I attended the Florida Worker's Compensation Institute Hall of Fame in January. This was an incredible gathering, with more than 1,000 years of Florida workers' compensation experience gathered in one room. I was privileged to sit between Richard Sicking and Al Frierson, clearly the deans of Florida Worker's Compensation. Each has been practicing more than 50 years.
This year marks the induction of new members. The opportunity to bear witness to the honoring of Claude Revels (formerly with JM Family Ent.) and Tom Koval (FCCI) was heartwarming. The Hall is divided into an "active" membership and a "Legends Division," which honors those who have retired from the industry. Honorees include adjusters, attorneys, judges, managers, and more.
The legend induction this year was for the Honorable Elwin Akins, posthumously. Judge Akins was based in Trenton, and the later Gainesville. He is said to be the last Florida judge of compensation claims to regularly "ride a circuit." Judge Akins had specific days of the week in specific counties around the Gainesville District, or as it was once known: "District B." These were not sporadic stops, but weekly adventures.
When Judge Akins left the bench in 1992, Judge Ohlman was appointed. I had many cases before Judge Ohlman in Gainesville. I never had the opportunity to appear before Judge Akins in Gainesville, or District B. However during one of the transitions between judges in Jacksonville, I had the opportunity to appear before him as a pro hac vice judge. That is a judge appointed temporarily to cover a docket. That practice has waned. I think the last pro hac vice in Florida workers' compensation was in Miami back in 2005. As I remember it Judge Akins served pro hac in Jacksonville after Judge Adams transferred to Orlando, and before Judge Harris was appointed to fill the resulting vacancy.
Judge Akins was "folksy." All who reminisced about him at the Hall dinner in January remembered his keen intelligence, and no-nonsense approach to the adjudication process. More heartwarming, though, was the repeated iteration that "Judge Akins was like a father to me," from various Hall of Fame members. Those kinds of sentiments are likely not uncommon in the practice. Many lawyers have been blessed with exceptional mentors over the years. But these sentiments were expressed by THE giants of the Florida workers' compensation market, and as they say "consider the source."
To appreciate the magnitude of such complements, one needs to understand the Hall of Fame is an incredible collection of individuals. Each has been dedicated to Worker's Compensation on a professional, intellectual, and even academic level for decades. These are the people upon whose backs Worker's Compensation has survived and thrived over the last 40 years. They did not write the workers' compensation law necessarily, but many of them influenced its writing and revisions over the decades. It is an indescribable honor, and humbling, to be included in such a group.
I think the only thing I might have changed would be for the Hall to have existed when Judge Akins was alive. He passed in 2009 at the age of 81. I wish we could have inducted him then. I wish we would have had the opportunity to tell stories of his exploits to his face; to honor him in person instead of in retrospect and abstentia. I sure enjoyed my hearing with him back in the day. He was no-nonsense, sure of himself and decisive. You knew where you stood, and for the most part stood wherever he told you to. I learned some lessons on being a judge from him.
As I drove home after the Hall dinner that night, I reflected on the comments. I was fortunate to have company as far as Lake City, Claude Revels had ridden with me from there. By the time I turned onto I-10, though, it was dark and it was quiet. I reflected and thought a great deal. It occurred to me that there have been a handful of people in my life that I would call a mentor. Some would not even know it. But, I have studied them and tried to emulate them.
There are people who have some defining characteristic, a scholar, a worker, a friend, a lecturer, an advocate, a professional. I am so blessed to know these people, and grateful for their influence. I am hopeful that somewhere out there Florida is blessed to have some lawyers (or other professionals) to whom maybe I taught a thing or two at some point. I am hopeful that my years in this industry and on this bench have been meaningful to some.
April 25, 2016 will be a momentous day in District "B." Judge Renee Hill will host a gathering in that office space, where the District has resided for more than 20 years now, and some words will be said. The plaque that I wish we had handed to Judge Akins years ago will be presented to Judge Hill, and she has promised it will be displayed there for everyone. There, in District "B," Judge Akins devoted his life to this system and the people ensnared within it. It seems appropriate that a little reminder of him comes to rest in that office. But, it will be a grey-haired bunch that remember him, some 24 years hence (sorry folks, I call 'em like I see 'em).
I am proud of our workers' compensation bench in Florida. I think it is unequalled anywhere. But, I do miss some of the "old timers" and I enjoy reliving their contributions through a story or two at a dinner once a year. Perhaps this comes more acutely as you near "old-timer" status yourself? Here's looking at you Judge, and thank you to all who worked to make this presentation and honor come about.
I hope you have a mentor or two. Perhaps today is the day to let her or him know. Pick up that phone and reach out while you can. Time keeps teaching me that it's never too early and often too late.