Most people feel the same about their lawyer as they do their congressman, considering him or her fairly likable and honest, dismissing all the rest as little better than whorish pickpockets.

Partly on account of having briefly been both a politician and a lawyer, I don't share this popular prejudice. Especially when it comes to small town lawyers, the vast majority are sincere and honorable - even smart, though not as smart as they like to think.

My dad, Elmer Winters, who became a lawyer in his mid-40s after retiring from active duty in the U.S. Army, was a classic example of the species. Like some sort of village rabbi, he took pride in mending problems, and never felt better than when he cheated himself out of a fat fee by finding adversaries a solution that didn't involve lawsuits. This meant his secretary sometimes took home a bigger paycheck than he did, and that we kids wore threadbare pajamas.

Once there was a poor young childless couple who came to dad wondering if he'd be willing to do their divorce - things weren't working and they just wanted out, but didn't want to each hire an attorney. Most lawyers would have simply filed the papers, or maybe insisted one get different representation so as to avoid any conflict of interest. Dad wouldn't take those easy outs.

No, he wasn't about to let them split up without hearing a damned good explanation. Now I can't tell you what their explanation was, at least not in a family newspaper, but like Dr. Phil, my dad wasn't afraid to ask nosy questions. He got to the heart of the matter, told them the solution and was happy as a mama hen when the little family survived and grew as babies started to come along one by one.

That probably was one of the years when our family vacation consisted of a picnic in the mountains, but I get a little teary thinking of my sweet dad and his selfless affection for people.

There were about as many cases he wouldn't take as cases he would, and I don't claim he was universally beloved - lots of potential clients didn't care for him putting morality ahead of money. For all the complaints about crooked lawyers, plenty of people want just exactly that, so long as their enemies are made to suffer.

Dreamers were dad's favorite hobby, another factor negatively affecting his income. The list could go on and on: the local plumber and sheet-metal man who wanted to start a swanky resort named Operation Amigo on the Mexican coast; the nightmarishly bad middle-aged country-western singer who hired tone-deaf dad as his unpaid agent; the four black-suited Japanese salarymen intent on importing American lamb into their largely vegetarian country.

It was no wonder he was sympathetic to everyone with a crazy dream who ever walked into his office, since he himself was never happier than when pursuing some implausible get-rich-quick scheme. Diamonds, platinum, uranium, gold, talc: I don't think there ever was a time when he didn't have some mining prospect that was just on the verge of providing untold riches. My brothers and I spent plenty of weekends helping him dig trenches out on the edge of nowhere, part of the government's strange ritual for maintaining legal rights to mineral claims.

All this might sound kind of dysfunctional, and I suppose in a way it was. He sure didn't end his life a wealthy man, when by picking something more boring and sticking to it he really might have hit a jackpot. But I can only recall a handful of occasions when he was discouraged or fretful. Watching for life's small ironies and big chances kept him always hopeful, always ready for the next adventure.

Nobody ever exactly paid him with chickens, but plenty of strange things migrated into his hands by way of compensation for services. He ended up with one of his client's cremation ashes, another's collection of Aztec stone sacrificial knives. Being the science groupie I am, I gloamed onto a set of old Scientific American magazines that were somebody's gift-in-lieu-of-payment.

My daughter Elizabeth and I were looking through these the other day when she asked "Would your daddy have loved me?" Having precisely hit my own mid-40s last week, I've never been more accepting of my daddy's priorities, which put dreams and happy little kids at the top of life's list. "Oh sweetie," I answered, "he would have loved you so much!"

- M.S.W.

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