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A tell-tale sign of the times

By ERNEST HOOPER, Times Columnist
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 25, 2003

B. Lee Elam is a longtime fixture in Brandon.

Some know him as the lawyer with the familiar marquee on the corner of Lumsden and Parsons that always touts the ups and downs of Florida State athletic programs. Others know Elam as a community activist who counseled the Brandon Chamber of Commerce in the '70s, and helped bring a Hillsborough Community College campus to Brandon. He also helped found the Brandon Bar Association and St. Stephens Catholic Church.

Over lunch at Longhorn Steakhouse we discussed his love of FSU, his early days in Brandon and his work as a Peace Corps volunteer. He had salmon, I had steak.

Pull up a chair and join us.

ERNEST: How did you land in Brandon in 1973?

LEE: I was living in Clair-Mel and working in Tampa. Dick Stowers, the local funeral director, came to me and said, "Lee, you need to come out and help Clayton Tittsworth out. I came out and immediately got involved in the (Brandon) Chamber of Commerce and I was their first volunteer attorney.

Someone told me buying the house on the corner of Parsons and Lumsden for your office was an epiphany for you.

I had my office right on State Road 60 and I was driving to Hickory Creek, to my home, and I went by the building and suddenly it just came over me: "I'm going to have that building. I'm going to own that building." No "for sale" sign, nothing. So I called my Realtor and he said, "It's for sale" (laughs).

So you bought that house in '76. When did you put up the sign?

I had a receptionist I hired and I asked her why she was late for her appointment to talk about the job. She said, "I couldn't read your sign." The sign was the wooden kind at the time and it was so weather-beaten she couldn't see it. So I said to myself, "Self, who is it that gets the most mileage out of their outdoor signs? Chiropractors." So I got the chiropractors magazine, called the guy in Texas who does those things and I said "I want you to put me up a sign." He said, "Are you a chiropractor?" I said, "No." He said, "I won't do it." I said, "Yes, you will." He said, "With that much faith I'll do it."

So how did the sign become a community message board?

I started thinking, "Why can't I do some community service here by putting things up that'll tickle people's funny bone?" People have told me that when they come up here from Bradenton and Sarasota they drive by to see what's on the sign. My wife can't write a check because they say,"Are you related to that dude with the office up on the corner?"

Sometimes you have messages about FSU, but you also root for Florida and Miami, when they're not playing the Seminoles.

When I got down here and I moved into Lumsden Road, I was about the only Seminole out here. I said, "I gotta do something about this." So I would put up a lot of stuff about FSU. One day I was out jogging and a guy said, "Why can't we support our state schools and not have all this bad blood?" I've been on the campaign ever since to have everybody be kinder to each other. I think it has worked.

So the FSU ties come from growing up near Tallahassee?

I grew up in a little town called Greenville, 42 miles east of Tallahassee. They say up there that people, when they die, they don't go to heaven, they go to Tallahassee because they're big FSU fans. When I was coming up, '47, that was when they actually became coed. When I got there, they were just getting into the Burt Reynolds era and things like that. They were coming on strong and they did well for the size of the school.

Why are juries so difficult to predict?

Juries aren't difficult to predict. We have a saying in the law: "A jury trial is an exercise in which two lawyers present evidence on behalf of their clients and than the jury votes for the lawyer they like." There's more than a modicum of truth in that, but I think that also you have to have right on your side to win. But you can win bigger depending on how you present your case. Some of us don't ever object to anything the other side does because that makes the jury think you're an agitator. I think if you leave it alone, they'll get the big picture. And I think that juries are almost always right.

What inspired you to be a lawyer?

I really don't know. I did not know for sure I wanted to be a lawyer, so I started law school after I applied to the Peace Corps. Halfway through first semester of law school, they offered me Jamaica. I said, "No, I don't want to learn English. I know that already." So I turned it down. Then they offered me Colombia. It got down to the end of the semester and I was talking to my study partner and he said, "You know Lee, if you don't do it now, you'll never do it." So I did it and it was the most important watershed event in my life. It's done so many things for me. I'll never look down on another human being after that experience. It really made me a different person.

That must have been a big deal for someone from Greenville, Florida, to spend two years in Colombia.

You should have heard the high school principal. He said, "I can't believe it, the FBI was here checking up on you." It was a big deal.

So you were just hoping to see a different part of the world, or were you inspired by John F. Kennedy's speech?

When Kennedy said, "Ask not what your country can do for you," I listened. I like to say I voted for Nixon but went to work for Kennedy. Colombia was more devastated by Kennedy's death than we were here. The country shut down. He was the most charismatic leader by far this country has ever seen.

So you were in Colombia when he was assassinated?

I was out building a basketball court when they called me and said the president has been killed. It was a terrible shock.

How do people react when they hear you speak Spanish?

I cause more whiplash with that than you can imagine. "What is this redneck doing speaking Spanish?" When I was in the Peace Corps, I couldn't speak a single word of Spanish. I said, "When I leave Colombia, I'm going to the best Spanish-speaking person I can, not only in the vocabulary, but in the accent. That's where most Americans make their mistake. They never doubt they're American by the way talk. I've had many people say "I thought you were Colombian" because of the way I imitate the accent.

What's been the best thing about being out here in Brandon?

My former district Boy Scout leader's daughter is married to a lawyer here. She was saying just months ago, with her husband standing next to her, "My father used to say if you want to be a successful lawyer, go to a community that's growing and grow with it." Her husband broke in and said, "Don't you know who he cited when he said that? Lee Elam."

DESSERT: A postscript from Ernest Elam, 63, passed on a chance to be president of a company in Colombia because he wanted to make it on his own. In fact, when he hears Frank Sinatra's My Way, the hair stands up on the back of his neck. He describes Pat, his wife of more than 20 years, as a short woman with a "really big soul." By the way, Lee became only the second of my lunch partners to order dessert. Brandon Times: The rest of the stories
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