From Minute Clerk to District Attorney

It’s not often someone will describe their entry into a profession as an accident — then spend nearly 20 years in public service as a result.
But that is how S.M. ‘‘Buddy’’ Fallis describes his to becoming a lawyer, a path that eventually led to the Tulsa County District Attorneys office.
Fallis recalled some of his days in the Tulsa County Courthouse before a group of senior lawyers, eliciting chuckles and a few groans as his contemporaries also remembered the various personalities.
Fallis was district attorney from 1967 until July 2, 1981 when he left the post to enter private practice.
Now he is of counsel with the Fred Dorwart Law Firm, a role that ‘‘lets him keep in touch’’ in the legal profession.
Fallis was chief prosecutor as an assistant county attorney before the law was changed creating the district attorney position.
During his career, he saw the law become more complex because of U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
‘‘We had to apply the law, attempting to follow the rulings, but often wondered what the court wanted,’’ he said. One notable change was the Miranda warning that required police officers to advise people being arrested of their rights.
Search and seizure rules also altered the way police officers did their work and prosecutors had to make adjustments as they prepared their cases.
‘‘But I enjoyed my work and felt confident in my role as a prosecutor,’’ Fallis said. ‘‘I probably am a frustrated police officer because like the kid on the football team, I was too short to fill a position. But I was able to find expression in that arena and I tried as many cases as I could.’’
Fallis said he ‘‘retired three times’’ but always felt the draw back to the job.
Bill Northcutt introduced Fallis, recalling the University of Tulsa Law School days when they, along with Jim Poe were classmates.
It was Northcutt who convinced Fallis that he should enter law school and apply for a minute clerk position that was open at the courthouse.
Fallis confirmed Northcutt’s story about entering law school and applying for the job.
‘‘There are some who would say my entry into the legal profession was an accident,’’ he said, adding that ‘‘some would say that it was a terrible, terrible accident.’’
‘‘Northcutt and Poe knew they wanted to become lawyers,’’ Fallis said. ‘‘I didn’t. I was working toward a bachelor of arts degree in political science. I thought about teaching, perhaps journalism.
It was a phone call from Northcutt telling Fallis to apply for law school, go for a combined degree, and get to the courthouse to apply for a minute clerk position with Tulsa County Court Clerk Samuel Wes Fry.
The Tulsa County Courthouse was different in the 1950s, he said. They had self-serve elevators like today, but they had an elevator starter — Billie.
She sat outside the elevator, asked people which floor they wanted, would step inside, push the appropriate button and just as quickly exit to wait for the next group of passengers.
‘‘Blind Jack ran the mini restaurant, Dave Faulkner was sheriff and the jail was on the top floors of the courthouse,’’ he said.
Having been there as a clerk and as a prosecutor, Fallis felt he received a great education in the study of human life.
When he applied for the job, Fallis didn’t know that Fry was confined to a wheel chair, paralyzed because of a bullet wound received in battle during World War II.
That didn’t make any difference because Fry ran the court clerk’s office and everyone knew it, he added. Fry didn’t put up with any foolishness.
Fallis was to learn about the court clerk’s demands when he was assigned as a minute clerk to Judge W. Lee Johnson.
One day, docket completed, Judge Johnson suggested they should take the afternoon off and play golf.
Fallis, remembering that he worked for Fry who ran a strict office, went with the judge.
But he worried.
That worry affected his game that day and when he got home that night the worry about what Fry would say or do continued.
After all, Fallis had seen people escorted out of the courthouse, fired from their jobs because they did something the court clerk didn’t like.
The next day, sitting at his desk in the courthouse, the telephone rang.
It was Fry demanding that Fallis be in his office immediately.
Fallis went, fearing the worst.
He was greeted by Fry who asked if he played golf the previous day.
‘‘Yes sir,’’ was the answer.
‘‘Did you ask me?’’ Fry asked.
‘‘No sir,’’ was the reply.
‘‘Why did you do it?’’ was the next question.
‘‘Because Judge Johnson asked me to.’’ was Fallis’ reply.
‘‘Let me tell you something,’’ Fry then told the young minute clerk. ‘‘You work for me, but you are assigned to that judge.
‘‘If Judge Johnson wants you to stand on your head, you stand on your head. If he want you to go play golf, go play golf.’’
Fallis, relieved, went back to his job as a minute clerk.
Trial lawyers also were interesting, Fallis said. Two men in particular were Bob Hudson and Dick McDermott.
These men didn’t have computers or blackberrys. They didn’t come to the courthouse with boxes full of papers and truck loads more waiting outside the door if needed.
These men had the ability to stand on their feet and deliver arguments, reacting to the ever changing picture that occurred in the courtroom.
‘‘Do you remember George Briggs who would come to court with a Big Chief tablet and number two pencil?’’ he asked. ‘‘This man wore a white suit that included a red bandanna. He would come in and say ‘I am just a country lawyer’ then tear you to pieces in the courtroom.’’
Some lawyers were blessed with a tremendous voice, Fallis continued. Who can forget the voice of Troye Kennon? He spoke with a loud voice and could be heard.
Fallis then wondered what it would have been like to have a case between Kennon and John Ward, another attorney with a powerful voice.
That match that would have shaken the rafters of the courthouse.
‘‘I never saw that occur,’’ he said.
Attorneys from the Truman Rucker law firm were something to watch as they aggressively presented their cases, Fallis continued. Another attorney, Huey Baker, was feisty in the courtroom, but very friendly outside that arena.
It was Ed Goodwin though, Fallis admitted, ‘‘who stopped me and I couldn’t counter him.’’
Fallis had presented his closing argument in a case of a man with a long criminal who was ‘‘obviously guilty,’’ asking the jury to render a long jail term — 10 years to infinity.
It also was an election year and Fallis was seeking reelection.
‘‘Ed got up from his chair, held his hand over his ear as if listening,’’ Fallis continued. ‘‘He then stepped up to the jury saying he couldn’t believe what he had just heard — Mr. Fallis’ recommendation.
‘‘Mr. Fallis is my friend and we call him ‘Buddy’,’’ Goodwin said. ‘‘But when I just heard what said I wondered if that was Buddy talking?’’
He also recalled when Raymond Graham defeated Judge Johnson.
‘‘I openly supported Johnson and figured I was out of a job when Graham won the election,’’ he said. But Graham asked me to remain as his minute clerk because, even though he had a law degree, had never been in the courthouse.
Rather, Graham had been working in the tool crib at McDonnell Douglass.
‘‘I soon learned that he was a wonderful man,’’ Fallis said. ‘‘When word came out that I had passed my bar exam and was a lawyer I went to work on Monday. It was a small docket. Finally it ends up that it was just me, Raymond Graham, the court reporter and bailiff.
Court is in recess, Graham, said. Then he abruptly readjourned the court.
The judge noted that the esteemed minute clerk became a lawyer. He then adjourned the court so they could celebrate.
Fallis talked about Judge Jess Miracle and others who were part of the scene at the Tulsa County Courthouse.
He noted that all played a part in building the group that is part of today’s Tulsa County legal community.

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