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Business Observer Friday, Apr. 23, 2004 16 years ago

Honored for Professionalism: 'The Big O'

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Honor. Integrity. Fair play. The St. Petersburg Bar Association and GCBR gave the annual Professionalism Award to Oscar Blasingame.

Honored for Professionalism: 'The Big O'

Honor. Integrity. Fair play. The St. Petersburg Bar Association and GCBR gave the annual Professionalism Award to Oscar Blasingame.

By Janet Leiser

Managing Editor

During his three decades as an attorney, Oscar Blasingame's clients included the famed Alabama football coach Bear Bryant and Sarasota Sheriff Jim Hardcastle.

Both men escaped serious allegations mostly unscathed, thanks, at least in part, to Blasingame's lawyering. Not that you'll hear Blasingame, now 67, toot his own horn.

But that's OK. His friends and colleagues - lawyers Lee Rightmyer, Tom Masterson, David Abbey, John Yanchunis and Michael Keane - spoke up on his behalf. They nominated Blasingame for the fourth annual Professionalism Award, given by the St. Petersburg Bar Association and Gulf Coast Business Review-Tampa to an attorney who exemplifies the Florida Bar's Creed of Professionalism, which emphasizes devotion to public service, honor, integrity and fair play.

Blasingame was honored at the association's April 16 luncheon. His son, Oscar T. Blasingame, accepted the black marble pillar award for him.

The elder Blasingame couldn't make the meeting. His mind was willing, but not his body. He suffers from ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. He was diagnosed with the neuromuscular disorder in October 2002, about the same time he was winding down his law practice to retire.

Yanchunis, who spoke at the award ceremony, says Blasingame served as a mentor to many younger lawyers, including Yanchunis.

"He was a tremendous teacher," Yanchunis says. "He's a man that those of us who know - love, respect and honor."

Starting out

After graduating from the University of Florida with an English degree, Blasingame worked a salesman at a Tampa car lot. But he says his job didn't appear too stable after the owner, a sole proprietor, suffered a few heart attacks.

"I thought I'd better find something else," he says. "I decided to go to law school."

He graduated from Stetson University College of Law in 1969, the same year he went to work for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa. After four years there, he went into private practice.

His only criminal jury trial as a defense attorney was for Sarasota County Sheriff Jim Hardcastle who was accused of grand theft for alleged misuse of the sheriff's department airplane. Hardcastle was acquitted.

In the early 1980s, Bear Bryant called on Blasingame for help. A former student was suing Bryant for libel. Bryant's autobiography had included unflattering comments about the student who'd left the University of Alabama team to play ball "in the small league" for the University of Tampa.

Even though Bryant didn't identify the student in the book, the student claimed he was libeled.

Blasingame visited Tuscaloosa, Ala., to interview Bryant.

"First thing he said was 'I'm a football coach and you're a lawyer. You don't try to coach football and I don't try to practice law.' He was a hero of the United States at that time," Blasingame recalls.

During the trip, Blasingame ate at Joe Namath's Tuscaloosa restaurant where he met Namath, a former NFL star and standout at UofA.

"The lawyers I worked with were so mad I got to meet Bryant and Namath when I wasn't even much of a sports fan," Blasingame recalls with a chuckle. "I couldn't care less about sports, except for the Gators when they're winning."

Time Inc., which owned the company that published Bryant's book, was released from the libel suit; and Bryant paid his insurance deductible of $10,000, Blasingame says.

Over the years, Blasingame handled many cases for the Pinellas County School Board. He was also involved in the battle over a Pinellas borrow fit with the Martin family. It was one of the county's longest environmental legal battles.

Blasingame represented K.B.H. Construction Inc. of Largo, which was hired by to do court-ordered clean up at the Odessa site. The county settled the suit in 1998, giving Bobby Martin $1.15 million.

Funny guy

Even though Blasingame pronounces each word with great difficulty, he still manages to laugh at himself. And he makes the most of his situation.

When asked how he'd describe himself, Blasingame says, "Modesty prevents me from praising myself and vanity prevents me from being too modest. I couldn't answer that question."

Six weeks ago, he even managed to meet a few of his friends, including David Abbey, Tom Masterson and Jeff O'Brien, for an outing at the WingHouse on Fourth Street. Blasingame loves spicy chicken wings and a couple cold beers.

He says it'd be best not to print that he likes to go there. His wife, Sylviajane, might be embarrassed, but then he adds: "Oh, it's OK to mention it. If that's my only vice then I'm in good shape, huh?"

Judge maker

At the bar luncheon, Yanchunis told the crowd how scared he was the first time he appeared in front of a U.S. District judge, which happened to be Elizabeth A. Kovachevich.

Then the judge broke the ice by asking about a lawyer at his firm. "She said: 'How is the Big O? How is he doing?'"

Blasingame says he knows Kovachevich, who was chief judge of the Middle District.

"She owes her job to me. But I doubt if she remembers," he says. "She applied twice to be a (Pinellas) circuit judge and came in twice both times. A vacancy came up again and I asked her if she was going to apply. She said she was tired of coming in second. I told her to try one more time and I'd give her all the help I can, which was absolutely nothing. So she tried and got it."

Gift for gab

"People complain that all lawyers ever talk about is law, but one reason is because lawyers love their profession so much," Blasingame says.

O'Brien says of Blasingame: "He's a great storyteller. He could go from the seat of his pants without a whole lot of preparation. He could talk his way through most things."

More importantly, though, Blasingame is credible, O'Brien says, adding, "When he talks, he talks with an air of authority."

Blasingame knows he can't win the battle against ALS. On the average, patients live up to four years after being diagnosed with the disease that is characterized by progressive muscle weakness. He was diagnosed in 2002.

"At last I can say I told you all I was sick," he says, sharing another joke.

His friends are planning another visit to WingHouse. They know they can count on "The Big O" for a few more laughs.

WHAT OSCAR'S FRIENDS SAY ABOUT HIM:

I would like to join in nominating Oscar Blasingame for the Professionalism Award. The Bar's Oath of Professionalism exemplifies Oscar Blasingame's life as an attorney in our city.

Mr. Blasingame was an accessible role model to the generation of St. Petersburg lawyers who began to practice in the late 1970s and 1980s. He practiced with consistent openness, integrity and candor, and his style promoted just and economic dispute resolutions. Mr. Blasingame also volunteered service to the Bar and his community throughout his career. All of us who served with him benefited from his insight.

I strongly support Mr. Blasingame as a nominee for this award.

Lee H. Rightmyer, Esq.

Carlton Fields PA

I would like to join in supporting those who seek to nominate Oscar Blasingame for the 2004 St. Pete Bar Professionalism Award. I have known Oscar for as long as I have been practicing law. His friendly and professional approach in dealing with his adversaries always engendered respect and affection for Oscar by those who had the good fortune to handle cases against Oscar. I have always felt that one true test of the character and professionalism of a trial lawyer is the impressions of the lawyer by his or her adversaries after having been through the preparation and/or trial of a case. Dealing fairly, honestly and professionally with an adversary results in a bond of friendship that results from the respect for a worthy adversary who represents his client with skill, civility and professionalism. Oscar Blasingame was such a lawyer.

He has many friends in this legal community because of his professionalism in dealing with others over his career. I am confident that I am one of many lawyers in the St. Petersburg area who views Oscar with respect and affection because of the way he dealt with other attorneys over his career. Oscar is deserving of the 2004 Professionalism Award. Having his name added to the list of recipients would enhance the credibility of this important award.

Thomas D. Masterson

Masterson Law Group PA

Oscar began his career a little later in life, after having served with distinction in the military and the private sector. After graduating from Stetson, he began his legal career with the Department of Justice as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Middle District of Florida. After honing his trial skills as a federal prosecutor, he entered private practice with the St Petersburg law firm of Harrison, Greene, Mann, Rowe, Stanton & Mastry. Over the years this firm had been the launching pad for the careers of the best lawyers in our community - U.S. Circuit Judge Paul Roney and Former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Alan Sundberg, to name just a few. He became a partner in this firm where he restricted his practice to civil litigation, and in particular, insurance defense. He handled one of the most complex insurance coverage cases at the time, involving a claim for coverage for numerous asbestos bodily injury claims, and represented clients from the railroad, W.R. Grace, the Pinellas County School Board and numerous architectural and engineering firms. Over time, the representation of architects and engineers would become the principle focuses of his career.

In 1983, he left the firm, which by that time had become the firm of Greene, Mann, Rowe, Stanton, Mastry & Burton, with several other partners of the firm and one associate to form the firm of Blasingame, Forizs & Smiljanich, where he remained until he left the firm in 1997 to start another firm which bore his name only.

During his career, Oscar used his low-key, straight forward approach to win numerous jury verdicts for his clients. His approach with his opponents was always gracious and professional, to the extent that he was disarming. Oscar's word was his bond. His reputation expanded the state of Florida. It sometimes came as a surprise for a young lawyer from his firm who had been sent to cover a hearing in some corner of Florida where the firm did not have a regular presence, when the local judge would ask the associate how the "Big O" was doing. His style of approach to litigation and his level of professionalism and courtesy has, unfortunately, become uncommon in today's litigation forum.

John A. Yanchunis

James, Hoyer, Newcomer & Smiljanich, PA

I would like to join in the nomination of Oscar Blasingame as the recipient of the 2004 St. Petersburg Bar Professionalism Award. During his career as a civil litigator, Oscar set a high standard for legal knowledge, thoughtful practice and professional relations with opposing attorneys. Many of us, who at one time were young litigators, learned much about the way to handle ourselves in court and in our dealings with other attorneys from watching Oscar.

David J. Abbey

Abbey, Adams, Byelick, Kiernan, Mueller & Lancaster LLP

I wholeheartedly nominate Oscar Blasingame for the Professionalism Award. Oscar was not only a fine trial lawyer, but always had time for younger lawyers. The Florida Bar would not need to consider a mentoring program if we all gave to the profession as Oscar did.

Michael J. Keane

Keane, Reese & Vesely PA

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