Herman J. Russomanno–President of The Florida Bar
After Hurricane Andrew ripped through Miami, rendering his own home unlivable, Herman
Russomanno pedaled his bicycle several miles past downed electrical lines and fallen trees to wind-ravaged Palmer Trinity School. He knew he had to help.
Worrying about theft from the devastated campus after that August 1992 disaster, Russomanno struck an unusual deal.
“On the first Sunday after Andrew, I happened to run into a group of soldiers, so I said, ‘What’s going on, gentlemen?’ This was the 82nd Airborne. They basically said they were lost, and they had to set up a perimeter because of the problems in the area. So I said: ‘Captain, do you know where you’re going?’ And he said, ‘Not exactly.’
“I said, “Well, I have a deal for the 82nd Airborne. You can use the school as a shelter, but set up a secure perimeter for us. I don’t mind having the whole Airborne there.”
And so, the soldiers did just that, with Russomanno bringing them dozens of donuts and coffee in the mornings during their several weeks stay at the school.
“I had to do it,” Russomanno explains of pitching in to help the school, even as he dealt with repairs at his own home. “I’ve always been a person who finds it hard to say ‘No.’”
Lucky for the lawyers of the Sunshine State, Herman J. Russomanno has said “Yes” to leading The Florida Bar as the next president.
Chuck Baumberger, past president of the Dade County Bar Association and past chair of the Trial Lawyers Section, observed firsthand Russomanno’s combination of brilliant lawyering, pro bono service, and community spirit, when they served together on Palmer Trinity’s board and had to deal with Andrew’s destruction of the school.
“He negotiated so that there was a stream of money coming in immediately, and he was able not only to get a replacement of the buildings, but he was able to get the lost income stream from the school started and just did a fantastic job,” Baumberger recalls.
“That the school is alive and well and thriving today is no small thing.”
Those who know Russomanno know that he’s more than busy—he’s busy doing good things. Besides serving in leadership capacities in the Bar and participating in 18 other law-related groups, Russomanno has found time to help his community, including the National Conference for Community and Justice, the Boy Scouts of America, Habitat for Humanity, and the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. He’s been a trustee of universities and a leader of university advisory boards, school booster clubs and the boys baseball leagues, and he has helped St. Thomas University get its law school accredited.
“The quintessential Boy Scout,” is how Steve Zack, president of the Bar in 1989, describes Russomanno.
“He has more merit badges than anyone I know. He really personifies the qualities of
professionalism courses that are taught in law schools and our CLE courses. First and foremost, he is totally ethical. And he is, frankly, indefatigable, limitless in his energy.. . I think Herman operates on a different clock. He finds 48 hours in the day to be a great lawyer.”
How Russomanno squeezes so much into his life was demonstrated during a break in the October Board of Governors meeting. He was supposed to be taking a leisurely diversion from Bar business, strolling with the group down Boston’s Freedom Trail, sightseeing historic spots.
But there was Russomanno, wearing his warm-up suit, cell phone pressed to his ear, chatting away while walking two or three miles and attempting to settle a complex commercial case with Florida lawyers.
Board member Mickey Cummings couldn’t help but good-naturedly razz the incoming Bar president for his tireless drive to take care of business. She dialed his number. As he picked up the phone, he was facing Cummings, who grinned and let out a cheery: “Hello, Herman!”
Later, when Cummings, her husband, and board member Hank Coxe lost the rest of the group, she called Russomanno.
“He didn’t know where they were because he was so absorbed in what he was doing,” Cummings laughs.
That’s Russomanno, a 50-year-old dynamo, packing all he can into a day, going to bed well after midnight, and rising before dawn.
Juggling a zillion things, he serves in leadership roles in a variety of good causes, runs his Miami law firm, plays baseball, laughs with friends and, most important of all, has time for his family.
Colleagues are in awe of his seemingly endless supply of energy and dedication.
“Really, there are three Herman Russomannos. There’s just not enough time in the day for all that he does,” says board member Miles McGrane III, who met Russomanno in 1972 on their first day of law school at Cumberland School of Law at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.
“My photo idea is to have Herman in a blur. That is the true Herman Russomanno, a blur going from appointment to appointment and meeting to meeting.”
Rep. John Cosgrove, D-Miami, who also went to law school with Russomanno, shares this historic perspective: “Herman has always been very energetic. You could almost comically say he isn’t much different now than 25 years ago.. . . He looks the same and acts the same. Most of us have slowed down after 25 years. But Herman has the fountain-of-youth answer.”
Russomanno just shrugs: “If I’m sleeping, I don’t know what’s going on.”
And if he’s awake, you can bet no time is wasted.
While dining at the Miami City Club with a panoramic view of the condo-studded coastline, Russomanno excuses himself from the table, and in a few minutes comes back to focus on his plate of mahi mahi and announces: “I just settled a case.”
His wife, Sally, who teaches pre-kindergarten at St. Louis Catholic School in Miami, says with a laugh: “See, I told you he’s so productive!”
What kind of president of the Bar will her husband make?
“I know he’ll give his heart and soul,” she says. “He’s a perfectionist. He still talks about the only B he got in college. Always had to be the best. I said, ‘Get over it, Herman! That was 30 years ago!’”
In his hustle-and-bustle agenda as an outstanding board certified trial lawyer and community and bar leader, there’s no question that his family—Sally, and sons Herman III (better known as “H”) and Christopher—comes first.
“The stories he would tell us about how he had to run through airports and drive all night just to be with us! My dad has always been there for my brother and me,” says 20-year-old Christopher, attending Elon College in North Carolina on scholarships for both varsity football (wide receiver) and golf.
“From the first time that I could remember, he was teaching us sports, and making us read books, even when we did not want to. He used to work with us so hard in sports, no matter what time it was or how tired he was, and he always made time to teach us to be the best. He came to all of our games no matter what sport it was, and he always made time to be our coach.”
Older son Herman, who is a senior business major at St. Thomas and who recently returned with his baseball team from the NAIA College World Series in Idaho, plans to go to law school and follow in his father’s footsteps.
“In working with my dad and his law partner, Mr. Borrello, I see that their law firm represents some of the poorest people and some of the wealthiest people and corporations in Florida—every age group, gender, nationality, and race. It’s given me a chance to see how lawyers help people.”
And he has learned so much from his father.
“My dad has devoted himself to helping my brother and me reach our educational goals and successfully compete in high school and college sports,” says Herman III. “He’s the ultimate teacher and coach. He enjoys helping people, whether he’s teaching me to switch hit in baseball at age six or working with me to build homes for Habitat for Humanity in San Diego, Chicago, Homestead, and other cities.”
At St. Thomas University, where Russomanno recently received an honorary doctor of laws, the Rev. Monsignor Franklyn Casale, who is president of the school, says: “Herman is a devoted family man. I can tell you, when ‘H’ is playing in a baseball game, Herman is in the stands.”
And Sally agrees: “Yes, the number one thing with Herman is his family. His work is very important to him, because he sees it as a way to help people. But his family is number one.”
She teases him with a little test, reeling back to 1980 when she was about to give birth to Christopher. Her due date was close to the time of the Orange Bowl Marathon for which Herman had been training for 17 weeks. He had promised a law school classmate he could run it in under four hours.
“Herman, who is my Lamaze coach, says to me: ‘Please don’t have the baby on the day of the marathon,’” Sally recalls. As it turned out, Christopher cooperated and was born two days before the big race.
Grinning impishly two decades later, Sally asks Herman: “If they happened on the same day, which would you have chosen?”
“The baby, the baby, of course, of course,” he is quick to answer.
Not only was he dutifully in the delivery room for his son’s birth, but two days later he kept his promise, running the marathon in 3:38.
No wonder a Rutgers coffee mug at his office is engraved with his nickname, “Thor.”
Christopher, a business major who plans to become a lawyer like his dad and his grandfather, admits he’s glad his father pushed him so hard in academics.
When Christopher was nine, he was so impressed to learn that family friend, 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Peter Fay, was a great athlete at Rollins College, playing both basketball and football.
“I’m going to play two college sports too,” the young Christopher proudly announced to his dad.
“And I said to Chris: ‘And you know what Judge Fay did that was even more important than playing two sports? He was number one in his class in law school.’”
Russomanno himself was a great role model for his sons. At Essex Catholic High School and Rutgers University, he played football and baseball, ran track and wrestled, but still graduated third in his class, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, earning a degree in political science with college-wide honors.
As Christopher, the two-sports college sophomore, looks back at his disciplined childhood, he says, “We would visit so many different colleges when we were little. We would go to all kinds of museums and historical sites. I remember when we were little, my dad would buy these learning tapes and play them in the car everywhere we went.”
Like Russomanno’s personal daily agenda, family vacations were intense—packed with educational experiences and sports spectacles. Sally made sure there was enough culture tossed in.
Take this whirlwind Russomanno vacation in California:
Fly into L.A., and go to the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, catch the Angels game at Anaheim,
drive 200 miles to San Diego to attend a legal convention and visit San Diego State University, run the track on that campus, visit the naval yard and the San Diego Zoo, back to Los Angeles to visit UCLA and USC, go to a Dodgers game, travel to Yosemite National Park, go to Oakland to see the Athletics play, visit Stanford University in Palo Alto, run the track for a mile on that campus, visit Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, see a Giants game and a play, zip over to Sacramento to see the capitol, travel to Lake Tahoe and fly home from Reno. Whew!
“The family gets a little exhausted,” Russomanno chuckles. “We visited five stadiums that trip. The boys and I had an agreement that we would visit every major league baseball stadium in the United States and Canada before they graduated from high school. And we’re only one shy. That night in San Francisco, the play we went to see was called Sheer Madness. And my wife says that was so apropos because that’s what this vacation was: sheer madness!”
Recounting how her husband coached Khoury League when their sons were small, Sally says: “He’s just so anxious to be there for the boys. I think because his dad died when he was 12, he wanted his sons to grow up to know their father is always there.”
A month after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Russomanno’s father died — but his influence on his son did not.
When he was 14, Russomanno was in the basement of the family’s Newark, New Jersey, home going through his dad’s old law books. He found his father’s signature inside tomes bearing the titles, “Art of Cross Examination,” “Day in Court,” “The Subtle Arts of Great Advocates.”
That’s when Russomanno decided to become a lawyer, like his dad.
“And here is ‘101 Famous Poems,’ and I know he used excerpts from some of them in closing arguments,” Russomanno says, flipping through those old books stacked on his desk in his 21st-floor office suite in downtown Miami’s Museum Tower.
“I went to court twice with my dad. I’ll always remember the Essex County (N.J.) Courthouse—the majesty of the courtroom with the judges in their black robes. And I always knew how important it was to be an officer of the court and what it meant to be a lawyer.
“My father was a people’s lawyer, doing everything from real estate to personal injury. After he died, so many people would tell me, ‘I knew your dad. Your dad was a wonderful lawyer and an honest man.’ My dad was a loving person, a caring person, a great listener, and he tried to bring people to resolution in their problems.”
His father was a New Deal Democrat serving as an assemblyman in the New Jersey Legislature, while his mother was an active chairwoman in the Republican party.
Thanks to his mother, who is 91, Russomanno learned the importance of getting an education and the value of diversity.
A strong woman who was ahead of her time, his mother graduated from college in 1929 and had a career in social work and teaching before having her only child when she was 40.
“I saw the way she helped people. I was able to see how fiercely independent she was. She was a pioneer for women’s rights. That helped me believe early on in diversity. I grew up with it, with my mom as a professional,” Russomanno says.
That’s why it just came naturally to become a founding member of the Dade County chapter of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers and to join the Cuban American Bar Association, because, he says, “I believe in full and equal participation in the legal profession by women and minorities.”
One of his mother’s favorite phrases is, “Nobody is born a bigot,” and he celebrated diversity growing up in an Italian neighborhood in Newark, with grandparents on both sides who had the courage to immigrate to a new country where they didn’t know the language, and had the wisdom to instill the value of education in their children.
After Russomanno’s father died, it was his mother’s tradition to devote Sundays to family gatherings, inviting her four brothers and sister and their families over for what Russomanno remembers as “these wonderful Italian dinners, and there would be delicious food and tremendous debates” between his uncles, one of whom was a lawyer.
“That’s a prerequisite for trial lawyers, to be able to persuade,” Russomanno says of this early inspiration to advocate for a living.
Early on, he also learned to appreciate opera and theater. After his father died, from the age of 12, Russomanno would escort his mother to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. He still loves opera to this day, and he is able to read a libretto and understand it, because his mother taught Italian.
He’ll never forget his first opera at the Met, Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida.
“After the second act, I went out for a Coke, and they closed the doors and wouldn’t let me back in. I said, ‘You don’t understand! I have to get in there! ” He knew there would be no way to explain to his mother.
“I never missed another curtain call,” Russomanno says with a wry grin. “And I think that experience has always made me be on time.”
He was at the right place at the right time on Christmas Eve, 1965.
At a party, his eyes fell on a 15-year-old girl with big blue eyes named Sally, and it was love at first sight.
“She was so pretty,” Russomanno recalls. “And she had this gorgeous smile—just a wonderful person who was always happy.”
Sally remembers being a “goody two-shoes,” who said she wasn’t staying at the party, but intended to go to midnight mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral.
And Herman asked: “Can I walk you there?”
They haven’t been apart since. Herman was the first and only boy Sally ever dated; they married when she was 22, and she worked as secretary to put him through law school.
“I feel like I raised three boys,” Sally says about being so young when she met Herman. “We really raised each other. He is my best friend.” And Herman gets a little misty-eyed when he talks about his wife.
“We go down the path of life together, and her smile makes it so bright. I have told my sons that the greatest gift a father can give his children is to love their mother. Sally is a wonderful wife and mother.”
A Knack for Leadership
After their two-week honeymoon to San Francisco, Hawaii, Las Vegas and Los Angeles in 1972, the newlyweds moved to Birmingham, Alabama, where Herman attended Cumberland School of Law.
“That was my first time away from home, and it was a wonderful learning experience,” Sally says.
In keeping with Herman’s established pattern—he was president of his third through eighth grade classes at a Catholic school, captain of sports teams, and president of his college inter-fraternity council—he assumed a leadership role at law school.
“Herman was president of the student bar association his senior year,” says McGrane, a law school friend. “The joke then, which has proven to be prophetic, is he would be president of every organization he’s been associated with. Whatever he becomes involved in, he delivers a minimum of 150 percent. And he has been blessed with a life partner who has the same enthusiasm and zest to do the right thing.”
Russomanno’s skills at leadership and diplomacy were tested when the Cumberland law students at the Baptist-run Samford University balked at the idea of mandatory convocations at the chapel.
“There was tension,” Russomanno remembers. “I met with the president of the university, who said it was important that everyone go to chapel. I said, ‘How about if we do a national forum and have educational speakers?’ “
The governor of New Jersey and former Florida Gov. LeRoy Collins filled the chapel with words of wisdom for the law students, launching the outstanding Speakers Forum that continues to this day.
Everyone was happy. The university president was pleased that the law students were assembled at the chapel for convocation. The law students were satisfied that they were receiving a great education from impressive speakers.
That year, Cumberland was chosen as the outstanding student bar association in the country by the American Bar Association.
And Russomanno would go on to serve as Cumberland’s National Alumni Association president and be honored in 1995 as Distinguished Alumni of the Year.
“I’ve always tried to be a consensus-builder,” Russomanno says of qualities that serve him well as he tries cases or works to settle personal injury, wrongful death, medical negligence, products liability and complex commercial cases through mediation at Russomanno and Borrello.
“I learned to walk with dignity when representing the Bar. It’s an honored profession, and I believe you can be a passionate trial lawyer, yet still treat people with respect and professional courtesy,” he says.
That’s what Ray Pearson noticed about him more than 20 years ago, when Russomanno was on the other side of a case representing Southern Bell.
“He was an excellent opponent,” Pearson recalls. “We admired the way he handled himself, as well as the case he had. This started our relationship with him.”
Pearson hired Russomanno away from Southern Bell in 1980. It wasn’t long before the new associate jumped over several junior partners to become partner at Floyd Pearson Richman Greer Weil Brumbaugh and Russomanno, where he remained for more than 16 years until striking out to form his own practice with partner Robert Borrello in 1996.
But there was no resentment among his colleagues.
“It went well because all respected him and knew how hard he worked,” Pearson says. “He set a tone among the younger lawyers, by hard work, by being in the office before it was due to open and after it closed up.”
He laughs when he tells the story about how Russomanno drew one case to resolution with a savvy touch.
“Our offices occupied the 10th floor of the Miami Center Building, and in order to have some security, these two big gates come down about 6 p.m. Unless you have the combination, you can’t get in or out,” Pearson recounts.
“Well, Herman was handling this mediation of a patent case, which started at 9 a.m., and they had not been able to resolve matters. Herman was working with them at 6 p.m., and those gates came down, and you couldn’t leave by the lobby elevator.
“Herman was the only one with the key and he told the rest of them: ‘You can’t leave until the case is settled.’ Well, sure enough, the attorneys and clients resolved it and then he let them out at 9 p.m.”
Pearson lets out a big laugh, and then describes Herman’s leadership abilities in so many bar and civic groups.
“I not only admire Herman, I love him,” Pearson says. “He made a real impression in my life. And he will leave a definite imprint on the Bar.”
Pearson and Bob Floyd, president of The Florida Bar in 1978, are two former judges, partners and mentors who left a lasting imprint on Russomanno, teaching him the importance of giving back to his profession.
“And I learned from Judge Pearson about professionalism and assisting your fellow lawyer,” Russomanno adds. “If a lawyer calls from anywhere in the U.S. or internationally with a question, I’ve always felt that you should help your colleague. What goes around, comes around.”
Before that, fresh out of law school in 1975, while clerking for the late Daniel H. Thomas of the U.S. District Court in Mobile, and for Alabama Supreme Court Justice Hugh Maddox the following year, Russomanno learned the importance of judicial independence.
“The old judges of the Fifth Circuit were unlikely heroes during the civil rights era. Their decisions were unpopular and they risked loss of friendship and were shunned by others,” Russomanno says. “But they were fiercely independent and would not be intimidated. These judges of the 1960s championed causes to see that the constitutional rights of all citizens were protected, despite strong local opposition.”
That experience working with those brave judges is part of his inspiration to create a Judicial Independence Commission, one of his goals during his presidency.
“The Florida Bar is there to vigorously protect the independence of the judiciary,” Russomanno says.
“The judicial branch should not be intimidated. Judicial independence enriches democracy. The three branches of government are there for a purpose, and it’s a delicate balance.”
Through the commission, Russomanno hopes to help educate political leaders, the public and the media to understand that “unwarranted attacks on the judiciary interfere with this delicate balance. If people lose faith in the courts to be independent, our democracy is lost.”
His longtime paralegal, Gema Palazzotto, is certain of this about Russomanno’s year as president: “He’s going to get things done. Whatever goals he sets, he’ll meet them. He’s a man of the most integrity I have ever known.”
And his partner Robert Borrello says he’ll never forget how doggedly dedicated Russomanno can be, once coming in to give the closing arguments at a trial just a day after having surgery.
“We got $1 million in punitive damages,” Borrello recalls of that case. “It just shows his tremendous drive.”
And that drive translates into public service. Those who know Russomanno best describe an intensity to get the job done, with an underlying humbleness and kindness that are genuine.
“There’s no subterfuge with Herman. What you see is what you get,” says Mickey Cummings.
People warm to him,” says Jim Howe, executive director of the National Conference for Community and Justice, where Russomanno serves on the executive committee.
“He has an affidavit lifestyle,” says Steve Zack, who’s tried quite a few cases with him. “The jury believes that they have somebody who is going to be honest with them.”
The Most Reverend John C. Favarola, the Archbishop of Miami, knows Russomanno from his years serving as chair of the St. Thomas University Board of Trustees.
“His personal charm, wit, and capabilities were a positive asset during his tenure,” the archbishop says. “Board meetings, which can be extremely tedious, were not so because of his charming and laid-back manner.”
“He likes to do good whatever he decides good is,” says Chesterfield Smith, president of The Florida Bar in 1964 and former president of the American Bar Association. “Herman is always working on some other civic, professional or community do-good job. While I don’t mean he doesn’t practice law to make a living, he spends a lot of time helping people do good.”
Jan Pudlow is an associate editor with The Florida Bar News.