Service Above Self
Robert H. Haggard, partner at The Van Winkle Law Firm in Asheville and in Hendersonville, on the responsibility he took on as a JAG officer, the active volunteerism of his trust and estate legal community, and his appreciation of antique tractors
Published in 2012 North Carolina Super Lawyers magazine
on January 20, 2012
Updated on January 23, 2012
Q: What drew you to the law?
A: Back in the early ‘70s, when I was graduating from Davidson College here in North Carolina, a number of my friends were going on to law school. But I had a little extra incentive. The Vietnam War was going on, I was about to be commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Army field artillery, and I basically had two choices: I could either go on an educational delay to law school and end up on active duty as captain in JAG Corps, or I could go to Vietnam as a forward observer. That was an easy decision.
Q: How did your experience in the JAG Corps shape your career?
A: All military lawyers are given a lot of responsibility very quickly. Also, military training is a very results-oriented training as opposed to law school, which, historically, tends to be more a theoretical approach. I had a lot of challenging and interesting experiences while serving in the Army, and had the opportunity to try an admiralty case and worked on a federal tort claims action that involved claims of $100 million. For a brand new lawyer, that’s pretty exciting.
Q: Were you nervous at all with the responsibility?
A: I was scared to death. [Laughs]
Q: But you pulled it off.
A: You better learn to swim. But it’s a lot of fun, too, when you have some success and have the opportunity to work with a lot of really capable people.
Q: Were you successful in the cases you just mentioned?
A: Indeed. The federal tort claims action actually was in trial for 18 months and, so, I guess if you add up all those days, that was a lot of trial experience. In the very end, the United States paid Southern Pacific Railroad a very small fraction of what Southern Pacific had sought.
Q: What was Southern Pacific claiming?
A: The United States Navy has a bomb manufacturing facility in Hawthorne, Nevada, and they manufacture bombs that, at that time, were consigned to the Air Force in Southeast Asia. They were being transported on U.S. Army-owned boxcars—there were 21 boxcars—that made up part of a train that belonged to Southern Pacific Railroad. Southern Pacific was transporting those cars and their train down the Sierra Nevada grade down into Roseville, California. It’s the steepest rail grade in America. When the train arrived in Roseville, California, the bombs started blowing up and five of the boxcars mass-detonated, which caused considerable property damage and personal injury for miles around, and spawned claims of property owners, people with personal injury, as well as claims by Southern Pacific because the accident occurred in their largest rail classification yard. As I said, the total claims amounted to more than $100 million. That accident occurred a long time ago, April the 28th, 1973.
Q: You really remember your dates.
A: It was a big event in my life.
One little anecdote about that. One of my responsibilities was to find all of the procurement records—those were the contract records for all of the rail cars involved. These rail cars were originally acquired by the Navy during the Korean conflict to move naval ordnance around the country, and I could not find those records. I was working with a naval records custodian who had been with the Navy for 40 years and I think she knew everything there was to know about naval records, but we could not find these records. After looking and looking, one day she said, “You know, these boxcars were acquired during the Korean War and there’s a possibility that somebody thought that they should be classified. And if they were classified, there’s a possibility that they were never declassified.” And I thought, well, it’s worth a try. So I went over to the classified records facility in Suitland, Maryland, and started doing research, and, lo and behold, found 40 boxes full of classified records related to the acquisition of these railcars. That was a good day.
Q: How did you end up choosing your practice area?
A: My practice area, which is trust and estate, was the area that my firm needed help [in], so that was the primary reason. But, second, it was something that I embraced because I recognized that the trust and estate field was one in which you had the opportunity to work with successful people doing creative things.
Q: What is your most memorable case?
A: I’ve had the opportunity to work on a number of memorable cases, but one that really sticks out in my mind is a case involving a will contest of a gentleman who had been subjected to a frontal lobotomy, [which] had been performed at Duke University Hospital. He had exhibited mental illness as a teenager and in those days, medications had not been developed to treat schizophrenia. He was aggressive and they treated him, among other things, by performing a frontal lobotomy. Many years later, when he was diagnosed with cancer, his caregivers took him to an attorney to prepare a will, and that will left his assets—which were considerable, about $4 million worth, which he had inherited—to his caregivers. That will was subjected to a caveat, which made all of us find out about lobotomies, which was something that I, needless to say, had never had any reason to know anything about.
Q: Who was your client in that case?
A: Members of his family who had maintained a good relationship with him, and visited with him regularly, and were completely unaware that the paid caregivers had taken him to an attorney to have a will made that left them his assets.
Q: So you ended up making sure that the family received some of those assets?
A: Yes, that was the outcome. Of course, I wouldn’t tell you about any case in which I wasn’t successful. [Laughs]
Q: Did anything about practicing law surprise you or differ from what you expected?
A: Well, I would say that a pleasant surprise is the degree of collegiality that I have experienced among trust and estate lawyers. I have been active in North Carolina Bar Association in the estate, planning and fiduciary law section—in fact, served as the chair of that section last year. And it is just amazing how many trust and estate lawyers volunteer significant amounts of their time to help each other and to assist the profession. We have a very active legislative committee. The most significant revision of the probate laws in North Carolina was accomplished last year, a very ambitious CLE program. The number of lawyers across the state who volunteer their time and their talent to a very significant degree is really quite amazing.
Q: Your volunteer efforts include working with the Asheville Rotary Club, which started a medical and dental clinic in Honduras. How did you end up getting involved with that project?
A: We started our medical/dental clinical project five years ago and this came out of a project through the Rotary Club of Asheville. I had the opportunity to travel to Honduras about six years ago, and I was given the opportunity to speak to the Rotary Club in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, which is a city of almost a million people with a large Rotary Club. I requested that that Rotary Club propose a project that their club and my club in Asheville could work on together. They suggested a water project in a town called San Manuel, Honduras, about 25 miles south of San Pedro Sula. We worked on that water project with some other clubs and were able to design and implement a $90,000 water project, which completely replaced the water system in that town with a new well, a new distribution system, a new storage tank that now serves approximately 6,000 people.
As worthwhile as that project was, it was really an exercise in collecting money and writing checks. We wanted to do something that was more hands-on, and it was suggested that we might do a medical/dental clinic in that same town where the water project was being done so that we could have more of an opportunity to get to know the people that were being served by the water project. We put together a group of U.S. dentists and U.S. doctors and a number of helpers, myself included, and we also made it a partnership with the Rotary Club in Honduras, and they also provided dentists and doctors. That was very successful, and we decided though that we wanted to provide similar service in a location that was more remote, so we partnered with a Rotary Club in Copán, Honduras, and have been operating out of Copán with a weeklong medical/dental clinic that we go [to] in January of each year. This will be the fourth year that we will have operated a clinic in the vicinity of Copán. We reach almost a thousand medical and dental patients, each clinic. These are people who have no access to medical or dental service. We provide a lot of dental extractions; we also provide restorative dentistry, general medical treatment, eye exams. We dispense eyeglasses and we provide fluoride treatment to all of the children under age 12. And we provide toothbrushes and toothpaste to the children and, quite frankly, it just breaks your heart because we have to teach the children how to use a toothbrush and toothpaste because they’ve never had those before.
Q: What are your duties as a helper?
A: I’m in charge of logistics. I arrange transportation from the airport to the hotel where we stay, which is about a 4 ½ hour drive. I arrange for security because Central America these days in some locations isn’t altogether safe, and, as a precaution, we provide for security for our group. I make the hotel arrangements, make food arrangements, coordinate the participation by the Rotary Club in Copán, and similar arrangements.
Q: This must be a really rewarding experience.
A: The people in Honduras are the most hospitable, the most welcoming, most grateful. Everyone who’s gone has just felt like this is one of the best things that they’ve done in their life and it does epitomize Rotary’s motto of “service above self.”
Q: What’s the most rewarding part about being a lawyer?
A: The personal reward of helping people in a time of crisis: knowing that you made a positive contribution to someone’s life. That often comes in the estate administration side of my practice, where you’re helping a family deal with the loss of a loved one, and giving them guidance as to what the legal requirements are, what the law expects them to do as an executor or as a trustee, and [giving] them knowledge and skill so that they can perform their duties.
Q: What advice do you have for young lawyers today?
A: I think everyone knows that attorneys coming out of law school today are faced with greater challenges than at any time, I think, in my professional career. The competition for jobs is great; the number of job openings is smaller. It’s a very, very difficult environment. What I would say is to try to find some way to differentiate yourself, to set yourself apart from your peers. Many trust and estate lawyers go on for an additional degree: an LL.M. in taxation or an LL.M. in estate planning as a way to better qualify themselves and to distinguish themselves from their peers.
Q: How do you unwind from your practice?
A: I enjoy anything around water. I enjoy sailing and boating of all kinds. I also have a hobby of collecting antique tractors, the full-size farm tractors. I fortunately live on what used to be a dairy farm, so I have barns and outbuildings and lots of storage space, so I have space [to] park things like antique tractors. I take them to shows occasionally and even sometimes take them to antique tractor pulls. Every now and then, I also enjoy riding [my] motorcycle in the mountains of North Carolina.
Q: Do you do any work on these tractors?
A: I actually don’t do much of the restoration work myself. I have a couple of friends that are very capable and have a business of doing tractor restoration. I’m more of a helper than a tractor restorer. One of the great rewards of that hobby is, obviously, it’s completely different from what I do in my professional life; and the people that I’ve met who are also interested in antique tractors are truly salt-of-the-earth kind of people and people that I enjoy being around and talking to.
It’s interesting: Almost everybody is connected to a farm in some way, through grandparents or a great-uncle, or maybe they spent a summer on a farm. I get tickled because, if I’m hauling a tractor on a trailer to maybe go to a show and I stop at a gas station, people will come over and immediately start talking to me about, you know, where I’m coming from, where I’m going, and then they want to talk to me about their families’ tractors. It really is an icebreaker. If you want to start a conversation with somebody, just be pulling an antique tractor around. [Laughs]