What’s your favorite lawyer joke?
I don’t know any lawyer jokes. What I hear is all true.
That’s right! Lawyers don’t think lawyer jokes are funny, and non-lawyers don’t think they are jokes.
Seriously, though, many lawyers are nice people, and they are some of the first people called when help is needed. It’s also true that my father was a great raconteur and joke teller, and he could probably do the jokes justice, but I didn’t inherit that gene.
Where did you grow up?
West Orange, Texas. My father was a serial entrepreneur. He was in the mortuary business, and for most of my upbringing, he ran a medical equipment company in Orange. He also ran a dry cleaner. My mother often worked at some of the businesses, too, and developed the ideas, especially the dry cleaner, and the children’s clothing boutique she ran. She also had a career as a radiology technician and was a stay-at-home mom for a while, with a lot of community involvement. My dad died about three years ago, and my mom is still alive.
What was the best thing about West Orange?
It was a good community to grow up in. There are large petro-chemical and shipping industries there, and this brought a lot of people—many engineers and managers—to the area. We had a diverse population, and we worked together on things. I was in band, debate, and boy scouts. It was the small kind of town where, for good and ill, everyone knew what you were doing. This was good for the development of self-discipline. Also, if you enjoyed fishing, hunting, or camping, there were a lot of activities in that part of the state, right on the Louisiana border.
Gene earned a debate scholarship to Houston Baptist University, but then transferred to Lamar University for his bachelor’s degree and the University of Houston for his master’s degree.
What prompted your interest in law school?
I worked in a law firm while working on my master’s degree, and several people there encouraged me to go into law. One was a legal intern, who was in law school while she was interning. She actually gifted me a copy of Black’s Law Dictionary and inscribed it. I thought about it, applied, and ended up attending SMU School of Law.
Was that a big transition in terms of culture?
There were some cultural and economic differences, but there were also people like me who didn’t come from money or large towns. It was pretty diverse, and to everyone’s credit, they were all very accepting.
You worked for multiple law firms, one of which was Bracewell & Giuliani. They have more than 400 attorneys. Was it intense working there?
Somewhat. We were expected to bill about 2,000 hours a year. It was a good firm, but like much of big law, there was a real emphasis on billing, and that can be problematic.
A 50 year-old lawyer passed away unexpectedly. When arriving at the Pearly Gates, he complained to St. Peter, “How could you have me die? I am only 50!” St. Peter looked at his book and responded, “Only 50? According to the hours you’ve billed, you should be 83.”
Why did you leave?
There were many reasons. One may have been cultural. Once, I was giving one of the firm’s partners a ride to a meeting, and I was driving my older-model Honda Accord. He asked, “Gene, is this your car?” I responded affirmatively, and he observed the car didn’t really “display the image we expect of an attorney at our firm.” He was a nice guy, even a mentor, but it was a different culture. Another factor was I was becoming more interested in mediation, and that’s not usually a charge-by-the-hour service, which makes it unattractive to larger firms. I saw lawsuits as a problem to be solved, and mediation takes that approach.
When did you meet Celeste?
In 2003, when I was working at Bracewell, and she was working in Nashville. I visited Nashville with some friends, and we were introduced by a mutual friend. We didn’t necessarily think a Dallas-Nashville relationship would work, but we traded emails, then began speaking on the phone, then met, and then started to travel back and forth. We were married the next year, and she moved to Dallas.
Not too long after that, you decided to run for district judge. What prompted that?
I thought I would be a good judge, and the incumbent had some vulnerabilities. So, I got out there and knocked on doors, called people, and put out signs—across all of Dallas County. It’s a big county. It was a close election. The early results were promising, but I knew we had other precincts coming in. I received a lot of congratulations on election night, but as it turned out, we didn’t make it.
Did Celeste enjoy campaigning with you?
Probably some of the time. We would walk in parades and push Jack along in a little stroller; he was very young then. We had a “Vote for my Daddy” sign on his stroller. It was a good experience, and we were at peace with the outcome.
What prompted the move to Huntsville and the job at Sam Houston State University?
I saw an ad for the position. I was still practicing law, but I was also teaching a paralegal class at SMU, and I liked the academic side of things. I applied for the job, and I received a call asking if I would come to Huntsville for an interview. A number of people at the university interviewed me, including Dr. Keith Jenkins and Vice President Frank Parker. Rhonda Beassie, who had previously held the position, was a part of the process, including escorting me around campus to my meetings and interviews and answering my questions.
Did you have any reservations about moving to a smaller town?
No. I was raised in a small town, but it was an adjustment in some ways. Celeste and I had friends in Dallas, and we were both active in our church, so leaving Dallas meant separating from that. But, you know, when I interviewed here, I was walking into the student center, and a student in front of me held the door open for me, and that made an impression. When I told Celeste about the interview experience, one of the things I mentioned was the student holding the door open for me. You don’t see that everywhere.
It was also a job shift for Celeste.
Correct. She originally took a position at SHSU, as a Clinical Nursing Professor. She then went to work for Huntsville Independent School District, and now she works as the School Nurse for New Waverly Independent School District.
You were in Scouts; did you encourage Jack in that direction?
That was Celeste. She was friends with Mary Carden at HISD, and Mary put her in touch with Michelle Rush, who was starting a pack. One thing led to another, which led to Jack going into Scouts.
Where does Jack fall in the Scouting hierarchy?
Jack just completed his Arrow of Light, which is the highest award you can earn in Cub Scouts. He is now transitioning to the Scouts BSA, and tonight will be his second meeting. He has also been involved in martial arts, baseball, soccer, basketball, tennis, and golf; also, he attended Camp Invention.
Is he particularly talented in any of those?
Of course he is; he is excellent in all sports and academically. Celeste agrees, and we both say that with complete objectivity.
You are currently on the board of trustees for the Josey Lodge. What does that role involve?
The organization’s mission is to preserve the lodge and its use for scouts. It’s a unique building, historic and majestic. But, being a historic building that is in constant use, it is in need of work: new heating units, new windows, new logs, a paint job. We have a caretaker’s cabin and the annex, and they, too, need some caretaking.
The building dates back to the 1930s, is that correct?
Yes, Dr. Will Oliver at SHSU put together a history on the building, and that helped us list it on the National Registry of Historic Places. The Lodge is also an official Recorded Texas Historic Landmark. The community came together during the Great Depression and came up with the money and materials to build the Lodge, and the result was wonderful. One of the scouting principles is thriftiness, and I think we’ve been thrifty for about 80 years, but we now need work done. We are starting a capital campaign and asking community members to do what they did 87 years ago and come together and support the Lodge. And, more importantly, to support what the Lodge stands for: a great, historic structure, where we can teach the young people of Huntsville important values they may not get elsewhere.
What other activities are you involved in locally?
Well, I was a member of the Huntsville Leadership Institute, class 32. I am a member of the Walker County Bar Association. Celeste and I attend University Heights Baptist Church, where I facilitate a small-group study. And I have been on a number of university committees.
Your day job is Director of SHSU’s Student Legal and Mediation Services Center. Tell us what that involves.
We do two primary things: we provide legal advice to students, and we also provide mediation services and conflict-resolution training.
What are a few of the most common problems students face, legally speaking?
Much of it has to do with housing. For many of our students, it is their first time to sign a contract, and it’s an expensive contract. We help review the contract for them and help them navigate issues when they are renting. We also have a large number of students with family-law issues or employment issues. Or, a student might get a ticket, and we counsel them on ways to handle that. In the process of doing this, I try to also convey a sense of comportment: how you dress in the courtroom, how to communicate effectively and professionally, even in situations that might be tense; I think that is part of the higher-education mission at SHSU.
Tell us about mediation in your office.
The mediator’s job is to help facilitate communications between two or more parties, to work toward a resolution. The mediator does not make decisions, but helps the parties reach their own settlement.
In some ways, Gene’s work is unsung. He is limited in what he can discuss, and his “clients” are experiencing problems that are both unsettling and personal, making them unlikely to be particularly vocal about the help they receive. But Gene’s colleagues are aware of the work he does, and a committee of faculty, staff, and students awarded Gene a “Sammy” for his service to the students and the University in 2020.
Gene’s service extends well beyond the campus. He served as the President of the Texas Association of Mediators and is currently the Chair of the State Bar of Texas Alternative Dispute Resolution Section.
In addition to his work, his service, and his family, he is also finishing his Ed.D, his fourth degree and his second doctoral degree. Even with all this, he has a little time for leisure activities…
What is your favorite movie?
Maybe The Untouchables, with Sean Connery and Kevin Costner.
And your favorite book?
I like the Sherlock Holmes stories.
What are you reading right now?
A book called The Gene. It is about the history of DNA research.
A lawyer comes to his client…
…and he says, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that the DNA evidence is in, and it shows your DNA is all over the crime scene.” The concerned client responds, “What’s the good news?” “Well,” the attorney responds, “your cholesterol is 130.”
See, lawyers care about justice and their clients’ health.
Including interviews and photography and writing, this article took about two weeks. While I was researching lame lawyer jokes, Gene continued his work at SHSU, helped BSA Scouts come up with food for SHSU’s Food Pantry (a resource for SHSU students), worked on his doctoral dissertation, and along with other Trustees for the Josey Lodge, launched a capital campaign for building improvements (which has raised approximately $17,000). To donate to the campaign to refurbish the Josey Lodge, visit https://www.joseyscoutlodge.org/support/donate or mail a check to: Robert A. Josey Lodge Inc., PO Box 8752, Huntsville, Texas 77340. Robert A. Josey Lodge, Inc. is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization.