Getting from here to there

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Bill Mayberry was driving along the highway near Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, heading back to his uncle’s house after a sixth day in Dallas on a job hunt. His wife and two young children were home in Vicksburg, Mississippi, awaiting word on when they would be joining him in a new city to start a new life.

That’s when the landing gear of a jetliner – Delta flight 191 – suddenly sliced through his Toyota on an ill-fated approach to the airport that killed 136 persons on board and a single non-passenger: Bill Mayberry.

The August 2, 1985, aviation disaster was international news – a story that my colleagues and I at The Dallas Morning News would cover in the days and months to come.

As a 22-year-old reporter, I was profoundly affected by the tragedy. Now, 30 years later, Bill Mayberry’s death continues to serve for me as a guidepost on how life can suddenly and cruelly change. We all have a Bill Mayberry – an example of how everything can become forever altered simply going from here to there, from point A to point B.
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In the months that followed the Delta flight 191 catastrophe, our paper reported extensively on its aftermath.

One of my assignments took me to Vicksburg, Mississippi, and beyond as I chronicled what had happened to Bill Mayberry’s family.

In a feature story titled “Turmoil Follows Tragedy” that was published near the first anniversary of the crash, I wrote, “Mayberry, the only non-passenger fatality, died instantly; the destruction of his family wasn’t nearly as merciful.”

The accident had left a gaping hole in a small-town family where Bill would mow his mother-in-law’s lawn on his lunch hour and take his wife and two young children to Jackson Motor Speedway and the circus on the weekends. The plan had been to move to the boomtown of Dallas where it would be easier to make ends meet.

On the day before the accident that claimed his life, Bill had told his wife, Terri, that his search had landed him a decent job as an auto mechanic. He also had located an apartment complex with a swimming pool and a nearby elementary school. He said he would have enough cash in two weeks for a security deposit so they could all move in together.

Then life permanently changed going from here to there.

Terri lost the high school sweetheart she had married at age 17. The couple’s 11-year-old daughter began to ask unanswerable questions that shook her faith. Their nine-year-old son slept with the American flag that had draped his father’s casket. By the time I wrote my story, Terri and her children had moved to Florida to get away from some of the bewilderment and opportunists that had besieged them.

Unfortunately, a few of the central protagonists in the Mayberry family’s unraveling were people on the fringes of the legal profession.

Within hours of news of Bill Mayberry’s freakish death, a law-enforcement official in Vicksburg was recommending that Terri speak to his personal lawyer, who called and called and called again. That lawyer, who had been disbarred for larceny for a few years in the 1970s, hovered around Terri at Bill’s funeral. Another complete stranger claiming to be a relative of a prominent Houston attorney showed up at Terri’s modest home one day with a glossy brochure. Others called from California and New York. Still another attorney visited Terri around Thanksgiving, left with a purported contract and filed a lawsuit in which Terri’s name was misspelled.

“People were just harassing the hell out of us, and that boy hadn’t been dead two days,” Terri’s mother, Barbara McKay, told me. Terri’s dad, Dewey McKay, confided, “It has just tore our whole family apart.”

By the time of my story, the legal end of the Mayberrys’ sad story was being righted. An ethical leader of the plaintiff bar in Texas had become Terri’s lawyer and taken over her case, and a resolution of claims arising from an accident caused by pilot error and wind shear was in the offing.

But as I’ve moved forward in my career – first, in journalism and now, as a plaintiff attorney representing people harmed by others’ misconduct – I still draw frequently on the lessons Bill Mayberry taught me about the fragility of life and the vulnerability of people damaged by circumstance and wrongdoing.
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So what does Bill Mayberry’s story have to do with the Oakland County Bar Association? I would suggest that the answer is everything.
We are an organization composed of hard-working and well-intentioned legal professionals – lawyers, judges, paralegals, law students, administrators, staff members – who regularly and ingloriously do the right thing for folks needing a hand getting from here to there.

We provide help to people in a manner that heals rather than wounds, that resolves rather than worsens. Even when all hell breaks loose in a life or in a group of lives, the manner in which members of the OCBA redress the situation honors both our profession and the people we serve.

And let’s be frank: From time to time, we all encounter in our practices the outliers – those lawyers and judges who comport themselves in ways that impede and undermine the process. And there also the empty suits and blowhards – the self-aggrandizing types who, we would say in Texas, were all hat and no cattle. These rogues among us share something: They almost always hinder, rather than help, getting people and businesses from here to there.

But by adhering to a mission of service adopted more than 80 years ago, members of the OCBA almost invariably, day by day and matter by matter, represent the best that our profession has to offer to the public and the legal system in terms of service, ethics and civility. We honor the profession and the clients we serve.
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Soon after writing my story about the Mayberry family in Dallas in July 1986, I received a thoughtful note from someone a thousand miles away.

The person reminded me that the lawyers who had initially bedeviled Terri Mayberry in the wake of her husband’s tragic death were the rare exception, rather than the rule.

The note writer? George Googasian, who had just completed his term as president of the OCBA and whom I would join in practice a dozen years later.

As I now complete my OCBA presidency and continue to reflect upon that stretch of highway and moment in time that changed everything for the Mayberry family, I know more than ever that George was correct about lawyers.

It’s been an absolute pleasure and honor serving as president of the OCBA, an organization composed of 3,000 professionals who, day in and day out, genuinely help members of the public get from here to there.
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In “Land of Hope and Dreams,” an epic song about an all-comers train ride in which losers and winners and saints and sinners and “broken-hearted, thieves and sweet souls departed” are all aboard, Bruce Springsteen writes,

I will provide for you and I’ll stand by your side
You’ll need a good companion now for this part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows, let this day be the last
Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine and all this darkness past
Big wheels roll through fields where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams                                      
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Thomas H. Howlett, of The Googasian Firm PC, is the 82nd president of the Oakland County Bar Association. Share your thoughts about the OCBA or anything else: direct line 248-502-0862; or e-mail thowlett@googasian.com.  Contact him for a PDF of his July 13, 1986, story, “Turmoil Follows Tragedy.”

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