Prosecutor, judge and mayor Seymour Gelber dies at 99

Former prosecutor, juvenile judge and Miami Beach mayor Seymour Gelber was a local luminary. But by his own account, he was simply a street-wise kid from Brooklyn who used enough smarts and a little bit of luck to get ahead in life.

Gelber cut a self-effacing figure, disguising a shrewd legal mind that made him a heavyweight in jurisprudence who took his work seriously — but never himself.

“I never liked it,” he quipped about law school. “Never thought I would like to be a lawyer.”

His doubts faded as he ascended the ranks to become a respected jurist who shaped Miami-Dade’s juvenile justice system. He later served as mayor of Miami Beach while the city emerged from a tumultuous period rocked by corruption in the early 1990s. In the coda to his life of public service, Gelber provided a steady hand to guide City Hall.

Gelber died Thursday at age 99, his family said. He leaves behind a legacy that looms large in local municipal government and courtrooms.

A World War II veteran, prosecutor, jurist and mayor, Gelber began his life as a young mischief-maker in New York and ended in pleasant retirement in Miami Beach. In between, he served a tour of duty in the military, donned a judicial robe to oversee the creation of a legal system for juveniles in Miami-Dade and won served three consecutive two-year terms as Beach mayor. He returned to City Hall in 2017 to swear in his son, former federal prosecutor Dan Gelber, as Beach mayor.

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Judge Seymour Gelber

“When it comes to dads, I won the lottery,” Dan Gelber said in a statement Thursday announcing his father’s death. “From any angle and for every moment, my dad never disappointed. He was always authentic, honest, and caring, and as a role model I will always be grateful that he lit the path so brightly for me and so many others.”

Seymour Gelber sat for his final interview with the Miami Herald in January 2018, taking a place in the corner office at Miami Beach City Hall currently occupied by his son.

Leaning back in the mayor’s chair, he remembered strolling through South Beach during the 1972 Republican National Convention, passing by a wide array of political activists and counterculture groups, making sure there were no problems. At a time when police “maintained order solely by nightstick,” as he wrote in his memoir, he played peacekeeper as he learned to tell difference between the strains of marijuana each group smoked.

Gelber remembered bucking the political winds when in 1992 he welcomed Nelson Mandela for a visit to Miami Beach two years after he snubbed by other local governments in Miami-Dade County after the South African icon was criticized by the Cuban-American community for voicing support for Fidel Castro. Gelber honored Mandela with a proclamation.

But the near-centenarian, known for his straightforward demeanor on the bench and on the dais, laughed when he spoke of his New York roots.

“I was just a wise-ass kid in the street,” he quipped as he recalled his formative years. He spent that time in a “Jewish gang” — by his own admission, a jokingly exaggerated description. He just roughhoused his way around the neighborhood with friends from his basketball team, snatching food from the kitchen at bar mitzvahs, pulling pranks.

Born to Austrian immigrants who met while working in a Manhattan bakery, Gelber grew up in the eastern European community of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. The draft placed him in the the Army before World War II. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor just after he finished basic training in Georgia. Through the war, he excelled in organizing morale activities for troops here and abroad, such as sports leagues. Gelber would’ve seen combat only if the U.S. had invaded Japan.

“I never heard a shot fired in anger,” he told the Herald. “Never fired a shot in anger.”

After the war, he longed for a new adventure and a sense of accomplishment, so he took advantage of a benefit for World War II veterans that allowed them to go to law school without needing an undergraduate degree. He enrolled in the University of Miami.

His long career in public service began in 1953 when he took a job as a legislative aide in Tallahassee and ended in 1997 when he finished his term as mayor of Miami Beach.

Along the way, he forged a strong reputation during a distinguished legal career during which he served as a prosecutor, an assistant attorney general and a juvenile court judge. Known for his calm, laid-back yet quick-witted demeanor, Gelber was seen as a even-keeled leader when Miami Beach was swamped with corruption and scandal in the early 1990s. He was elected mayor three times in a row.

Gelber also met the love of his life, Edith, a schoolteacher in Miami Beach who some recall as the “popular one” when they remember the couple.

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A kiss for wife Edith from Seymour Gelber in 1995, after he won the mayoral race once again.

Marice Cohn Band Miami Herald Staff

“She loved it,” said Michele Burger, who has served as chief of staff to both father and son during their mayoral terms. “Seymour didn’t like going to events, but Edith did, and people loved her for it. She made him look good.”

He lovingly agreed in his last interview. He doted on this wife, who passed away in 2006, claiming a major accomplishment in his life was managing to get her to overlook his many faults. He reserved the widest smile of the afternoon for his remembrance of Edith.

After his term as mayor, Gelber retired to a quiet life in Miami Beach before re-emerging in the spotlight as his son ran for mayor. The senior Gelber had made his last public appearance when he swore in his son.

In trademark good-humored style, he cracked a joke while complimenting the career and personality of his newly elected son.

“These qualities will allow you to be the best mayor this city has ever had — present company included,” said the older Gelber.

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Former Miami Beach Mayor Seymour Gelber, left, swears in his son, Dan Gelber, third from the left, as mayor of Miami Beach on Nov. 13, 2017. His grandchildren, Max, and Hannah Gelber, right, look on.

CARL JUSTE cjuste@miamiherald.com

Known for his easygoing manner and wry humor in his early career, Gelber was an apt foil for his assertive boss, State Attorney Richard Gerstein. As a prosecutor, his lawyering prowess fell more on the academic side. He was the first to admit he wasn’t a skilled trial lawyer — but he fashioned an enduring legacy with his brainy approach and personnel decision.

As Gerstein’s assistant in Miami-Dade, Seymour Gelber hired a young woman named Janet Reno and gave her a project: to set up the juvenile courts system. After a stint in Tallahassee as assistant attorney general, he returned to Miami to serve on the circuit court bench.

He was appointed judge in the juvenile court division he helped create, a tenure memorialized in the juvenile courthouse that bears his name today. Together with Judge William Gladstone, who died in 2015, Gelber laid the groundwork for today’s children’s justice system.

He is survived by his three children: Judy Gelber, her spouse Steven Kurtzer and two children Joshua Lee and Zachary Lee, predeceased in 2000; Dan Gelber and his spouse Joan Silverstein and three children Sophie Gelber, Hannah Gelber and Max Gelber; and Barbara Gelber and her spouse John Barker and three children Madeleine Barker, Claudia Barker and Benjamin Barker.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the Miami Beach PAL’s Kindergarten Cop Program. Contributions can be mailed to Miami Beach PAL at 999 11th St., Miami Beach, FL 33139 or through https://www.beachpal.org/pay-thru-paypal.