TAMPA — Bob Banker loved the law. But he also loved people.
The longtime patriarch of Tampa’s prestigious Fowler White law firm, and later the civil trial firm of Banker Lopez Gassler, was known as a leader who took care of his employees and a mentor who was never too busy.
He celebrated their courtroom victories with the bang of a gong.
Mr. Banker was a commanding force in the courtroom, defending many high-profile, high-dollar lawsuits in a career that spanned more than a half-century. His clients included the late New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
When people talk about Mr. Banker, they use words like professionalism, integrity and patience.
“The legal profession is better because Bob Banker was here,” said Joe Lopez, his law partner.
Mr. Banker died late last month after a long illness. He was 85.
He was the son of a furniture salesman and the first in his immediate family to attend college, much less earn a law degree. He met his future wife, Dorothy Peterson, in their chemistry class at Central High School in Memphis, Tenn. He came to Tampa in 1961, a couple years after a three-year tour with the U.S. Air Force, and fresh from law school at Vanderbilt University, which he attended while serving in the Tennessee National Guard.
As a young lawyer, he found his home at Fowler White, one of Florida’s most prestigious civil litigation firms. He later made partner and led the firm for the better part of four decades.
“He was just a heck of a trial lawyer,” said retired appellate Judge Chris Altenbernd, who got his start as a young attorney with Fowler White. “He knew the ethical lines and he stayed in the lines. But he just had the intellect to figure out the details of a case and tell it in a way that the jury would like him along the way.”
David Banker, a Tampa civil attorney who followed his father into the legal profession, recalled his ability to take massive amounts of information — in depositions, trial transcripts or court motions — and distill it down to a few key points. It was part of what made him an effective litigator, he said.
In a trial in the early 1980′s, he represented a pesticide company that had been accused of contaminating thousands of beer cans at the Schlitz brewery in Tampa. Much of the testimony centered on whether the pesticide in question, which had been used in warfare, posed any danger to people’s health.
In his final arguments, Banker took a swig of the toxin. This bit of showmanship evidently charmed the jury, who placed little blame on Mr. Banker’s client.
As a leader of the Fowler White firm, he believed the institution could not last unless every employee was taken care of from the top down. “You can’t find many law firms that run that way,” Altenbernd said. “And it ran that way because of Bob Banker.”
When one of his employees came down with cancer and worried how she’d keep…