There was something special about witnessing an immigrant take an oath of allegiance to become a U.S. citizen.
For former federal magistrate Peter Richard Palermo, the experience was personal: His father had immigrated to the United States from Paternopoli, Italy, in 1903.
Palermo, who died in Miami at age 97 on Nov. 13, presided over dozens of citizenship ceremonies, helping thousands who waited years to call the United States home. In 1986, he presided over the biggest swearing-in ceremony at the time:14,200 at the Orange Bowl.
“I get emotional about it,” he told the Miami News before the ceremony. “I feel it and the people know it. My father was a patriot. He always said this is the greatest country in the world. He appreciated the opportunity for freedom.”
“During the 17 years that he presided over these ceremonies, it is believed that he had sworn in well more than 200,000,” said his son Jeffrey Palermo, adding his father once swore in a bedridden woman. “He felt that citizenship was an important thing; he took so much pride in it.”
Born on June 15, 1918, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Palermo attended the Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia. He graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1941. After military service in World War II, he received a law degree from the University of Miami in 1950. He received six bronze service stars and ended his military career as a captain.
While studying law, Palermo was elected mayor of newly incorporated West Miami, in 1947. He ran on the promise to clean up the city. West Miami , like many cities at that time, then had illegal gambling at bars.
“One of the worst was the Black Cat Bar,” said Jeffrey, 66. “He was able to close the infamous bar, when, after a long battle, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the suspension of the bar’s license.”
Palermo served three one-year terms. In 1950, while still mayor, he was appointed assistant to then-County Solicitor Robert Taylor. In 1971, Palermo was sworn in as a U.S. magistrate, and was one of the longest-serving U.S. magistrates — becoming a senior magistrate at 80. He didn’t stop working until about three years ago, working part-time as a judge into his early 90s.
In 2009, he received a Legal Legend Award for his contributions to the legal system of South Florida. In 2011, the Greater Miami Jewish Federation honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
“It was important to him that the work that he did be honest and fair,” his son Jeffrey said. “He was sensitive to the needs of the poor and people that didn’t have much. He wanted to make sure that people who didn’t have the best lawyer or a lot of money got the best deal and were treated fairly.”
I met him when I was 24 as a law clerk. He was always a role model. He swore me in to the Florida bar in 1984. His picture still hangs on my wall in my office. Because of him, I learned how to be a lawyer with integrity.”
Miami plaintiff attorney Gregg Schwartz, 59.
His son recounted how his father would make homemade Italian meals and invite friends over. He took pride in caring for his yard, which included avocado and mango trees.
“That’s part of what kept him alive,” his son said. “The Sunday before he passed away, he was on his lawn mower mowing the lawn.”
Palermo also loved to bake.
“For many years, my father was a regular baker of sourdough bread. He would bring it to work or sometimes people would come and visit. He was well known for that in the courthouse. He was also passionate about telling stories about his experiences and about his life.”
Palermo is survived by his sons Jeffrey and Greg Palermo and grandchildren Jon and Olivia Palermo. A memorial service will be at 12:10 p.m. Dec. 11 at Gesu Church, 118 NE Second St., Miami.