A Tale of Two Lives

by Bernard McCormick Tuesday, September 13, 2011 No Comment(s)

It began with David Bressler, Esq. who represented us in Philadelphia when we made the deal to come to Florida to invest in what was then Pictorial Life, the magazine now known as Gold Coast. We obviously would soon need a Florida lawyer. Dave had contact with an Orlando attorney, who, oddly enough, had been a classmate of my partner, Gaeton Fonzi, at the University of Pennsylvania. But the Orlando attorney felt he was too far from Fort Lauderdale to represent us. He suggested a Fort Lauderdale lawyer named Elliott Barnett.

It was late on a hot August afternoon in 1970 when I first met Elliott Barnett at his office on Federal Highway near Searstown. It was, compared to law offices I had seen in Philadelphia, a modest place, a converted storefront with just a few lawyers. I believe that day I also met one of Barnett’s partners, a engaging fellow named Don McClosky.

Now I had relatives named McCloskey, and Don McClosky did not look terribly Irish, and I had never seen that spelling of the name. I soon learned, because he joked about it, that his Jewish grandfather had come from eastern Europe with a name like Mikalofski, or something like that, and the Irish clerk at Ellis Island could not understand his accent and finally said, “You look like an Irish man to me," and wrote McClosky on the immigration papers.

I was also soon to learn that Elliott Barnett, who was from Columbia Law School and had impeccable academic credentials, had founded a law firm with Si Ruden in 1959 after he was turned down by an old line Fort Lauderdale firm when they learned he was Jewish. It was a prejudice common in the community at the time, one that Barnett would help demolish. Don McClosky joined the firm soon after and by the time we met them, both men were well on their way to becoming legal stars.

Elliott Barnett was particularly helpful in our early years. He introduced us to our first local banker, then to Gene Guido, who was our CPA until he retired and turned over his practice to Tony Jacaruso, who still does work for our family. Barnett also hired a young assistant out of Yale Law School, Laz Schneider, who took over most of our corporate work. Forty years and several firms later, he still is our corporate counsel.

During the early 1970s Elliott Barnett and Don McClosky exploded the religious barrier that had confronted both a decade earlier. Barnett became a leader in the arts community, helping establish the Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale, and leading the Downtown Development Authority through a legal minefield after a number of properties had been illegally condemned. Don McClosky, at the same time, was making a name as a premier land use lawyer, at a time when Broward County was growing in every direction. He also got press, some of it in our magazine, for, while pushing 50, playing basketball with a group of high-powered attorneys. Their small law firm was growing fast to become one of the largest in Florida, moving several times to increasingly prestigious offices and spreading throughout the state. At one point it had more than 150 lawyers.

There was a major difference between the men, and that was personal. Don McClosky was married for 59 years to the same woman, Judy, with whom he often traveled and 20 years ago survived a plane crash off Chile. Elliott Barnett had four wives, which can cause economic pressures, and those pressures led to a tragic ending. In the 1990s, when his reputation could not have been more glowing, he was accused of embezzling from his firm, which those who had known him for years could not fathom. I always wanted to believe that it was not as bad as the papers made it seem. His health had broken and he died in disrepute. The firm people had always called Ruden, Barnett, etc. became Ruden, McClosky, etc.

Don McClosky, on the other hand, lived more than another decade of fulfilling years until his death last week. He was increasingly regarded as one of the best in his business, a friend to many, including this magazine, and his obituaries were filled with accolades from those who regarded him as land-use expert, friend, mentor, devoted husband, father and competitive basketball player.

Two brilliant careers, launched almost together, both born in a certain adversity, and ending as differently as if the men had never known each other.

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