Two very different friends

Published 9:50 pm Saturday, October 4, 2008

In contact this past week with an old friend I haven’t seen in a long, long time, I got to thinking about what a funny thing friendship is.

My friend is an attorney. He’s a Democrat, too. In fact, if you look in the dictionary under the term “Yellow Dog Democrat,” you’ll find his picture. He lives in Paris, Texas. His name is Bill Flanary and he is very good at what he does.

I considered another attorney a very good friend. His name was Ballinger Mills and he was (he’s dead now) the senior partner in the oldest law firm in that state. Ballinger, too, was very, very good at what he did, but he was about as far from being a Democrat as anyone ever gets. Ballinger lived on Galveston Island.

Bill will jump to the defense of the underdog every single time. He gave his church the money for a very elaborate television studio and camera equipment for the sanctuary after he filed a malpractice suit against a Dallas hospital and won. The money he gave the church, he told me, was his tithe from his share of the money he won for his client.

Bill, when he was with the Texas Attorney General’s office, used to fly around the state and pull midnight raids on nursing homes, frequently closing them down for abuse or neglect of patients.

Bill had a hand in establishing the dram shop precedent in Texas when he represented the wife of a blue collar man who was killed in a highway accident after a liquor store sold him beer at a drive-through window even though he was so drunk the clerk had to count his money for him. Bill took that case because he felt for the widow, who had a tiny baby and no money, no job and no education.

Perhaps similarly, Bill involved himself after a student at a junior college was arrested on a drugs charge. The student was arrested when she went to the campus post office to pick up a package. The package had been damaged in transit and a brown powder had spilled out of it. A suspicious postal employee had summoned police who had tested the powder and determined it to be heroin. The student, a young woman barely out of a small town high school, was placed in handcuffs in front of a building full of other students.

Bill’s son, also a student there at the time, told Bill the story and Bill was horrified. He contacted the young woman, who was still being held in the county jail, and learned that the package was from her mother. He called the mother who talked him through what had been in the package.

To make a long story short, the package was a typical mom’s care package to a kid at college. It contained cookies and other goodies. The suspicious brown powder turned out to be spiced tea which, it turned out, just happened to test positive as heroin with the particular portable test used in this instance.

Bill and the young woman settled for a very public apology from all the officials involved.

Ballinger’s focus was not the underdog. His interests were very different. He was the executor of the Sealy-Smith Foundation, the primary benefactor of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Back then, that foundation gave UTMB millions of dollars every year without ever touching its principle.

To give you a sense of Ballinger’s character, when a hurricane threatened Galveston, Ballinger’s practice was to send his housekeeper to buy groceries, then tell his gardener to go get a case of scotch and close the shutters on all his house’s windows. The house was a big, two-story building with walls 18 inches or 2 feet thick and a roof of Mexican tile. That’s the way Ballinger had been dealing with storms all his life and he never changed.

When I was in Galveston, I agreed once to attend a meeting of some historical group in which Ballinger was interested. The meeting was held in the boardroom on the UTMB campus. I gave myself time to get to the meeting, but little to spare. Then, when I got to the UTMB campus, there was no place to park. I circled the building two or three times looking for a space and, on my last pass, saw Ballinger standing on the sidewalk in front of the main entrance waving to me.

I rolled my window down and he, pointing to the red painted curb where he was standing, said, “Put it here.”

“I can’t, Ballinger,” I told him. “They’ll tow it.”

“No they won’t,” he said, motioning to a campus cop posted nearby.

“As I parked and got out, Ballinger told the officer, “He’s with me. Watch that car.”

My car was still there two hours later when I left the meeting.

One more story: Ballinger was on the UTMB board. One day, his secretary called and told me he’d like to see me. I picked a time and arrived at his office at that time. He, very uncharacteristically, left me sitting and waiting for 20 minutes before his secretary told me he was ready to see me.

The newspaper of which I was the managing editor at the time had a few days earlier published a story about difficulties being encountered by the UTMB president. Ballinger had the offending issue of the paper on his desk.

He chastised me about the story for five or 10 minutes, his voice gradually rising, then, angrily, rolled the newspaper tightly and threw it forcefully into the trash can beside his desk.

Then he leaned back in his chair and, in his usual calm tone of voice, said, “Now that that’s done, you want to go get some lunch?”

What had happened, of course, was that he had been assigned by the board’s other members to fuss at me. He had done that, but then he let me know that the fussing was “just business” and in no way interfered with our relationship.

Had the two attorneys lived in the same part of the state, sooner or later, they would have met in the courtroom – and they would not have been sitting at the same table. Bill would have been suing whoever Ballinger was defending.

How, then, could I, with little in common with either of them, have come to consider such very different men such very, very close friends?

Friendship is, indeed, a funny thing, don’t you think?

David Sullens is the president of Roanoke-Chowan Publications LLS and publisher of the Roanoke-Chowan News Herald and the Gates County Index.