The Avenging Angel Who Travels in Style
Willie Gary's real life out-Horatio-Algiers even the most imaginative character from fiction
Published in 2006 Florida Super Lawyers magazine
on June 14, 2006
Updated on January 25, 2017
It’s a mere three weeks before the biggest case of his career — a $100 billion lawsuit against Motorola over GPS technology ownership — but on this overcast February morning, rags to uber-riches corporate litigation and personal injury attorney Willie Gary is holed up in a small Memphis courtroom, representing a young black woman whose baby was born with such extensive brain damage that his limbs were agonizingly twisted for the two years of his short life. Called in only two weeks before the trial date when the hospital retained a hot-shot lawyer from Atlanta and the local guys felt out-gunned, Gary had every reason to turn down the case, and only one to take it.
“Sometimes,” he says, “it’s not just about the money. Sometimes you do it because it’s just right.”
Money and justice. These are Gary’s two guiding passions, with the former being his method of delivering the latter. Nicknamed “The Giant Killer” for bringing in huge judgments against insurance and chemical companies and hospitals, as well as unfair-trade-practice verdicts against large corporations, including Walt Disney Co. and Anheuser Busch, Gary fancies himself a modern “David” versus the corporate “Goliath,” an avenging angel who swoops into town on one of his two private jets — a gulf stream (Wings of Justice I) and a 737 (Wings of Justice II) — wielding a litigious sword of Damocles.
If that sounds a bit over the top, well, welcome to Willie Gary’s world.
This is a former sharecropper, after all, who is a self-made billionaire; a guy who’s won more than 150 cases with more than $1 million awarded in damages; a guy who was named by Ebony magazine in 2002 as one of the “100 Most Influential Black Americans,” and by Forbes magazine as one of the “Top 50 Attorneys in the U.S.”; who was featured on Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous and appeared on Oprah; a guy who believes in himself so strongly that he declares, “If God came down on a two-seat spaceship and was going back to Heaven, Willie Gary’s gonna get that other seat”; a guy who hosted a fundraiser for President Clinton at his posh 50-room mansion, and of whom Clinton joked, “Willie Gary praised me for raising the average income of African-American families. Well, I didn’t need to do anything because he did it all by himself.”
Not bad for someone whose sharecropper childhood sounds like a comedian’s “We were so poor” routine: “We were so poor, sometimes I wore two pairs of pants to cover the holes in each one … When my parents picked crops, they put me in a little cardboard box and dragged me down the bean rows. I didn’t have day care. I had field care … One year we lived in a tent and washed our clothes in the creek …”
Gary is 58 (and 5 feet 8 inches), but his story sounds like it took place in an America long ago and far away. The sixth of 11 children, he was born in a small house in a cotton field in Eastman, Ga., and his complicated birth forced his father, Turner, to mortgage his 200-acre farm in order to pay the medical expenses (Gary had a twin who died at birth). After that, the family lived the lives of migrant workers, moving with the crops every couple of months. His education was piecemeal, he says, because in those days plantation owners in North Carolina pushed into law local legislation that children of migrant workers could attend school only a half day, so they could work the other half.
When he mentions his father, which is often, he’s rhapsodic.
“Willie Gary’s nothin’ compared to my daddy. He was magic. When everybody had bad crops, my daddy made good crops. His watermelons were the largest. Everyone had peewee melons like cantaloupes and he had these giant ones …”
With all his great success, it’s these early stories of struggle that Gary loves telling the most. He begins most of them by saying, “I’ll never forget it,” and closes his eyes, dropping into a reverie, speaking like it happened yesterday. He seems to remember the name of everybody who’s ever crossed his path.
Depending on the subject and his audience, Gary alternately sounds like an articulate, no-nonsense lawyer, a street corner jiver and an inspirational church preacher, weaving seamlessly among the different vernaculars.
Listening to him, you soon realize his tale should carry the following disclaimer:
THE FOLLOWING STORY IS TRUE. It’s way too implausible to be fiction.
Just for fun, keep track of how often Gary escapes defeat by the hairs on his chinny-chin chin.
When he was 13, Turner moved the family to Indiantown, Fla. (where his mother, Mary, lives to this day), so Gary could stay in one school. Gary became a star high school football player, and one day received a note from Bethune-Cookman College, an allblack school, offering him a $6,400 scholarship. Or so he thought.
“When I got there, I found out it was dependent on me making the team.” Gary got cut from the squad — and the college — on the final day of training camp.
Gary knew he couldn’t go home. He’d told everyone he had a scholarship, and the whole town had given him a big send-off — so he called his high school coach, who recommended Gary try a small college in North Carolina that was on a trimester schedule, and might still be taking applicants, adding that he’d contact the coach on Gary’s behalf.
That day, with $15 in his pockets, Gary grabbed a Greyhound bus to Shaw University. But when he knocked on the coach’s door, Coach Jefferson had no idea who he was. Furthermore, there were 125 players in camp, and only 80 uniforms. Which meant Gary had to leave.
“I couldn’t go back home,” Gary says. “I didn’t have enough money.”
So Gary befriended a few players, who smuggled him cafeteria food, and slept on the dorm sofa — coming in after midnight, to avoid the team bed check. While hanging around, Gary decided to apply for admission, but the school’s director, John Fleming, informed Gary that the application cost ten dollars — $10 which Gary didn’t have. While talking, Fleming, also a minister, realized that he used to deliver sermons to sharecroppers in the same labor camps where Turner Gary worked. Fleming waived the $10 fee and Gary officially applied to become a student at the college. Years later, when Shaw was in danger of closing, Gary returned with a $10 million donation, “One million for every dollar John waived,” he says.
Remembering his father’s advice, “Son, don’t wait for someone to offer you a job. Just start working and somebody will pay you,” Gary started doing chores in the locker room. One Wednesday, Coach Jefferson — whom Gary was ducking — caught him, told him he hadn’t been fooling anybody by sleeping on the sofa, and handed Gary a three-day meal ticket, ordering him to leave after that.
For Gary, this was the end. Going home likely meant a life in the migrant fields. But that Friday, hours before he was scheduled to depart, a defensive player got hurt. Gary grabbed his equipment and Jefferson gave him a try-out. At the end of the last practice, Jefferson told him, “Son, you’re a football player.” Gary had his scholarship.
“I tell kids today that I didn’t just win a spot on the football team. That’s the day I won in life.”
His sophomore year, Gary married Gloria Royal, his childhood sweetheart, and soon after bought a 20-year-old Chevy pickup for $75, a lawnmower and a couple of rakes, and started “Gary’s Home Beautification Service.” His big break came when he spotted a billboard announcing the construction of a new trailer park. “They gotta have grass,” Gary thought, and he talked the project manager into letting him do all the planting and caretaking. “I got 500 jobs at once,” he says. He then subcontracted them out, coming out $50,000 ahead.
A year later, he and Gloria had the first of their four sons, Kenneth.
Upon graduation, a friend persuaded Gary to apply to law school. North Carolina Central accepted him, but after the first semester, Gary was one grade short of the minimum “C” average necessary to continue. Before going home, he visited the professor who gave him a “D” to thank him for his classes, adding that he wouldn’t be back. When the professor learned that his grade was the cause, he told Gary, “You briefed every case, showed up every day. You deserve to be here.” He changed Gary’s grade to a “C,” allowing Gary to stay in school.
Gary graduated. It was the summer of 1974, and while waiting to find out if he passed the bar exam, Gary returned to Stuart to find a job and move into an apartment he had secured by phone and mailed deposit.
But when the manager saw Gary, suddenly there were no apartments available. Before walking out, he told the secretary, “I can’t do anything about it now, but I’m gonna be a lawyer one day. Look at my face, because I guarantee you, I’m coming back, and you’re gonna get the biggest lawsuit you ever saw.” Gary turned to leave, only to hear the manager call to him from the back room. Gary moved into an apartment that day.
“There must have been something in my opening statement,” he says with a laugh.
Gary spent a little time working for the public defender’s office, and then one day he learned that, bucking the odds, he’d passed the bar exam on his first attempt.
“I didn’t know what to do, man. I drove around, prayed, tried to call Gloria …” About to burst, Gary drove toward Gloria’s workplace, some 60 miles away. “The road had nothin’ but trees and alligators, but I kept saying, ‘I’m a lawyer, man. I’m Lawyer Gary.’” Passing the same fields where he had once cut cane, he spotted Gloria in her car. “I flagged her down. She was running to me, she was so happy. I didn’t even have to tell her. We both cried on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere.”
But his problems weren’t over. No firm in Stuart would hire him. One lawyer admitted he wanted to, but his partners were afraid Gary would scare off business.
Undaunted, Gary hung out a shingle, becoming Martin County’s first black attorney.
His first client was an elderly woman who wanted to deed property to her daughter. Having no idea what to charge, he charged $400. Afterwards, he learned that the going rate was only $25, and he handed the woman a refund. She wouldn’t take it.
Gary promised her, “As long as I live, the rest of your legal services are free.” Gary pauses and then breaks into a big grin. “Little did I know she was gonna have some shit every day: ‘They overcharged me fifty cents on my light bill …’ Oh, man, Mrs. Lewis worked me to death.”
Before long, bigger cases started rolling in. The case that put him on the map involved a black man seeking damages in a wrongful death case. The all-white jury awarded him damages of $250,000.
His biggest case involved a Mississippi funeral home owner against a Canadian company that tried to put him out of business to establish a monopoly. The jury awarded damages of $500 million, and the 1995 case was documented in the book Funeral Wars by Jonathan Harr.
Today his firm, Gary, Williams, Parenti, Finney, Lewis, McManus, Watson & Sperando, has four offices and a staff of more than 150, including 42 attorneys. Gary claims he hasn’t personally lost a case in 17 years.
On the day Gary is leaving Memphis to return home for the weekend on Wings of Justice II, 30 high school kids come aboard. The plane looks like it was designed by King Midas — almost everything one touches — drink holders, seatbelt buckles, door handles — is finished in 24-karat gold. But it allows Gary to indulge his third major passion: giving back to the community. After playing some rap DVDs and offering refreshments to the minority students, Gary delivers a brief inspirational message, using his life story as material: “If I can be a lawyer, you can be president. Don’t ever let anyone tell you you can’t be anything you want to be.” He extols the value of hard work and determination. He tells them life is unfair, but you gotta deal with it. He says things like “Don’t give up because the road to success is always under construction.” By the end he’s sounding like a Pentecostal preacher, whipping up the kids in a call and response back-and-forth.
Gary speaks in schools as frequently as five or six times a week, flying on his own dime. He also uses the jet to give rides to young cancer patients who need treatment, and last year spent a couple of days delivering supplies to Hurricane Katrina victims and transferring families to their loved ones in other states. Still, he says his biggest honor was giving Rosa Parks a lift to a Detroit hospital when she was ill.
He hosts a charity golf tournament; he and Gloria head The Gary Foundation, which grants college scholarships to underprivileged youth; he established the Gertrude Walden Child Care Center; he donates regularly to colleges (including $100,000 to Bethune-Cookman, the college that gave him the “nonscholarship”); he’s on the board of trustees at Shaw University; and he’s the majority owner of the Black Family Channel, which advertises that its programs contain “No sex, no crime, no violence.” You will not be surprised to learn that in 1999 he received the Horatio Alger award or that he’s been honored by the NAACP.
Although Gary has made most of his own breaks, he believes in government programs that “level the playing field” for minorities and is adamant that corporations have a responsibility to be good citizens and help the less fortunate.
Emerging from a long day in the Memphis courtroom, Gary is content. He phones his wife — as always — and gives her a recap. He still calls her “Babe.” The following Friday afternoon the Memphis jury files in and returns a verdict in favor of the hospital, rejecting Gary’s claim of negligence. Gary is stunned. “I can’t believe it,” he says, shaking his head.
For a short time, Gary is a bit adrift. He is not used to losing, something he hasn’t done for many years. But a few minutes later his confidence and zeal have returned.
“Oh, this is merely a bump in the road,” he says. “We have many good grounds to appeal. We’re going to fight this and win on appeal. I’m never going to give up on this case. Never. Ever. Justice will be done, I guarantee it.”