Billy Joe Rish hung his law shingle out at Fourth Street and U.S. Highway 98 50 years ago this year.
On Monday, Rish’s legacy to the community and region was memorialized by family, friends and local officials.
The William J. “Billy Joe” Rish Memorial Parking Lot was officially dedicated on Monday in a ceremony celebrating the life of one of the community’s giants, who despite being small of stature left behind a huge shadow when he passed in 2008.
“There are not many people in this community who have made the impact he has,” said Tom Gibson, Rish’s long-time law partner. “He established his office on this spot 50 years ago. This is where his heart was, even after we moved (to another location). This is where the major accomplishments over a lifetime of them occurred.
“His life was about public service. He was always looking out for the best for us.”
Rish, born in Wewahitchka in 1932, served in the U.S. Army during the Korean Conflict and later earned his law degree from the University of Florida.
He passed the bar in 1962, setting up his office in Port St. Joe where the parking lot now sits, where he practiced until the office was moved to Marina Square in 2005.
Rish served in the Florida Legislature for eight years and advocated on the part of the disabled, spearheading the creation of Billy Joe Rish Paark, the only park in the state established strictly to serve the disabled.
But it was the office at Fourth and U.S. 98 that was his headquarters as speakers noted on Monday.
His son Jay remembered the office as something of a “mini-mall” that at various times also housed a title company, karate school and sub sandwich shop.
“This property was the hub of many things that shaped out town and region,” said son Jay Rish, noting the creation of the Port St. Joe Marina, the moving of U.S. Highway 98, the development of WindMark Beach and the expansion of water and sewer from the city to most of the southern end of the county.
“He was a Christian, a husband, a father, a lawyer and a statesman, in that order. He was probably be humbled by this. He would probably say we made too much of a fuss. He would probably think it should be named after somebody else.”
Jay Rish also highlighted his father’s fundamental character and outlook on life during his final days. The family took a trip to the oncologist and hospital to see his father. The doctor said he had good news and bad news, Jay said.
The good news was that Billy Joe was cancer free. The bad news, as Jay related, was the damage to his body in removing the cancer. Like a jetliner in descent, doctors had gotten the “motors restarted” but no longer believed they could stop the descent.
“I have just one question,” Jay Rish said his father replied to the doctor. “How much time do I have with my boy?”
The doctor said he didn’t believe in predicting death, but that 30 days was likely about it. Billy Joe, his son said, rose with the aid of his walker, bid the doctor goodbye and was out the door of his room to head home for time with his family.
“It always brings me comfort and helps me take stock of what is important in life,” Jay Rish said. “Family and friends are the most important things in life. I believe he accomplished a lot for the Kingdom of Heaven and this community.”
The memorial parking lot was the product of collaboration between the family and the Port St. Joe Redevelopment Agency (PSJRA). The PSJRA funded construction and landscaping of the parking lot with a federal grant.
“Thanks to the family and the (PSJRA) for making this happen,” said Port St. Joe Mayor Mel Magidson. “This is the way government should work, through a public/private partnership.
“This spot is the former space of the law offices Billy Joe set up and which included various names through the years. The constant in all those years has been Billy Joe Rish.”