’t want to go to the journalism school, that it’s not what I thought it would be. Harvey says, ‘Well, Jones, why don’t you come over to the law school? Come on over. You’ll like it.’ The next day, he took me by the arm, practically. I had never been in the building. He marched me in that building and said to the lady, ‘Ms. Pridgett, sign this boy up.’ He even picked out the courses I would take.”
Out of law school, Jones joined the Knight firm in Tampa, little realizing that in 1968 he would lead the Knight firm, Smith would lead the Holland firm, and their lives would be intertwined again.
Summoning the discipline he learned in the military, Smith finished law school in two years, graduating in 1948 with honors, but still found time to wedge in a golf game every day after classes.
“Hell, here I was, almost 30 years old. I wanted to get that law license and get into a practice and make myself some money,” Smith recalled.
He returned to hometown Arcadia, practiced with Treadwell & Treadwell, and two years later joined Holland, Bevis and McRae in nearby Bartow, where he made partner in record time and made a name for himself representing the booming phosphate industry.
In 1968, that firm merged with Knight, Jones, Whitaker and Germany.
“Harvey and I worked out the details,” Jones recalls. “And we wondered: What in the hell are we going to do with all the names? Harvey said, ‘I think we ought to call it Holland & Knight.’
“I said nothing,” Jones continues. “And Harvey says, ‘All those other people won’t have their names in it, and neither will we. And if they don’t like that, we’ll call it Smith & Jones.’”
D’Alemberte elaborates on that story: “When it was presented to him, U.S. Sen. (and former governor of Florida Spessard) Holland said he wouldn’t stand for that. It was very controversial. Sen. Holland said, ‘Chesterfield’s name has to be in the firm.’ And Chesterfield said, ‘I won’t let my name be in the firm. The only way is to keep the name of the firm simple and direct. If my name goes into the firm, other people will have a claim. They’ll think they have a claim pretty close to mine. But I don’t think anybody will assert they have a claim better than I. Sorry, Sen. Holland, but the name of the firm is going to be Holland & Knight.’
“In the nature of these things, there was quite a lot of buzz,” D’Alemberte continues. “But Chesterfield sent a very important statement that morning about what the law firm was about.”
After Smith’s term as president of The Florida Bar in 1964-65, he seized an opportunity to defeat the Pork Chop Gang as chair of the Constitution Revision Commission.
“Now, we all knew that the federal court rulings had come down in favor of one man, one vote,” Smith said in an interview with the Lakeland Ledger in 1999.
“For years, the Pork Choppers would just split up another rural county when they needed a vote on their side, but now it was pretty obvious what had to be done. They hunted for ways to be the majority and hunted for compromises. But the state was all out of whack. A rural county with 5,000 voters had just as much representation as Miami with 400,000 people. Because it was a commission, there wasn’t much they could do about it in the legislature. And we made sure to write in the changes that the commission would convene automatically every 20 years for review.”
It wasn’t obvious to everyone what had to be done, remembers D’Alemberte, who served in the legislature at that time.
In January 1967, the very morning that Gov. Claude Kirk called a special session of the legislature to take up constitutional revision, the U.S. Supreme Court had found the reapportionment plan under which the legislators were elected to be unconstitutional.
The ceremony in the Old Capitol’s House Chambers had a short program with two speakers: Chief Justice (and former Governor) Millard Caldwell and Chesterfield Smith.
Caldwell, D’Alemberte recalls, “gave a rather stern sermon on the virtues of the existing constitution, suggesting that any proposals to make any changes at all should be viewed with great skepticism.”
When it was Smith’s turn to speak, rather than stepping up to the Speaker of the House podium, where the chief justice had just addressed the joint session, he went to the reading clerk’s desk, where he was closer to members on the floor. It was a striking symbolic gesture, D’Alemberte said, revealing Smith was closer in touch to what the people of Florida wanted.
“He then gave one of the most wonderful speeches I have ever heard. He looked up at the chief justice and said, with great courtesy and respect, that anyone who did not recognize the need to have a radical reform of our constitution was living in some century other than our own and was ignorant of the many faults of our antiquated constitution,” D’Alemberte recalls.
“He was applauded. It was quite clear that the sentiment of this reapportioned legislature was with Chesterfield, and the chief justice was very much out of touch with that legislature.”
Segregationist doctrine was stricken and the Bill of Rights was expanded. Cities and counties were empowered with home rule, released from the power of political bosses.
“He made an excellent presiding officer on the Constitution Revision Commission because he blended a tremendous intellect with great energy, proper expectations of conduct from the members of the commission, and a sense of humor,” former Gov. Reubin Askew said in a documentary film on Smith’s life after he was named “A Great Floridian” in 1997.
“Bear in mind, there was only one king there, and everybody knew who he was, and his name was Chesterfield,” Askew added with a laugh.
Revisions to Article V eventually passed in 1972.
D’Alemberte chaired the House committee and Janet Reno was his staff director, and they worked very closely with Smith. They were not always on the same side of an issue.
While D’Alemberte was sponsoring legislation to tax phosphate, Smith built Holland & Knight representing the phosphate industry, at one time more than 60 percent of Holland & Knight’s client base.
“One of the things I abhorred was the environmental record of phosphate companies,” D’Alemberte said. “They opened these big strip mines and when they left, they just left them sitting there like a moonscape. We worked out legislation that was fair and gave them credit for restoration efforts. And I think Chesterfield also helped convince the companies that they’d better be better citizens or they were going to have people like me who didn’t have phosphate in their district.”
Later in 1972, before a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee, responding to Chair John Tunney’s allegation that the ABA catered to special interests of wealthy clients, Smith testified: “I represent some of the biggest cruds in Florida, but I don’t carry their viewpoints past the time that I go off the payroll.”
Smith heard from some of those cruds, too, and they were not amused.
What D’Alemberte appreciated most about Smith was his forthrightness.
“Whether he was with you or against you, it was always candid. When he believed something, he wasn’t frightened to say it. A lot of his close friends were really conservative. But he was very outspoken and didn’t trim his sails around people he knew didn’t agree with him. He didn’t have a sneaky bone in him. He would tell you what he was going to do. He would tell you what he thought you ought to do.”
That became very apparent when Smith became president of the ABA.
The national lawyers’ group was really nothing D’Alemberte wanted to be part of. When D’Alemberte was a law student at UF in 1961, he had been turned off by a speech delivered by the ABA president.
“His speech was a broadside attack on the U.S. Supreme Court and the Brown v. Board of Education decision. These were critical times. And it was pretty clear to me that the ABA was on the wrong side of the most important issue for my generation,” D’Alemberte recalls.
But a dozen years later, when Smith became the ABA’s president, he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.
The third time Smith called urging D’Alemberte to take a leadership role in the ABA, he said, “Sandy, I’m in Chicago and I just finished making my appointments. All this business with Watergate has got me pretty concerned about our election laws. So I have gotten approval to start a new special committee on election reform. I want to let you know I have just issued the press release on that committee you are chairing.”
“Just outrageous!” D’Alemberte says at the memory of it all. “But then he started telling me who would be on the committee, great people, with a wonderful purpose, one of the very hot topics of the day. It indicated that the ABA would take an active role.”
That was just a spark of the fireworks to come with Smith at the helm of the ABA.
He had been president little more than a month when President Nixon fired the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, resulting in the resignation of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his top assistant, William Ruckelshaus, who refused to carry out Nixon’s orders to fire Cox.
Known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” America’s consciousness was shocked on October 20, 1973. Nixon had denied any involvement when operatives for Nixon had been caught breaking into the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. Secretly taped conversations in the Oval Office would spell out who knew what and when, but Nixon refused to turn the tapes over to Cox, even after a federal judge had issued a subpoena.
Former Holland & Knight Managing Partner Bill McBride, who took a sabbatical from law school to become Smith’s right-hand man during his ABA presidency, recalled sitting in Chicago’s Soldier Field watching the Bears play the New England Patriots.
“You could tell his mind was somewhere else,” McBride told Brokaw. “I think he said something like, ‘I’ve decided what I’ve got to do.’”
During the first half of the game, they went back to ABA headquarters and Smith began calling prominent lawyers around the country.
“He’d basically taken the position that the job was to be a spokesperson for what was right rather than what the establishment wanted. Most ABA presidents would have spent weeks debating that sort of thing. Not Mr. Smith.”
The October 26, 1973, Los Angeles Times reported: “Smith got a standing ovation after calling Nixon’s actions on the Watergate investigation ‘an intolerable assault upon the most rudimentary and basic principles of justice.’ At a press conference, he conceded that the 173,000-member ABA could exert only ‘moral leadership’ in what he called a move to return to the rule of law in the midst of a governmental crisis unparalleled in our nation’s history.”
In a long career marked by great achievements, Smith considered his finest hour his decision to make the first public call to have an independent impeachment investigation of Nixon, the first Republican this self-described “old Southern Democrat” had cast his vote for.
“Nixon had asked the judge to rule that the special prosecutor couldn’t get the tapes. The judge ruled that he had to hand them over,” Smith recalled in an interview years later with the Lakeland Ledger.
“Now, I saw only two choices. He could appeal or hand the tapes over, and instead he fired the special prosecutor. I was just entering the presidency of the bar, and I thought this was an impossible situation. I only said, ‘No man is above the law.’
“Now Warren Burger (chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court) was a warm, personal friend. We were having dinner and he said, ‘You know, we can’t talk about it, but we like everything you are doing.’ It made me feel I was on the right track. Things like that make you feel better.
“Then I was asked to be on ‘Meet the Press,’ and I came back from San Diego and found Barbara Walters had been waiting at my Chicago apartment building for three hours. Heady days for a country boy.”
Not everyone applauded Smith’s gutsy opinions that foisted him into the spotlight as one of the intellectual and moral leaders of the country.
“Nixon’s military adviser Alexander Haig went on TV saying about me, ‘He is the most unethical blabbermouth in the United States,’” Smith said. “Then the president of the Texas Bar Association said he was in favor of the impeachment of the president—the president of the ABA: me.”
The White House called him unprofessional. Letters to the ABA rebuked his stance. A motion for censure was introduced in the Louisiana Bar.
Smith’s response was that he was just speaking his mind, and invitations continued to pour in to appear on national television talk and news shows.
Another dramatic moment came at the end of Smith’s ABA presidency, during the ABA’s 97th annual meeting in Honolulu in August 1974. D’Alemberte was in the front row and will never forget Smith’s speech at the opening assembly.
“He always had a wonderful sense of staging. He should have been a theater director. He could seize the stage, and this is as good as I ever saw him pull it off.
“Behind Chesterfield were the generals and admirals, in their dress whites and blues, of the Armed Forces in the Pacific. Flags and bunting were everywhere.
“Chesterfield, the WWII artillery captain, who had fought in the Battle of the Bulge, gave a very patriotic speech that called for the decriminalization of marijuana and amnesty for those who resisted the Vietnam draft,” D’Alemeberte said.
“It was incredible. You looked at these people, stars and braids everywhere, and Chesterfield is calling for amnesty. Here’s a program that is strong and patriotic about America and its power. And Chesterfield talks about how important it is that America also be just. That was just so typical of him. That may have been the best staging I ever saw.
“His Lincolnesque call for magnanimous treatment of our protesters and his vision for humane drug laws are still principles worthy of our respect.”
One angry two-star general told the Chicago Tribune after that speech: “If I could have found a way, I would have walked right off that stage. But we were captives.”
That wasn’t Smith’s only speech to rankle some in an ABA audience. Time magazine, February 19, 1974, described this scene:
“Moving through the crowd, the white-haired, chunky, effervescent lawyer works as hard as campaigning politicians. A crunching squeeze of the arm for one man, a glad-handshake for the next, hugs for all the wives. Then, with his back-country Florida drawl, he exhorts his fellow attorneys—this time about the need to weed out incompetent practitioners, perhaps even by requiring periodic retesting for lawyers. It is all said with an ingratiating charm and leavened with a warming phrase about the law as the ‘major bulwark between man and government.’ At the finish, there is a loud ovation. But the radical proposition had not been missed. An elderly attorney corners the speaker afterwards and growls: ‘You son of a bitch. I’m going to write a test that you’ll fail.’
“His drive is too great to tolerate passivity and he is too committed to the ABA’s public service responsibilities. As he recently told an audience of law students: ‘We are not a trade association. We are not a union. We are out to improve justice and the administration of society. If you don’t intend to work to improve the quality of justice, then I hope you flunk your exams.’”
Noting that 30,000 new members came on the rolls of the ABA while he was president, Smith later said: “I believe there was some truth in the often repeated statement made around headquarters in the ABA that every time I made a speech, 100 members of the ABA resigned, but 900 members joined up.”
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg goes way back with Smith, and one of her favorite memories was fondly recalling their 1978 trip to China together.
“He was the best traveling companion anyone could have. China was just beginning to open to tourists, and it was not set up for accommodations for the pillars of the bar,” Ginsburg said.
The ABA traveling contingent included Cecil Poole, later appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
“Very politically correct,” Ginsburg notes wryly. “An African-American and a woman. The result was I was the only one with a room of my own all around China. The rest had to double up. Under some of the most trying circumstances, very hot and dirty and traveling around the country and not at all comfortable, Chesterfield was such a good sport. Just irrepressible!”
But the quality Ginsburg most admired was her friend’s famous frankness.
“Chesterfield was very bold. He would let you know what he was thinking. In those days, every town square in China had statues or pictures of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. And Chesterfield said to the Chinese: ‘You feature Stalin, a butcher of humanity! How can you have his face as a role model for your people?’ He did not equivocate and told you what he thought. That’s the thing that impressed me the most.”
At his Tallahassee home, Chet Smith sat at the kitchen table with a box full of mementoes and pictures from his father’s distinguished life, and talked about being the son of a man who often seemed larger than life, trying to make his own way without his father’s help.
He had to laugh telling how he chose to attend the University of Oregon in 1974, at the height of his father’s fame.
“No sooner had I pulled into Eugene, Oregon, that was essentially as far away from Florida as I could go, and I wrote a check and someone goes, ‘Oh, my God!’ Dad always had admirers of the type like Frank Sinatra or the Beatles. When they saw my name on the check, it was not, ‘That’s very interesting,’ but it was an ‘Oh, my God!’ kind of thing.”
His father was not the reason Chet would eventually go to law school as a second career in his early 30s.
“I went far afield. Obviously, he had a big shadow, and I didn’t want to be eclipsed by that,” Chet Smith said. “Certainly, my dad was an iconic example of a good lawyer. But I had really avoided, maybe in retrospect, the obviousness of the situation. I can say with unvarnished sureness that he was very proud of me at the end of his life.” Chet Smith said it was a good decision for him to strike out on his own, rather than join Holland & Knight, “where everyone would have presumed that I was there because my father was the founder, et cetera, et cetera.”
His eyes shine with tears telling about the greatest gift of wisdom his father gave him:
“I think it is for me what it was for a lot of others: Do good, do the right thing concept. It was drilled into me from such an early age that it gave me a bellwether to whenever I was faced with any kind of situation, I had an immediate crutch to go to,” Chet Smith said.
“I have to say, I have come across many instances in my adult life and as a lawyer where that has come into play, professionally and otherwise. That was always Dad’s parting phrase whenever I would be leaving: ‘Do good.’”
That was Smith’s favorite line to all his favorite people: “Do good.”
And he gave many young lawyers the boost to do just that.
“I can’t tell you how many people have told me how Dad changed their life. Dad had a remarkable ability to attract the most intelligent, and he always mentored those people to be their very best,” said Rhoda Smith Kibler, a lawyer living in Tallahassee.
“I am so fortunate to be able to count those very same people—both young and old—as some of my closest friends and the finest people I know.
“Dad’s greatest legacy to me was these enduring friendships. He taught me how to be resilient in the face of adversity and the value of forgiveness in all relationships. Dad taught me the importance of generosity of spirit.”
He helped teach Janet Reno confidence. She got to know Smith while she was staff director of the Florida House Judiciary Committee, and he had become president of the ABA.
“He appointed me to the ABA Institute of Judicial Administration, Commission on Juvenile Justice Standards. It was an opportunity to serve with distinguished people, including Judge Patricia Wald (former chief justice of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals), and Justine Wise Polier (the first woman judge in New York in 1935). It was a wonderful experience. It gave me confidence. It was a very important step in my career,” said the first woman to reach the pinnacle of U.S. Attorney General.
While at the state attorney’s office in the 11th Judicial Circuit, Reno said, the ABA committee experience came in handy while she helped establish the juvenile division in that office.
“I was able to hold my own with confidence,” Reno said. “He came up to me once, after he announced the appointment, in a crowded room in New York City and greeted me, ‘Hello, Baby Doll!’ He could get away with that.”
Martha Barnett, the first woman hired at Holland & Knight, who went on to be president of the ABA in 2000-01, said: “I think I was his first ‘babe.’ And he did call us that. He used to call me a ‘baby doll.’ His eyes twinkled. You never ever took it as a put-down or an insult. As surprising as it may seem, we all wear the title as a badge of honor.”
Sitting in her Tallahassee office, where happy moments with a jovial Smith are captured on film and cherished in frames scattered on a credenza, Barnett said her mentor, part of her life for 30 years, “had as much influence on my life as my own father did.” More than once, she has to stop to wipe away tears.
“He loved Bill (McBride) like a son. He loved me like a daughter. In many ways, we were like his children,” she said. “He changed my life. I think I would have had a great life. I don’t have any doubt that whatever I had done I probably would have been very happy and had a good life. But he changed the course of my life. I don’t think I would have ever been involved in the American Bar Association but for him. As early as 1983, Chesterfield was beginning to use his knowledge and influence to carve out opportunities for me.”
One of her favorite memories is when she was giving her first speech as the new ABA president, and about to receive the ceremonial gavel.
“Chesterfield walks up with me. I’ve got my arm through his, and he’s just grinning. I walk up on the stage and go to the podium and gave my 10-minute speech. What I didn’t know at the time was he came up on the stage and stood with me, in the background. When I first realized it was when I turned to walk off. And he was waiting for me, to escort me back off.
“It symbolizes for me how he was always there for me. And he always will be. He really was a gift.”
Joseph Hatchett credits Smith with helping pave the way for his success.
“During the 1960s and 1970s, when Florida and the nation were poised to become more racially inclusive, but needed strong people to give the movement leadership, Chesterfield Smith stepped forward, and through example, convinced others that an integrated society was a better society.
“In 1975, when Chesterfield headed my campaign for election to the Supreme Court of Florida, lawyers across the state joined in the effort to elect me —the first African-American to the court since reconstruction—because Chesterfield proved that such an effort was acceptable. He brought African-Americans and women into his law firm and supported dozens of women and minorities for appointment to state and federal public offices,” Hatchett said.
“Chesterfield was always ready to do the ‘right thing’ for the poor, the forgotten, and minorities. But more than that, he spoke out urging others to do likewise. He was a great American, Floridian, lawyer, and friend.”
Under Smith’s leadership, the Holland & Knight law firm became a model of diversity in a profession long ruled by white men.
“I think the people at the firm learned that African-Americans, that women, that Cubans, Israelis, Japanese, Koreans, could all make a contribution—not because of their race or gender but because they were smart and worked hard. Once we learned that, we didn’t have trouble with discrimination anymore,” Smith told Brokaw. “I get a little more credit than I deserve for helping women. I was really kind to talented women. If they could help me, I could help them.”
Marilyn Holifield, at Smith’s memorial service, reeled back more than two decades when she became the first of many black lawyers hired at Holland & Knight.
“My start at the firm was uncertain and uncharted. But Chesterfield intervened and helped to open the door, chart a course, and make the pathway more clear,” Holifield said.
“There were those days when he halted my daily work by ordering me to come up to his office on the 30th floor. In particular, he would boom in his Southern drawl: ‘Mer rah lund, I think we ought to have an African-American partner in every one of our offices. Mer rah lund, do you agree with me?’
“‘Yes, Chesterfield, I agree.’
“Then, picking up the phone he would bellow to an unsuspecting head of an office or firm leader: ‘Mer rah lund says we ought to find ways to bring more African-American partners to the firm. Don’t you agree?’”
One of the women Smith mentored at Holland & Knight was Jacqueline Allee, who quickly rose within the firm to oversee the bankruptcy section of the Tampa offices, and was appointed dean of the St. Thomas University School of Law in 1987 and guided it through the accreditation process.
After Vivian died in 1987, Jackie became Smith’s second wife, and Barnett described them both as “bright, independent, free-thinking, strong women.”
“The thing he values most is the rule of law, of there being some way for people to have government, to have laws that people will obey and believe in, to be able to trust government, to be able to trust the judicial system, so that people obey the rule of law,” Allee said in a documentary film.
“He believes in justice and people having access to the law, of having fair representation with the law. He has spent a great deal of his professional time ensuring that.”
Smith spent a great deal of his last years still going to his law office on the 30th floor of Holland & Knight’s Miami offices, even toward the end, with the aid of a wheelchair and oxygen tank.
About a year ago, Matilde Infante, an employee at Holland & Knight, said to him: “Mr. Smith, why don’t you retire and enjoy your money and the rest of your life traveling or something? His answer was: ‘Mati, this is my life.’”
Chesterfield Smith’s life in the law was legendary, and he leaves a legacy of his wisdom.
“I learned a lot of lessons from Chesterfield,” Barnett said at his memorial service.
“The difference between a great lawyer and just a good lawyer. The importance of being ‘for’ something. To be somebody. The difference between doing well and doing good.”
As she turned to leave his hospital room, she held his hand and her mentor said, “Do good.”
“It wasn’t a surprise. I had heard it many times before. It was one of his favorites,” Barnett said. “I did not know it would be the last thing he ever said to me. But perhaps it was the perfect parting gift. Like the consummate leader he was—whether on the battlefield or in the courtroom, whether in the law firm or in the public arena—he never asked more of others than he gave of himself.
“So, I will close by simply saying, ‘Chesterfield, you did good.’”
Jan Pudlow is associate editor of The Florida Bar News.
Quotable Chesterfield Smith
“Lawyers by aptitude, training, and experience should provide the leadership for sustained efforts in revising our basic governmental document. While the Florida Constitution Committee for years has diligently accumulated voluminous materials, it is not enough simply to make suggestions to the legislature. In cooperation with other interested groups, The Florida Bar must sell the need of constitutional revision to both the legislature and the public.”
“Certainly, all lawyers everywhere who cherish our honored traditions of public service recognize in the discharge of his responsibilities a lawyer must not be deterred by any real or fancied fear of public unpopularity. Equally, he should not be influenced, directly or indirectly, by a consideration of self-interest.”
“Local government should be so flexible that the people, by their votes, should have any form of government they want. . . .The most important thing is to give to the people forevermore the power to amend and revise their Constitution. . . without the interference of the legislature and without the interference or the veto of the chief executive.”
“There can be no menace to our security from within and none from without more lethal to our liberties at home and fatal to our influence abroad than this defiant flouting of laws and courts. I express my hope and confidence that the judicial and legislative force of this nation will act swiftly and decisively to correct this damaging incursion by the President upon the system of justice and therefore upon our basic liberties.
“It has always been evident to me that lawyers bear a special responsibility in our society for the preservation of a free and democratic government . . . . Lawyers should above all others jealously defend and promote the rule of law against assault.”
* * *
“We got into things that shocked all of us. We found that people at the highest levels of government, some of them sitting in the White House and working in the White House, were involved in things that many of us felt to be unworthy. They used all of the processes of government to advance these causes. But courageous and strong lawyers in perhaps the biggest political crisis our country has ever known made the system work. And in a nonpartisan way, I am proud of great Republican leaders like John Sirica, and I am proud of great Democratic lawyers like Leon Jaworski, and I could name all kinds of lawyers like Sam Ervin and Howard Baker. I can tell you that lawyers came and lawyers did, and the system worked. And our country is on the way to survival, and our country is on the way to resolution, and our country is on the way to greater greatness.
“I will even hazard a guess that some day we might feel that this year of 1972 and 1973 was a fortunate thing for us. It may have a significance to our country’s future equal in degree to the Civil War. It may have taken the 1984 syndrome and retarded it in a material way. We may have an opportunity again to put individual responsibility as a key watchword of our government simply because our government institutions under stress and strain were able to meet the challenge and to work it out.”
of ABA, as president
“We all most readily acknowledge that quality legal service is an expensive product, and usually such services are out of monetary reach of our average citizens. As president of the American Bar Association, I feel that such a situation is intolerable. It is just not acceptable to me. The right of ready access to the courts, the right to have even-handed justice for all of our citizens, which can only be obtained through lawyers, is basic to a society ruled by the law. Yet, without more quality legal assistance than is now economically available to many, that justice, that access to the courts, is and will be an illusory right.”
“Nobody seems to claim responsibility for the present plight of the veteran and the war resisters. There seems to be a moral void, a responsibility vacuum. Many of their problems involve legal rights, and I believe that the legal profession thus has a responsibility to furnish leadership in solving those problems.
“For all those reasons, and for compassion, it seems to me that it is timely for the American Bar Association to suggest legislation to all levels directed to improve the lot of the veteran, to clear the records of those unfavorably discharged as a result of war resistence, and to rehabilitate, or if you will, to repatriate and bring back into the fold those legions of young men who refused to serve in an undeclared war which was and still is an unhappy experience to almost all Americans. In essence, I suggest that it is now time for the organized bar to join with others in cleaning up the debris of the Vietnam War.
“I urge only that our nation as a whole not continue to perpetuate what millions of our citizens sincerely believe to be an injustice. Ours is a humanitarian heritage. As a nation, we have always felt that it was better to forgive than to take vengeance. If our nation is to be reunited, recriminations cannot long be our guide. Hate cannot lead to a better world, nor can it bring domestic tranquility . . . . It is a time to heal and to build. It is a time for compassion, for charity, for amnesty, and for forgiveness. It is a time for us to come together as one people who love our nation. It is a time for us to come together as an undivided nation who cherishes all of its people.”
Honolulu, Hawaii, August 12, 1974
“There is no job in the world any man can do well that any woman cannot do equally well. I personally believe the modification of our legal system by the adoption of the ERA is a necessary first step in ensuring that our social system, too, recognizes that every woman has the same rights as every man. A choice to do whatever one can achieve in life must not be foreclosed because of one’s sex . . . . As a lawyer and as a citizen, I favor adoption of ERA without reservation.”
“I personally perceive that many individual lawyers do not discharge in any substantial way an existing professional obligation for free public service. The grandiose legend often voiced at bar meetings that local lawyers as needed will roll up their sleeves and give unselfishly of their time to do that which lawyers ought to do—unfortunately—is mere fantasy. While more young lawyers by their good deeds add luster to the law than do older lawyers—lamentably, among those lawyers least concerned with justice as a majestic part of life, and least concerned with the practice of law as a grand and exalted calling—are more than a few of those who in the past several years have joined the bar. Especially does that seem so to me among those who presently are becoming lawyers. If indeed that is a trend, it is one which must be reversed if the legal profession is ever to receive wider public support.”
University of Miami School of Law
“Lawyers should, they must, help devise political—that is legal—means by which the world can peacefully settle issues that historically have been settled only by war. Failure to do so would be the ultimate folly. But unilateral disarmament would be folly compounded. A freeze on nuclear weapons must be accompanied by a simultaneous unfreezing of the rigidity and inability of the officers of the several governments of the world to deal rationally with human survival. Lawyers, as conflict resolvers, as problem solvers, as negotiators, know that each must come along with the other, and lawyers must furnish leadership to that end.”
* * *
“I think that the greatest single act of government that ever happened in our nation was Baker v. Carr. I think that when the court, the Supreme Court, decided ‘one man, one vote,’ they gave the states an opportunity to be revitalized, to free themselves from the special interests that totally controlled them, to get out of the people where they can be concerned about civil rights, civil liberties, and economies. . . . I saw our state take power away from Washington and move it back to Tallahassee, and meet the needs of the people because a court was willing to act. . . .
“I’ve heard what Judge Bork has said about that decision. I don’t know how he would do in the future. I assume that he would uphold that case. But when we start extending it, I want to know that there’s somebody that cares about an evolving document like the Constitution, that wants to make that Constitution meet the needs of the people.”
before the Senate Judiciary
Committee, against the nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork
to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Quite clearly to me, the lawyer as a civic and professional leader, the lawyer as a learned person, the lawyer as a helping person is the role which gives life to the lawyer and which makes and permits that lawyer to be somebody in the law. Such qualities were necessary long ago. And they today are absolutely essential if in the eyes of others a lawyer is truly to be somebody in the law.
“As you very well know, you already face an unprecedented point of decision. It is not of international or national proportion. But it has the potential to create a state constitutional crisis of the most serious kind, and it threatens the independence of the judiciary. That fundamental change in the financing of our justice system, ultimately, in my opinion, generally will be highly beneficial. However, it also can become a serious detriment to the courts, unless all independent state branches of government work together in harmony.”
Florida Supreme Court
Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead
“We, as lawyers, cannot simply work for ourselves and our deep-pocketed clients. We, as lawyers, must discharge our professional obligations always to help provide access to the legal system of all citizens.”
A Symbol of His Zest for Life and His Love to be Loved
Half of Chet Smith’s freezer is filled with Bradley’s Country Sausage, a memento from the last time his father visited Tallahassee.
Once again, they made the required trek up moss-draped, oak-canopied Centerville Road to the old country store where they still turn pigs into pork and peddle it sausage-style, so Chesterfield Smith could have one of the main ingredients of his famous recipe, known simply as “The Dish.”
Neither paella nor pilau, it is a zestily seasoned combo of saffron-tinted rice, vegetables, shrimp, and hot country sausage.
For 47 years, the elder Smith spent four hours in the kitchen each time he made “The Dish,” first concocted for his law partner back in Bartow. Through the years, he served it up with gusto, a symbol of his zest for life, and his love to be loved.
Smith called his old friend Sandy D’Alemberte one day and said: “You’ve got to get The Miami Herald on Sunday. It’s going to have a feature story on me, and it’s the best anybody’s ever done.”
“What’s it about, Chesterfield?” D’Alemberte asked.
“About what a good cook I am!” bellowed Smith.
As Smith told the Herald: “I think this dish is dadgum good.”
If you go to D’Alemberte’s kitchen in Tallahassee, the recipe for “The Dish” is framed on the wall.
Whenever Smith planned a special event, he would give each guest a copy of that 1991 Herald story and the recipe in a folder, along with a little paragraph naming the guest of honor, such as this one from October 23, 1993, complete with Smith’s personal signature: “On the occasion honoring Rhea Grafton Chiles, First Lady of Florida, following her presentation of the Tree of Life Award at the Jewish National Fund reception and banquet at the Fontainebleau Hotel, internationally known Chef Chesterfield Smith presents to each attendee a copy of his fabulous recipe for ‘The Dish.’”
At his high-ceilinged Coral Gables house, Smith loved to entertain.
While there were always a lot of very important people invited to these gatherings, he would always include young lawyers, too. As Martha Barnett observed, it was “someone he was bringing in and validating. When we were recruiting people for the firm, they didn’t stay at a hotel. They stayed at Chesterfield’s house. It was personal. He invested in them.”
His wife, Jackie, once joked the dishes got used so much from so much entertaining, the glaze had been rubbed off.
“It was almost pathological; he liked being around people so much,” said Chet Smith. His favorite memory of his dad he will always cherish was the time the whole family—mother Vivian, who learned navigation and had been certified by the Coast Guard, big sister Rhoda, and seven-year-old Chet—got Dad all to themselves for a six-week trip in a 20-foot boat named “Lord Chesterfield.” The high adventure took them from Lake Monroe in Sanford, all the way up the Intracoastal Waterway, to Washington, D.C.
But when Chesterfield Smith moved on land, he seemed to always be planning a party.
“He loved to be loved. You ought not underestimate that,” D’Alemberte said. “As Martha said, he really would have loved his funeral service, even though it went on an hour and a half. His only complaint would be that it didn’t go on three hours!”
One of Smith’s passions was creating occasions to bring friends together.
“He was as good about that as anybody I know. He called me a couple of times and said: ‘You don’t see enough of your friends. Come to Miami. I am going to organize a party around you.’ Well, what he was saying to me, he also said to everybody he called. I don’t have any illusions about that!” D’Alemberte said with a laugh.
Smith liked his steaks rare, his drinks strong, and his conversations loud and full of laugher.
“He loved to cook. He loved to eat. He loved friends,” Barnett said. “He just had a ball.”