Deborah Kendrick

Sometimes the most extraordinary characteristic of a highly successful human being is the ability to present himself or herself as entirely ordinary. Not that there is anything exactly typical or average about Jim Kracht. There isn't. He's brilliant, excelling in both his personal and professional realms, and by no means content to rest upon past achievements. While those achievements are numerous and varied, what you notice most about Jim Kracht, whether just making his acquaintance for the first time or revisiting a decades-old friendship, is just what a genuinely good and warm person he is.

Five Faces of Change

The Diversity and Inclusion Committee of the Florida Bar Association launched a plan in 2020 to recognize outstanding lawyers over the past several generations who have expanded the boundaries of inclusion on the Florida legal stage. Five exceptional Florida attorneys were selected for the Five Faces of Change traveling exhibit, which showcases the attorneys' original portraits. The portraits are being created by student artists, and the exhibit as a whole will move from courthouse to courthouse throughout Florida, coming to rest permanently at the Florida Bar headquarters.

Each of the five attorneys selected for this prestigious exhibit served as a pioneer for one segment of the population, breaking through where barriers had kept others from participating. James Weldon Johnson, 1871-1938, who was the first Black lawyer to gain acceptance to the Florida Bar by examination, heads the pack. In addition to law, James Weldon Johnson excelled as a novelist, educator, and civil rights leader, best known for writing the poem "Lift Every Voice and Sing" which was set to music by his brother and is today often referred to as the Black national anthem.

The other four faces in the exhibit include a prominent female attorney, an attorney who is a gay rights activist, an appellate judge who was born in Cuba, and one Miami tax attorney who happens to be blind. That fifth face belongs to James Kracht.  Jim is recognized for being an outstanding attorney in the arena of tax and finance, as well as for his involvement as a mentor and leader for other blind lawyers, and for his advocacy work in disability rights, particularly in the area of voting accessibility.

Jim's primary professional role was in the capacity of tax attorney with the Miami-Dade County Attorney’s office, where he began as a fledgling lawyer fresh from Harvard Law School in 1975 and retired as section head of the firm's tax and finance area in 2012.

Growing Up

Jim and his twin sister were born prematurely and, like so many babies in the 1950s, were given too much oxygen while in incubation. Both lost vision as a result—in Jim's case, he lost all of it.

Growing up in California, Jim learned braille at an early age and his academic prowess was matched by summers rich in experiences with horses, bicycles, swimming pools, and more. While his childhood was idyllic by many standards, things got a bit bumpier by early adolescence. His parents divorced when he was ten, and he began dreaming of a future that was far from home. He turned down a four-year scholarship to Stanford University because it was too close to home, and rallied instead for the opportunity to travel to the other side of the country to attend Harvard.

Leaving home involved more adjustment than the usual adaptation to college life, though. As a high school senior, Jim fell in love. At 18, he married the love of his life, and together, Jim and Pat Kracht set out for Harvard.

Law School and Beyond

When Jim refers to his days in college and law school, he often uses the plural pronoun: “We worked to get permission to record lectures,” or “we were worried that everyone in class had found a job except me.” His “we” refers to himself and his wife, Pat, because they did so much as a team. Pat dropped out of college and became Jim’s fulltime reader. Although Jim became an avid braille reader at an early age, he never became proficient with a braille slate and stylus. In law school, he recorded lectures on a heavy tape recorder, and then listened a second time to make notes in braille on his Perkins Brailler.

A degree from Harvard Law School, he thought, would certainly be a ticket to a great job, but one application after another led to a dead end. “I’d never encountered discrimination based on my blindness,” he says, “until I was looking for a job.”

Then, while he was studying for finals, alarmed that everyone in his class had found a job after law school except him, Jim got his fair chance. In a confluence of coincidences which each could have gone another way, he was offered the job as the 20th lawyer to join the Miami-Dade County Attorney’s office in Miami, Florida. He went to work in July 1975, and continued to shine and thrive in that role until retirement in 2012.

It would be a decade before any significant technology, as we understand it today, would become available. Representing government entities in tax and financial matters clearly called for a calculator, and Jim did have one with synthesized speech. An IBM electric typewriter that typed braille was purchased, but there was little else in the way of technology in those early years. The firm paid for human readers. His work-weeks were long and arduous. Braille paper was the primary tool of the trade. He recalls one uncharacteristically awkward moment in an early court appearance. He had inherited some cases from another lawyer, and found it necessary to take a few notes in court one day. His board slate and stylus was positioned on a table that was positioned on a platform and the echo of the punch, punch, punch of the dots was unavoidable.  The judge boomed that there was an unknown disruption in the court. Jim explained that he was blind and taking a few notes. Opposing counsel interjected that it was no problem, and the judge moved on.

In the late 1980s, by contrast, when he had a Braile ‘n Speak and found he could take notes on a tiny device and then send them to paper by connecting to a braille embosser, productivity soared as did the more manageable approach to getting the job done.

Like all attorneys, he had law clerks and secretaries to assist, and says that everyone in his office, the appraiser’s office with whom he often worked, and most of the judges were supportive and accepting of him. When access technology became more sophisticated around 1990, he wrote a proposal for equipment that would enable him more seamlessly to get his job done. With a Navigator braille display, a computer, a braille embosser, and two Kurzweil reading machines, the time required from human readers could be diminished and Jim Kracht could practice law with efficiency closer to that of his sighted colleagues. The proposal was shared by Miami-Dade County Attorney’s office, the appraiser’s office, and Jim. Again, productivity increased.

The American Council of the Blind held its convention in Miami in 1977, and Jim Kracht, then a young rising star in law, was asked to speak. That launched a long commitment to involvement with the American Blind Lawyers Association (today known as the Association of Visually Impaired Attorneys), as well as other affiliates within the national organization. Over the years he has held leadership roles not only among blind lawyers, but also blind library supporters, braille enthusiasts, and more. He has served as president of the Florida Council of the Blind and has been a director on the national ACB board since 2018.

For decades, his law work focused exclusively on the business of Miami-Dade, ultimately supervising others as head of the firm’s tax and finance department. In 2000, however, his passion for the civil rights of all Americans and dismay at the inequity of the voting process for people with disabilities, prompted him to get involved in another kind of law. With the approval and support of his law office, he became a leader in the work that has gone on for the last 20 years to secure access to independent and private voting for all Americans, including those who are blind.

Life After Law

After 37 successful years, Jim Kracht was surprised to find that when the time came, at age 62, he was actually ready to retire. His pace, however, didn't slow so much as get redirected.

When his career clearly required a long-term stay in Miami, Jim had promised his wife that she could choose where they would live once he retired. In 2012, he reminded her of that choice. They had made a home in Miami and neither wanted to leave it. But their two children, now married and with children of their own, had settled near Orlando. The result was that the couple now have two homes and divide time more or less equally between them.

Jim speaks glowingly of his children, his grandchildren, and their many and varied shared family experiences. He continues to be involved with the American Council of the Blind and disability rights, particularly in the area of accessible voting. And, if anyone wonders whether his long career was financially rewarding, they might take a look at his most recent passion: collecting music boxes.

If music boxes conjure for you miniature statues or snow globes with tinkling tunes that take up a few inches of shelf space, Jim Kract’s music boxes will expand your imagination considerably. I had the privilege of actually visiting a few of his prized possessions shortly before the publication of this article, and words almost fail.

Imagine an enormous piece of furniture, the size, say, of a large chest of drawers or china cabinet. Now, put discs in it that are filled with a complex array of impressions and that measure some 24 inches in diameter. Perform a bit of magic, step back, and be bathed in sound that is gorgeous, large, and reminiscent of times we can only imagine. He has smaller ones as well—snuff boxes with musical notes bright and beautiful—and can tell you the history and mechanical details of every piece he has acquired.

He began acquiring music boxes shortly after his retirement, purchasing the first one in early 2013, and says he has promised Pat that the most recent, purchased earlier this year, is his last. There are 48 in all, ranging in price from $1,200 to $30,000, and some dating back two hundred years. He has traveled the United States and abroad to see them and buy them, and has countless charming anecdotes to share about his pursuits.

Clearly, a man who collects music boxes is a bit of a romantic, and this truth was best illustrated by the surprise he planned for his wife on their fiftieth wedding anniversary. In an article published in a music box journal, he captures the tale of building the music box that was her spectacular surprise on that occasion. First, there was the beautifully handcrafted jewelry box. Then, an arranger was found who could put their favorite song from their courting days on a music box cylinder. The music box was inserted, a plaque engraved and, of course, an exquisite diamond ring designed to be housed in the box. Perhaps saying that he is a bit of a romantic is an understatement!

In addition to writing articles for other enthusiasts about his music box journeys, he now serves as vice chair of the southeast chapter of the Music Box Society International. He carries his passion and expertise in the realm of advocacy into this avocation, too, since he has been working steadily to obtain an accessible version of the Encyclopedia of Music Boxes, a directory published by a Canadian author.

He reads and writes on a HIMS Polaris and a Brailliant BI 40X from HumanWare on a daily basis.

Family is of paramount significance to Jim. He is always ready with fresh tales of adventures with his children and grandchildren, recounting Easter egg hunts or birthday parties or just time spent hanging out together.

It is not at all unusual to hear him comment on how blessed and beautiful his life continues to be.

When I asked him about advice for young people coming into the workforce, his response was a typically simple, unvarnished insight.

“I’ve had tremendous opportunities in my life,” he said, “but they didn’t just happen. I chose to make them happen. Even when it looked like I wouldn’t find work after law school, I knew I would. Because I had to work, to make a living.”

Jim Kracht has made far more than a living. This mentor for many has built a beautiful and exemplary life of family, friendships, vocation, and recreation—and richly deserves the place he has been assigned among Florida’s five legal faces of change. We can all learn from his warmth and his wisdom.

This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.

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Deborah Kendrick
Article Topic
Employment Matters