Ramon A. Abadin: President of the Florida Bar.

Author:Pudlow, Jan

Soot and smoke swirled in the engine room of the Langfitt, where young Ramon Abadin sweated in 120-degree heat as a "wiper" cleaning behind boilers.

Abadin was glad to snag this job working on the 351-foot dredge boat at the mouth of the Mississippi River for two summers after freshman and sophomore years at Tulane University in New Orleans.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers paid $15 an hour, big money for a kid working his way through college in the late '70s.

His Cuban-American parents in Miami couldn't afford to send him away to college, so Abadin cobbled together tuition and living expenses with financial aid, a little scholarship money, and his own resourcefulness.

Experiences gained working on the Langfitt: Bunking with good ol' Southern boys who told wild stories. Using a bathroom with no doors on the stalls. Knowing not to sit in someone else's chair at the table or a gruff bark would order him to move. Tasting Mississippi moonshine out of a Clorox bottle for the first time. Pushing himself to the limit.

Usually, the work schedule was 10 days on and four off. But it was a month-long gig when they moved the boat from New Orleans Southwest Pass around the Florida peninsula en route to North Carolina.

On a Sunday afternoon, Abadin squinted toward the sparkling coastline of Miami, where friends from Christopher Columbus High School no doubt were hanging out at South Beach having a good time.

Abadin went to the fantail and thought: "I'm jumping off this boat. Enough of this!"

A strong swimmer, he knew he could make it to shore. But he also knew he couldn't quit. It would embarrass his cousin who got him the job. It would be bad for the captain.

"And it would not be cool for me," Abadin said. "I needed the money. So we went to North Carolina."

Dr. Clifford Clark III, a high-school friend and college roommate who's now a plastic surgeon, didn't last half the summer working with Abadin at that "ridiculously unpleasant job" on the dredge boat chipping paint.

"I don't know that I've ever met a harder working guy," said Clark, whose own attorney father paid his way through medical school.

"We met on the football field when we were freshmen at Columbus. He was a middle linebacker and I was a defensive tackle. It was 100 degrees in the shade in August, and I leaned on his shoulder, and he said to me, 'I'm tired, too.'

"I remember those exact words when we met, and it was an amazing start to a lifelong friendship, and underscored all of the things I love about my friend Ray. He has an unbelievable work ethic. And you could tell that when he was 14 years old."

Now 56, Abadin is a partner at Sedgwick LLP, an international litigation and business law firm, working at the Miami office with his wife, Kimberly Cook, who is managing partner.

Described by many as a free-thinking adventurer who revels in pushing people out of their comfort zones, Abadin is ready to roll up his sleeves and work hard as president of The Florida Bar.

He's risen in leadership at a time when technology and increased competition from nonlawyers are rapidly transforming the legal services marketplace. His year will be devoted to continuing the work of the Vision 2016 commission to identify challenges lawyers face in the areas of technology, legal education, bar admission, and access to legal services.

"Ray believes that sometimes you have to stir things up and create some chaos to initiate creativity and to really be able to dissect an issue, tear it apart in debate, and put it back together," said Greg Coleman, immediate past president of the Bar, who describes himself as "more cautious and contemplative" by comparison.

"Ray will bring a different perspective to the Bar that is, quite frankly, needed. Ray is doing a good job of waking up people to the fact that this profession is changing more rapidly than we can even see, and we need to at least educate people."

Asked why she thinks her husband wants to be the leader of Florida's 100,000 lawyers, Cook answered: "Ray is a history major and loves the evolution of things. The profession is changing so much and he's living through it. He's one of those guys who pushes the envelope, and he has a lot to say."

"I Am an Immigrant"

In 1961, when Abadin was two years old, his father left his law practice and his mother said goodbye to her beloved home in Cuba. They packed a suitcase and boarded a plane for the United States, thinking their escape from communism to this strange new country would be a short stop. But they could never go back to Cuba, leaving behind everything they had and everything they knew.

Abadin's father, Ramon Abadin, Jr., could never overcome the language barrier to practice law in the U.S. Instead, he did odd jobs, parked cars, mowed grass, worked as a ships chandler providing dry goods along the Mississippi River in New Orleans, stocked Italian olive oil in grocery stores, and managed apartments, among his many ways to support his family.

First, the Abadins lived in Atlanta for two years; followed by a decade in Terrytown, a suburb of New Orleans; and finally landing in Miami in 1973.

"My parents talked about Cuba every day, all day. They very much longed to go back," Abadin said.

"Living the immigrant experience" is a big part of Abadin's reason for wanting to be Bar president.

"I am really in awe of this country. I am an immigrant. I never forget that," said Abadin, who speaks perfect English as his second language, as well as his native tongue, Spanish, and Portuguese, which he minored in as an undergrad at Tulane.

"I always felt a desire to nurture the process and the peace of our government, which is the rule of law."

Growing up in a multi-generational, Spanish-speaking household where the aroma of arroz con polio and frijoles negros wafted from the kitchen, Abadin describes himself as "very much a bicultural and bilingual person. Aid, I'm very American."

A former president of the Cuban American Bar Association, he is mindful he was not born in the United States.

"Psychologically, that is just a different facet. You know, I could get deported if I commit a crime. My citizenship could be revoked. I'm a naturalized citizen. If you look at it that way, I could lose the privilege of being an American if I do something stupid. I don't think about it every day, because I don't think I'll do anything stupid," Abadin said.

"So I am an American, but I could not be very quickly."

Abadin got a chance to go back to his birthplace in 1999, under unique circumstances as a court-appointed guardian ad litem in a tragic case.

Two years earlier, a Fine Air DC-8 cargo jet dropped out of the sky west of the Miami International Airport, killing four people aboard the plane and one man sitting in his car.

Fort Lauderdale attorney Hy Montero represented the family of one of the fatalities, a 32-year-old security guard on the plane, whose 11-year-old daughter living in Holguin, Cuba, had hoped her father would help her immigrate to the United States.

When the case settled, Montero and Abadin traveled together to Cuba, flying into Havana and renting a car for the 500-mile journey to Holguin.

"We drove through a country that is so beautiful--the mountains, the rivers, the waterfalls. But the system is so bad. We gave thanks to our parents for having the insight and wisdom and drive to leave that country. Otherwise, we would be stuck in that totalitarian society," said Montero, whose parents had fled Cuba before he was born in the United States.

On their way to Holguin, with Montero's Cuban cousins in the car, a rainstorm forced them to check into a hotel for the night.

Abadin and Montero were flabbergasted when told the Cuban cousins could not check into the hotel because the government did not want Cubans to fraternize with foreign tourists. Montero will never forget witnessing this exchange:

"Why can't they stay here?" Abadin asked the hotel attendant.

"They're Cubans," the attendant answered.

"What are you?" Abadin asked.

"I'm Cuban, too, and I can't stay here, either."

"What do you think about that?" Abadin asked.

"Sir, I haven't thought in years."

Abadin asked to speak to the hotel manager, who insisted the rules must be followed, and said: "They can stay in the car out in the parking lot."

After what Montero describes as "some diplomatically frank and direct exchanges for 15 to 20 minutes, my cousins were allowed to stay in the hotel."

"The manager then invited us to stay in the hotel on the way back to Havana from Holguin," Montero recounted. "Done deal. Ray's ability to engage and diplomatically defuse an uncomfortable and potentially volatile situation enabled my cousins to stay in the hotel with us."

The trip was particularly moving for this pair of Florida lawyers with Cuban roots, Montero said, "Because this is where our parents were born, where our parents were educated and began their lives, and left because of the political situation. We had an opportunity to drive through neighborhoods that our parents grew up in and meet people along the way.

"When I got home," Montero said, "the first thing I did was hug my father and thank him."

Living the American Dream

Abadin's parents have been deceased for many years, but his aunt, "Tia Nora" Abadin, who married his dad's brother, described leaving Cuba as "very, very sad."

"We never thought Fidel would be so long in Cuba. We came here in October, and my father said we'd be back in December," Nora Abadin said.

Describing her brother-in-law as a successful lawyer in Cuba, she said, "The problem was they were 30-something and they had to leave with no money. You have to start working at whatever you find. He loved his family and was a really good father."

"And you see how handsome Ramon is," she said of her nephew. "He has his mother's face."

"Tia Emma" Fernandez, sister of Abadin's mother, described Alicia as "a beautiful Latin type, with black eyes."

"My sister was an English teacher in Cuba. When she came here, she started to be a...

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