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Reminiscing Upshur County – J.O. “Ott” Duncan

This week’s column comes courtesy of Joyce Duncan Payne, third born and oldest girl of 11 children, 5 boys and 6 girls. She discusses her father, J. Ott Duncan’s career as a lawyer in Upshur County.
By the year 1954, dad had become one of the best-known lawyers in East Texas and was elected to the office of County Attorney (now known as District Attorney). He was known to be one of the most bombastic lawyers in the county and anytime he was scheduled for a jury trial, people traveled far and wide to observe him in action.
Ott Duncan was not a big man, but he had a big voice and personality. His physical appearance was striking with black hair and piercing blue eyes. He was always impeccably dressed in a 3-piece suit, starched white shirt and a beautiful tie with a special tie-tack made of silver with a diamond center. And let’s not forget those Alligator boots!
Judge would be seated and ready to begin, would see that Ott had not completed the puzzle and would say, “Well folks, when Ott is ready, we will start proceedings.
I was privileged to attend several trials since I worked part time as his secretary when I was in high school. I was in my junior year when I had a wonderful teacher, Mr. Truman Jones, who taught typing and shorthand and provided me with the skills needed for the office and other tasks.
Then, when the regular court reporter was absent, dad would call on me to fill in. The first time that happened, I was in his office across the street from the courthouse, when I looked out of the window to see him sprinting across the street and up the stairs. “Joyce, grab your steno book and come running. You are going to fill in for the court reporter who is sick!”
Well, I was startled and felt as if I was not qualified to do the job and told him so. “Oh, no you don’t!” he said, “You can, and you will!”
So, I took my pad and pencils and headed for the courthouse, shaking in my boots. But I bravely marched on and took my seat in the court reporter’s place. When the judge entered the courtroom, he looked around and said, “When our court reporter gets here, we will begin.”
Ott said, “Well judge, the regular reporter is sick, so this young lady will fill in.” Judge said, “Why, she’s just a kid!” But proceedings began and I did my best to record everything that was said and later transcribed it all. I must have done it well, because I was later asked to fill in again.
That was only one example of dad’s lessons. “You can and you will.” During his reign of District Attorney for almost 20 years, he tried many difficult cases, including murder. One offender was sentenced to death after Ott’s dramatic performance during the trial. At one point, he left the courtroom abruptly and soon returned yielding a large fence post and demonstrating how it was used as the murder weapon.
That scene remains in my memory all these years later. The fence post was almost as big as Ott, but he picked it up, slammed it down with a loud bang and startled the audience. As I said, he had a big voice, and he could be heard down the hall. Such was an example of J. Ott Duncan as he prosecuted cases for Upshur County.
Ott and Mozelle lived only a few blocks from the courthouse square, so in the early years, he walked to town down Silver Alley. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of talking to Philip Williams, a long-time business owner of Williams Furniture store on the town square, who is also a newspaper reporter. One of Philip’s memories of dad was how loud he spoke. Philip said that in the early morning, the store owners would be opening up around the square. Everything would be as quiet as a mouse. Then Ott appeared on the scene, and everyone knew the day was open for business.
Beginning in 1954 until he passed away in 1984, he served many terms as District Attorney. In about 1974, he realized his real calling was to serve as a defense attorney where he could help people in need. So, he opened an office one block from their home.
There, he had more time to go home for lunch and relax while watching TV shows such as Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune and others. Also, he and mother enjoyed taking the afternoon off and driving to their farm 15 miles from town. There he enjoyed taking care of a few cows and a small garden.
Mother was an artist and always took a sketch pad on those trips. She would see a wildflower or a scene that interested her and make a sketch. Later, she did oil paintings from those sketches.
Dad died in 1984 after a full life of service to others. Other activities included service as Master of the IOOF Lodge (Odd Fellows) which served as a benevolent group with support of the Kidney Research program. He also served for 16 years as the President of the NE Texas Lawyers Association and was a Lay Preacher for the Methodist Church which required him to fill in at community churches when needed.
All in all, he led a full life, and many people still remember him today. Some heard from their grandpa, “There ain’t no lawyers around like Ott Duncan. He was the best!”
To me, that is the most wonderful legacy a daughter could have!

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