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Sunday, Nov 19, 2017
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Sunday Conversation: The bronzing of E.J. Salcines

There have been three professional versions of Emiliano Jose "E.J." Salcines. There were the decades the 79-year-old West Tampa native spent as a lawyer, including 16 years as an elected state prosecuting attorney. Then there were his 15 years as an appellate judge.

And since his retirement from the bench in 2009, he's become one of Tampa's more beloved oral historians.

On Friday at 2 p.m., the Mayor's Hispanic Advisory Council will unveil a bronze statue of Salcines outside the Hillsborough County Courthouse at Pierce and Madison streets in downtown.

Rather than focusing on one aspect of Salcines' career, the statue celebrates it all.

The bronzed Salcines will be wearing a suit signifying his time as an attorney, a judicial robe draped over one arm, with a gavel in one hand and the other extended in front of him as if in mid-history lecture.

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Paul Guzzo recently sat down with the Tampa icon to discuss his legacy.

With everything you have accomplished, how would you like to be remembered?

I find myself thinking, EJ, if you were to die right now and you had to justify your entrance to heaven what would you tell St. Peter you have done? My answer would have to be helping a lot of people acquire their professions. So many of those I have helped along have become lawyers and judges. I mentored federal judges. When [former U.S. Rep] Jim Davis was in college he was a runner in the summer learning what the state attorney office was about. I'm proud those I helped have gone on to success.

You have helped hundreds of residents gain admission to your alma mater, South Texas College of Law, that locally its called EJU and the college named it's student center after you. How did that begin?

Total serendipity. During my last year there I was the student law librarian. Through that job I became friends with the assistant dean who would become dean – Garland Walker. So fast forward to probably 1968 or 1969.

Some young college graduate from St. Petersburg whose name I cannot remember said he had been thinking of going to law school and asked for a letter of recommendation [to go to South Texas.] I called and put in a good word for the young man. That student did very well for himself so when another student asked for help and I called the college again, they were willing to listen to me again. If that student had been a screw up they may not have taken my calls ever again.

What advice would you give to those who want to have the type of legal career you enjoyed?

You will never stop learning. When you graduate law school, those three years are behind you but now the single most important test that you are going to have is coming up. If you don't pass the bar exam you don't ride the ponies. Once you pass you have your license but now you must make a living. They don't train us too well in law school to be in a court room. You must learn hands on and it comes from everyday experience. So then the focus is on development of yourself professionally. And then I ran for office, was elected and I'm a boss who selects who will be on my team and I work with a budget. No one in law school taught me about business management. I had to be willing to learn.

When you became a judge, what did you have to learn?

To be a good listener rather than a talker. When you are a judge, you are not the advocate, you are the receptor of information.

In recent years, you've become one of Tampa's great oral historians, someone who seems to know about most aspects of the city's past. How did you become so knowledgeable?

I have always had an affinity for history. Let me take you back. During the second World War we used to prepare for air raids just in case the Germans or the Japanese bombed our country. They were always at night, generally after dinner. A siren would go off and then all the lights had to be out.

Every block had a civil defense person and if someone had even a single candle burning, they would knock on the door and yell to turn off the light. To entertain my little brother Joseph and me, my father would lay down in the bed with us. He would be in the center and my brother would be to the right and I would be to the left.

And my father would ask us questions like what is the capital of Florida, what is the capital of the United States? At a very early age my father was introducing us to geography and history. In life's cycle, everybody eventually wants to know more about their history but it generally happens when you are collecting a social security check. Well, I got the bug early on and I asked a lot of older people questions about things such as when they first came to Tampa, what the journey was like, what their street was like when they first moved there, what they went through.

God has blessed me with the most important thing - retention. You can hear all the stories but if you can't remember them it doesn't really matter. And I have lived in interesting times and I remember the details.

With the statue being dedicated, you are now officially part of Tampa's history. The million-dollar question is, of course, what it's like to have a statue of yourself?

It is overwhelming. I am humbled by it. They usually do such things for people when they die. So, it's an eerie experience. But it's nice they have given me the opportunity to say thank you in life. Plus, I like the statue. [The sculptor Steve Dickey] knocked off 20 years so I don't have as many wrinkles and I have more hair.

Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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