Bliss on Life

For former POW Ronald Bliss, every moment matters

Published in 2003 Texas Super Lawyers — November 2003

For lawyers accustomed to billing their time by the quarter-hour, 2,374 around-the-clock days would seem like a fair amount of time. But for Houston attorney Ronald G. Bliss, 60, a partner in Fulbright & Jaworski’s Intellectual Property & Technology department, the time he spent as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, from September 4, 1966, to March 4, 1973, seemed like an eternity.

Subjected to torture, lengthy spells of solitary confinement, and demoralizing living conditions, the young pilot struggled to survive. “Sometimes it was [thoughts of] your family that got you through; some days you dreamed of places you’d go, houses you’d build, jobs you’d have, where you were going to take your wife, how you’d raise your kids,” says Bliss.“Some days… you’d just look at the guard when he opened the door and… if he didn’t like how you bowed, he’d clip you a couple of times, and you’d have to say to yourself: ‘You can’t kill me today. I’m going to live for that.’ And some days that was all you had left.”

Life for Bliss began in 1943 in Buckeye, Arizona, but his family moved to southern California before his first birthday. At age ten, he and his family moved to Cheyenne,Wyoming, where he remained until leaving home at age seventeen to attend the United States Air Force Academy.

For as long as he can remember, aviation has been in his blood. One of Bliss’ early childhood memories is he and his father, who worked for a defense contractor, watching legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager prepare for flight in the new X-1 aircraft in 1947, the day Yeager broke the sound barrier.

Bliss graduated from the Air Force Academy with a B.S. in engineering sciences in 1964. By the time he graduated from pilot training in 1965 and advanced fighter training in 1966, America’s involvement in the Vietnam War was in full swing. Leaving behind his young wife, Charlene, and their newborn son, Bliss joined a unit that flew F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bombers from Thailand into North Vietnamese territory. On his seventy-fifth day in action, his plane was shot down north of the Red River. He ejected just north of Hanoi. Bliss still remembers regaining consciousness, listening to what he determined were unfriendly voices deciding his fate, and being led down a dirt road, his head swathed in bandages as a result of a fractured skull.

Imprisoned at Hoa Lo, dubbed the Hanoi Hilton by the Americans, Bliss was put in solitary confinement for nearly two weeks. He then shared a cell with John H. “Jack” Fellowes, a lieutenant who had been shot down over North Vietnam a few days before Bliss. Fellowes had been tortured so severely with ropes and irons that he lost the use of his arms for nine months. During this time, Bliss fed him, dressed him, and bathed him.

Fellowes remembers a particularly telling incident: It was standard procedure in prison, when the guard came to unlock the door, for the senior officer to stand in front.On one occasion, with Fellowes standing in front and the more junior Bliss a step or two behind, the guard prepared to punch Fellowes in the face. To the surprise of Fellowes and the guard, Bliss stepped forward, so the guard struck Bliss instead. “He took a beating for me; that’s the kind of guy he is,” marvels Fellowes.

Bliss did more than tend to his cellmate’s beaten body. He regaled Fellowes with hilarious accounts of things he had done while at the Air Force Academy, making Fellowes laugh so hard, his arms ached even more. “I had to pass a rule: no jokes until my arms got better,” says Fellowes. “He saved my life: he kept me going, kept me cheered up.”

Bliss insists the “saving” was mutual and that the wisdom, warmth, and courage of Fellowes, a “warrior” ten years his senior, inspired him. Fellowes “believed in what we were doing. He was convinced anything was possible in spite of the poor conduct of the air war,” says Bliss. “With his size thirteen feet still in the clay and his heart in the flag, he made me laugh. He made America seem near. He made me live.That’s as good as a man can be.”

In what Fellowes calls a “weak moment” during their imprisonment, Bliss persuaded him to bet on whether the U.S. Air Force Academy or U.S. Naval Academy would win their football game, for every season, for the rest of their lives. “Well, the Navy doesn’t beat the Air Force in football,” says Fellowes with a laugh, “so I owe him a fortune, but he’s never called for the money.” Fellowes regained the use of his arms, and after seventeen months together he and Bliss were separated. To this day, however, they remain close.They recently were reunited in June, at the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, when nearly 150 former POWs gathered for the thirtieth anniversary of their return.

During the years he was imprisoned, Bliss learned to communicate with other American prisoners by means of a tapping code devised during the Korean War that a fellow prisoner taught them. (The code presupposed a 5-by-5 grid consisting of two groups of taps. The first tap put you into the proper group of letters, and the second number of taps from 1 to 5 placed the proper letter in the group.)

Sometimes the men conversed by pressing their cups against the thick walls and talking into their cups. A cup didn’t leave moisture spots on the wall the way one’s mouth did, so when the guards opened the doors, they could not discern that the prisoners had been communicating. Nonetheless, evading torture was “a science in itself, as well as an art,” Bliss says.“Sometimes we got caught and we paid the price, but that was just the overhead, the price of staying alive.” Communicating, telling jokes, sharing their life stories, and memorizing each other’s names kept their minds busy and their hopes alive. “The only thing we had was each other,” says Bliss of his fellow POWs, many of whom he didn’t actually meet until years later.

“Knowing there were other Americans was tremendously helpful, even if you couldn’t see them,” agrees U.S. Congressman Sam Johnson of Texas, who spent nearly seven years as a POW in Hanoi. Bliss’ name was on the list Johnson had memorized, but the two didn’t meet and become friends until they were released. Bliss “is probably one of the most thoughtful guys I’ve ever been around,” says Johnson. “An experience like that leaves scars… but it develops patience, which is an excellent trait in a lawyer.”

After being released in March 1973, Bliss decided to go to law school. “I never wanted to put my fate in anybody else’s hands again,” he says. After graduating in 1976 from Baylor University School of Law, Bliss went to work for Fulbright & Jaworski. He’s still there.

“There is a fantastic camaraderie in this firm — the military term is ‘esprit de corps’ — and that has made all the difference between where I might have gone and where I’ve been for twenty-seven years,” he says.

Bliss’s practice at Fulbright has been diverse. According to his biography on the firm’s Web site, his practice runs the gamut of litigating, licensing, and providing strategic counseling for patent, trademark, trade secret, unfair competition, and copyright matters. Bliss has also specialized in creating, dissolving, licensing, and defending franchise assets. In addition, he has been at the forefront of numerous highprofile, successful seizures of counterfeit goods in a variety of industries. In the mid-eighties, for example, Bliss, on behalf of General Motors, put one of the largest auto-parts-counterfeiting rings out of business. Bliss also preserved the trademark and trade dress of a major food company, Pace Foods, which later sold for more than $1 billion. Given the choice, Bliss, a certified mediator, says that he’d rather negotiate on behalf of a client than try a lawsuit on behalf of a client, because “then you get something that is acceptable to both sides.”

From approximately 1986 to 2001, Bliss headed Fulbright’s Intellectual Property department firmwide. One of his first associate recruits, James W. Repass, describes Bliss as the ultimate mentor; half father, half big brother to him.“He taught me how to be a lawyer, and a lawyer in the Fulbright way,” says Repass, a Fulbright partner who now heads the IP department in Houston.

In addition to being a superb lawyer himself, Bliss was able to attract superb legal talent to the firm, Repass says. Indeed, it was no coincidence that under Bliss’s leadership, Fulbright’s Intellectual Property department grew from seven to more than 120 attorneys. “It was his leadership, vision, personality, that allowed us to do what we did in terms of growth,” says Repass. “Ron takes care of his people. He walks the halls to make sure everyone is okay. He’ll stick his head in someone’s office, tell a joke.”

“You give them your heart and soul just like kids,” says Bliss of the attorneys who joined his department over the years, “and you expect a lot from them. These are the rules… you are fair about it, and every day you stop and let them know that they matter. You make them laugh. This is a hard enough profession; they’ll cry enough as it is…. If it was Thursday and we’d had a hard time, I’d get out and announce, ‘The old man’s buying,’ and we’d go over to the bar and we’d have a little attitude adjustment, because you’ve got to play your people as well as work your people.We are not chessmen on a board.”

When he stepped down as head of the department close to two years ago, Bliss was given a copy of a collective letter from the associates in his department, addressed to the managing chairman of the executive committee, extolling what Bliss had done and asking whether he wouldn’t reconsider his decision. After reading it, “I just sat here with tears running down my face. I thought: You know? I did some good here. I mattered.”

For a guy whose surname is synonymous with enjoyment and happiness, Bliss has lived up to his name, even in the face of hardship. Since September 1998, when it was first diagnosed, Bliss’s on-again, off-again battle with cancer has not diminished his determination to make each day matter.“Some days are good. Some days are better,” he says. “Bad days are bad only if you let them be bad days…. I don’t know if it’s wisdom or blind optimism, [but] if you’re bitter, you’re dead.”

Last July, Bliss had a recurrence of melanoma, which required hospitalization and biochemotherapy dripped around the clock. It “rolled my socks down,” he says. In addition to being treated at the University of Texas M.D.Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Bliss has flown out to UCLA Medical Center to participate in a 90-day regimen. Despite his illness, Bliss continues to come to the office “upbeat in his approach to the law and his handling of matters, inspiring the confidence of those who work with him and his clients,” says fellow Houston partner Frank G. Jones.“I’m sure there are times he is down, but he is always… positive in his demeanor. He’s not one to sit around complaining. It’s incredible to see someone with an attitude like that.”

Lending stability and meaning to his life is Bliss’ thirty-eight-year marriage to his wife, Charlene. “She has seen me through some pretty hard times and seen herself through some hard times as well.” Even now, Bliss recalls how the mere sight of Charlene’s handwriting on a letter that the North Vietnamese had seized during his imprisonment helped him withstand an interrogation session on Valentine’s Day 1968.

A born raconteur, Bliss started writing a novel two years ago inspired by his experiences.There are things that “need to be said” about the test of character, hope, strength, fear, and some of the “great truths and great lies” that were perpetuated at that moment in history, he says. “It will not be a bitter book, [although] it will end fairly and somberly.”

Bliss says that his experience as a POW fortified him for life’s subsequent battles, ranging from those in the courtroom to his battle with cancer. “Either you’re bigger than life or life is bigger than you,” he says.“The only thing we run out of is time. If you’re alive, you’ve got choices…. If you’re looking down on the grass, you’re doing fine.”

“That’s Bliss on life,” he says, as if quoting a hornbook.

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