The View from Writers Roost
Jun 21, 2014 | 1442 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
“I like your column about Charlie Wilson. Sounds like you know him pretty well, like maybe y’all’s hats hung from some of the same bedposts.” — Joe Tonahill, renowned attorney and bon vivant

REPORTERS love good quotes. They make a story more real, more human. Sometimes they “spice up” a story that might otherwise be rather dull. Often, they’re pretty funny, occasionally hilarious. And, sometimes a quote is downright scary.

Quotes from colorful people like the late Jasper attorney, Joe Tonahill are worth their weight in gold. I loved Joe and was privileged to call him friend.

Tonahill is probably one of the most successful plaintiff’s attorneys in Texas history. He won hundreds of cases, many on contingency, meaning a percentage of whatever a jury awarded his client. Joe lacked neither brains nor character nor a sense of humor. He could be described as flamboyant. He was also absolutely brilliant.

JOE LIVED in a huge home at the south edge of Jasper. He owned two Rolls Royces, one red, the other yellow. He drove a butane-fueled Ford pickup for a number of reasons. Joe supported Democratic candidates for office and did so with generous campaign contributions. He espoused causes popular with Democrats, which is why he drove the butane-burning vehicle when checking on things at his ranch east of Jasper.

The name of his Pineywoods ranch — Sherwood Forest — also makes a statement about Joe. Sherwood Forest is where Robin Hood operated, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. As a plaintiffs attorney, Joe sued big companies and rich people on behalf of less fortunate people who’d been “wronged” by said big corporations and/or rich folks.

WHILE JOE was already well known in legal and financial circles, he gained fame and some notoriety when he was hired to defend Jack Ruby, the man who shot Lee Harvey Oswald in front of scores of cameras in 1963. Oswald had been arrested and charged with the assassination-murder of President John F. Kennedy.

About the time I went to Jasper in 1991 to publish The Jasper Newsboy, the Oliver Stone movie, JFK, hit the theaters.

So, I told new staffer Diane Cox she needed to go interview Tonahill about the movie. Her reaction: “Omigod! Go interview Joe Tonahill! Are you kidding?”

But, Diane went and was delighted and charmed by the tall, deep-voiced lawyer. It was a great interview and a great story.

And, almost as soon as the interview was arranged, I received a phone call from Tonahill: “Mr. Webb, I want to thank you for sending someone to interview me. That’s the very first time I’ve ever been interviewed by The Jasper Newsboy for anything.”

Soon after, I was invited to his office to get acquainted.

Tonahill’s office was huge. On one wall was a black and white photo about 7-8 feet wide and floor to ceiling, of Ruby shooting Oswald — the very same picture that had been on the cover of Life Magazine.

It was a mid-morning meeting and I was offered a drink of Joe’s Irish whiskey or anything I wanted. I declined and took some proffered coffee instead.

IN ADDITION to many photos of famous cases and of people he knew as friends, there were mounted trophies from some of Joe’s hunting trips. Of course, he’d been all over the world.

The reason for his statement, quoted at the beginning of this column, is a column I’d written about the now late Texas Congressman Charles “Charlie” Wilson from Lufkin. I knew a lot about Charlie, liked him and thought he’d been an effective representative in Washington. I wrote some personal things about Charlie. What I didn’t say was that I was married briefly to a woman who ran Charlie’s district office in Conroe.

Thus, I probably looked a little taken aback by the statement from Joe.

I did say the marriage was brief, didn’t I?

I never explained it to Joe and he never asked again.

Willis Webb is a retired community newspaper editor-publisher of more than 50 years experience. He can be reached by email at
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