Growing up in segregated Kansas City, Kansas, a young Fernando Gaitan Jr. found inspiration and encouragement among the trailblazing Black lawyers whose offices he cleaned during high school.
The first in his family to attend college, Gaitan graduated from Pittsburg State University in 1970 with an undergraduate degree in biology and psychology, then worked briefly in sales before his zeal for public service prevailed.
A subsequent job mentoring troubled youth that exposed him to even more lawyers sealed the deal. After graduation from the UMKC School of Law in 1974, Gaitan spent six years as in-house counsel at Southwestern Bell before his appointment, at 32, to the Jackson County Circuit Court bench.
Gaitan then became the first Black appointee to the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, where he spent five years before being named to the federal bench. In 2007, Gaitan became chief judge of the U.S. District Court, Western District for Missouri, remaining in that role until 2014, when he took senior status.
“My whole objective in life was public service,” he said. “There was not a case too big or too small. It was always important to those who were involved.”
Gaitan’s community service included serving on boards of the Kansas City Science Museum, the National Conference of Christians and Jews, St. Luke’s Hospital, and the De La Salle Alternative School, as chair.
He counts among his close friends Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, who in a 2019 interview with Federal Lawyer described Gaitan’s “commitment to justice for everyone with an almost religious obsession to administer it equally.”
“When I am around him, it’s like taking a sip of water from a well back home. Everything is real. There are no games being played. He will tell me things with pure undistilled frankness.”
Gaitan, who turns 73 in late August, remains active, with a workload that now allows him to both stay engaged and also spend more time with Sylvia, his wife of 45 years; son Trey; and daughter Avier, a fellow lawyer and UMKC Law alum who clerked for several federal judges and now works for the federal government.
“My intellectual curiosity is never without a place to land in this profession,” he said. “I could never retire when I have a job that offers me so much opportunity to make a difference.”