Retired judge, 95, a caring voice for Lafayette
LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — Those who know him best call him a living historian, an empathetic yet stern man who is one of the brightest Lafayette has ever seen.
He's a man who remembers well The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, a veteran who helped to capture a two-star Nazi general in World War II and protected British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill during wartime.
He's a visionary who saw potential not only for Lafayette's people but its city court, which was then corrupt.
And while Kaliste Saloom Road has made every Lafayette resident familiar with the name, some know little about the retired judge who recently turned 95.
Judge Kaliste Saloom Jr. now lives quietly with his wife, Yvonne, but he's still one of the city's greatest advocates.
He's not the person the Lafayette road was named for. That was his father.
He said, "Very often, I get the question, 'Is that named for you?' And I say, 'The road and me were named after the same person.'"
Born the fifth of seven children to Lebanese immigrants Kaliste and Asma Boustany Saloom, Kaliste Saloom Jr. learned quickly of life's hardships.
When he was 6 years old, his father died. Four years later, the Great Depression devastated the world's economy.
"The Great Depression left a very big mark on me," he says today. "Try not to be poor. Always have a job. Don't expect tomorrow to be greater than today, but hope that it is."
His mother, a businesswoman who owned an apparel store called Saloom's, pushed her three boys to study professions that could support a family, such as medicine and law. Saloom's older and younger brothers chose the medical profession.
He went into law, earning a bachelor's degree from the Southwestern Louisiana Institute of Liberal and Technical Learning, now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and his law degree from Tulane University in New Orleans.
He entered the Army in June of 1942, just after becoming a lawyer.
Weeks into basic training, Saloom was chosen for the Counterintelligence Corps, partly for his education and knowledge of languages including English, French, Spanish and Arabic.
In 1944, he was one of six American intelligence agents assigned to protect Winston Churchill as he recuperated from pneumonia in North Africa.
"The excitement of being close to a great person is something any young person would cherish," Saloom said.
Although he and his fellow agents protected the lives of many Allied soldiers in their day-to-day work, their real recognition came when they rounded up high-ranking Nazis, Waffen SS men, American traitors and war criminals.
Saloom is most proud of the capture of the highest Nazi general in the Hitler Youth, Karl Cerff.
In November 1945, Saloom returned home a war hero and opened his own Lafayette law office. He was asked to become city attorney in 1949 and city judge in 1952.
With less than two years to serve as judge before facing election, Saloom invoked a no-favoritism system. "When more tickets were being fixed than tried, there was something that needed changing in the system," Saloom said. "And that's what we did."
One of Saloom's early changes to Lafayette City Court was the use of "four-way" tickets, their multiple copies creating the first real accountability for traffic tickets. The motorist got the original, the first copy was kept by the issuing officer and the other two went to the court system: the second as an affidavit for proceedings and the third for the court's permanent records.
"That prevented politicians from imposing on the officers' favoritism or disposing the tickets by tearing them up," Saloom said. "The record would report what the disposition was."
More than one person in Lafayette told the young judge that he didn't stand a chance at re-election.
From his start, the people of Lafayette learned that Judge Saloom was a force to be reckoned with. Even those with ties to the judge were treated with the same — if not an even higher — standard.
Dee Stanley, chief administrative officer for Lafayette Consolidated Government, has turned to Saloom many times through the years, often to discuss Lafayette's growth and trends.
He also once stood before the judge in City Court to contest a speeding ticket. "Let's just say that I believed I was right so much so that I felt it was important for me to go to court," Stanley said. "Our friendship and relationship withstanding, I was treated exactly like you'd expect. I was treated fairly and with respect, and I did not prevail."
From 1952 to 1983, Saloom was the only judge in Lafayette City Court. His reputation soon spread far outside city limits.
Most cities in Louisiana implemented his four-part ticket system. State police use it today.
Saloom became the first city judge appointed to the judicial council of the Louisiana Supreme Court. He was recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court and served as the board of directors for the National Center for State Courts. While on President Jimmy Carter's National Highway Safety Advisory, Saloom was named the National 55 MPH chairman, going around the country to tell legislatures and governors why a lower speed limit made sense. Under then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Saloom worked up a system of release for honorable citizens who could not afford bail.
Saloom's work at home, however, is what has created his legacy.
"A judge on the front ranks has a duty besides sitting on the bench," Saloom said. "His duty is to encourage unity and obedience to the law, and in community courts, traffic safety and juvenile programs."
Charles Lenox, director of student publications for Louisiana-Lafayette, crossed paths with Saloom constantly during Lenox's 42 years working for The Daily Advertiser, where Saloom wrote sports stories in his college days.
"I was just always amazed at the man because of what he stood for and how he continued to stand for the things that any judge, any lawyer, anyone would want to stand for," Lenox said.
Saloom retired from the bench in 1993 but has not retired as an advocate for the city.
Asked whether he has ever had a moving violation, Saloom chuckles, then says, "Not that I know of."
As a native of Lafayette, Saloom watched Lafayette grow from a small college town to a hub for business and tourism.
His childhood home and his mother's store were in the center of town. "I could walk to church, walk to school, walk to the theaters," he said. "As a youngster, Lafayette was a beautiful town with a lot of oak trees and sidewalks that were built before I was born."
Kaliste and Asma Boustany Saloom immigrated to Lafayette largely because of language and religion. Lebanon's Christian population was largely Catholic when Saloom's parents made Lafayette their new home, and the country's second language was French.
One of Saloom's most vivid childhood memories is of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, during which water rose to the city limits and thousands of refugees filtered into the city to find safety.
"There were tents, white tents, strewn all over the town and on almost all vacant properties," he said. "It was a very sad occasion, a very troublesome one, because of the fear of typhoid fever and small pox."
Much of Lafayette's growth halted during the Great Depression and World War II, he recalls. "The electric system, the water system, the streets, the playgrounds — all were neglected."
As city attorney in post-war Lafayette, Saloom helped design the Lafayette Utilities System that brought the city's electric, water and sewage operations to a more modern scale.
More than 50 years later, Saloom is still advocating Lafayette's need to think ahead.
"Of course we have geographic boundaries," he said. "But it is very important that we do not lose sight of the fact that we need to develop the infrastructure of our community and to keep developing it — the widening of our roads, the extension of our facilities."
He and his wife still work to improve Lafayette, and their family continues to carry on their legacy.
Their four children — Kaliste Saloom III, Leanne Saloom Howell, Douglas Saloom and Gregory Saloom — all practice law in Louisiana.
And the highway?
"He set the roadway to bring this court into the 21st century," said City Court Marshal Earl J. "Nickey" Picard Picard. "He was always trying to do things better for Lafayette."
The highway's name was the only price that his mother asked for land she had acquired before World War II — land that had become key to opening a much needed roadway. The city attorney asked the family to donate it.
"There was no money paid," Saloom said. "But they agreed to name the road after my father, my deceased father, who is Kaliste Saloom. And that pleased my mother, and she gave what lands they needed."