Lafayette icon and historian Kaliste Saloom Jr. died Saturday evening at the age of 99, having spent four decades serving as city judge that established his leadership within the community and helped solidify his legacy of fairness, integrity and scholarly thought.
Kaliste Saloom III announced his father’s death in a Facebook post early Sunday morning, which received hundreds of responses throughout the day from people who knew his father and wanted to express their condolences for someone they glowingly described as “the finest man” and “a credit to the human race.”
Kaliste Saloom Jr. was born in 1918, the fifth of seven children to Lebanese immigrants. His parents settled in Lafayette shortly after the turn of the last century and passed on their Catholic faith to their children, according to the Louisiana Historical Association. Kaliste Saloom Road in Lafayette is named after Saloom Sr.
Saloom lived through the Great Depression and fought in WWII before returning to Lafayette and becoming an advocate for the city and its residents.
He graduated from Southwestern Louisiana Institute of Liberal and Technical Learning — now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette — in 1939 and then from Tulane Law School in 1942. He became a lifelong supporter of the University of Louisiana after graduating valedictorian of his class and later leading the university alumni association, said university President Joseph Savoie.
Stuart Clark, who became friends with Saloom through their Mardi Gras organization, recently made a documentary about his life that was donated to the university library this May on Saloom’s 99th birthday.
Clark described Saloom as extremely humble despite his accomplishments, all of which seemed to arise from an underlying commitment to service. “I had to drag all these stories out of him (for the documentary),” Clark said. “He was not someone who liked talk about himself.”
Saloom enlisted in the Army in World War II right after graduating from law school and served in the Counterintelligence Corps — deploying to French North Africa where he helped protect British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill and later contributing to the capture of a prominent Nazi general who was the head of the Hitler Youth organization, Clark said.
Saloom returned home after three years of service and opened a law office in Lafayette. A few years after that he was appointed Lafayette city attorney. He was then elected city judge and served for decades in that role. Saloom retired from City Court in 1993 after 40 years on the bench.
As judge he instituted some significant changes, including reforming the process of issuing traffic tickets and overseeing the expansion of the court in 1984 from one judge to two. He also helped found the Lafayette Juvenile Detention Home and the Acadiana Safety Council.
Clark said Saloom used his position as judge to advocate for disadvantaged people, including taking a stance for civil rights. Just last year he was inducted into the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame.
Savoie said that above all Saloom became known for his unwavering fairness and steadfast integrity on the bench. “He had quite a reputation for no funny business — firm but fair,” Savoie said. Both in and outside of the courtroom, Saloom was “extremely bright, humble and very diplomatic. Whenever you get into a conversation with him, it was real clear who was the smartest person in the room.”
His knowledge of Lafayette area history also grew over the years, making him “a walking encyclopedia of University and community history,” Savoie said. “He not only knew the facts of history, but the nuances behind the facts.”
Saloom is survived by his wife, Yvonne, their four children, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending through Martin & Castille Funeral Home in Lafayette.
KATC-TV contributed to this report.