By Conrad Dudderar
A longtime Canadian County attorney is being remembered for his honesty, generosity and straightforwardness.
Bill James, who had a law office for several decades on Yukon’s Main Street, died Oct. 31 at age 76.
Besides serving in private practice, James had a unique distinction in Canadian County of being a former assistant district attorney, assistant attorney general and public defender.
His legal career spanned 49-1/2 years.
“Most people that live in Canadian County don’t know how lucky they have been to have been served by Bill over the years as an attorney, prosecutor and public defender,” Canadian County District Judge Paul Hesse said. “Bill was a friend to all and will be greatly missed.”
James’ death is a heartbreaking loss for his family, friends and the local legal community, according to Judge Hesse.
“My fondness and appreciation for Bill and his service to Canadian County cannot be overstated,” Hesse said.
James was a familiar face at the Canadian County Courthouse while serving many decades as a criminal defense attorney, public defender, indigent defender, and prosecutor. His client base was large and varied.
James was one of the founders of the Canadian County Drug Court program, volunteering his time every week – for many years – to staff cases with the drug court team and appear in court.
“He likely spent more time volunteering his time for this program than on any other legal work he did,” Judge Hesse said.
James was honored in 2018 by Canadian County’s judges for this volunteer work.
The stories of Bill’s generosity and kindness from people who have visited the courthouse over the last several decades are innumerable and not exaggerated, according to Hesse.
“My first meeting with Bill as a young prosecutor is the same experience that many others have had,” he shared.
When a young attorney visited the courthouse, they could expect James to introduce them to courthouse staff, provide an explanation of courthouse customs and offer a lunch invitation to a local restaurant – his treat, of course.
“If you were lucky and had the time, he would also give a tour of the places in El Reno with historical significance,” Judge Hesse added. “The courthouse was his second home and he treated everyone there like his second family.”
Attorney Mark Hixson shared the Yukon law office with James for 28-1/2 years.
“He is irreplaceable,” Hixson said. “There’s no one quite like Bill James. He was one of those ‘larger-than-life’ people, only in a positive sense. I don’t know anyone who speaks negatively of Bill James in the legal profession.”
Hixson referred to James as among the last of the “good ole boys” – lawyers who did business by shaking hands.
“Bill didn’t even want to use the phone,” Hixson explained. “He would still get in his car and drive over the courthouse, even to deliver a quick message to a prosecutor or a judge. He believed in doing everything ‘face to face’ and with the personal touch.
“Bill just stood out as an honest lawyer, good to his word. If he told you he was going to do something, that’s what he was going to do. Everyone knew him, and everyone liked him because of that.”
Hixson also was a founding member of the Canadian County Drug Court.
“We were supposed to take turns (attending court), but Bill liked it so much, he just kept telling me I needed to do work here at the office and he would go,” Hixson shared. “He really enjoyed working on the drug court team.”
James’ law career fell just short of the half-century mark.
“If he hadn’t been drafted and gone to Vietnam, he would have made 50 years,” Hixson pointed out.
‘FIXTURE’ AT THE COURTHOUSE
Canadian County District Judge Jack D. McCurdy II worked closely with James while they shared the public defender contract for about 16 years. That was when McCurdy also had a private practice in Yukon.
“Bill was fixture in Canadian County,” said McCurdy, who will retire soon after 39 years in the legal profession.
James was willing to help anyone – whether they were a new lawyer or seasoned one.
“Bill was always one of the first people you met when you got to the courthouse,” Judge McCurdy said. “If Bill was in the courthouse and you were new and didn’t know him, you knew him before you left. He never met a stranger.
“If you ever got mad at Bill, you wouldn’t stay mad very long. He was never malicious in his dealings with people. He might have been loud, firm and boisterous, but he was never malicious to anyone. It was never ‘personal’ with him.”
James didn’t have a “filter” when he spoke and was far from politically correct.
“That was him,” McCurdy added.
One legal hat that James never wore was that of judge, although he did campaign (unsuccessfully) for a Canadian County judge’s seat early in his career.
“He had a lot of clients over the last 50 years and helped a lot of people,” McCurdy summarized. “It’s going to be strange not seeing him around.
“He was a good friend.”
An Oklahoma City native, James graduated in 1964 from Northwest Classen High School in 1964.
After receiving a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in 1968 at the University of Oklahoma, he earned his Juris Doctorate in 1973 from the OU School of Law.
James then served his country in the United States Navy.
He was a huge supporter of OU wrestling and liked to remind people of his wrestling exploits by demonstrating a single-leg takedown or throwing an unsuspecting person up on his shoulder.
“No one was too old or too big (in size or stature) for Bill to attempt these moves,” Judge Hesse pointed out.
JUST A ‘GOOD GUY’
Retired Canadian County District Judge Gary Miller was proud to work closely with James over the past 45 years.
“I’ve known him as a DA and I’ve known him as a defense lawyer,” Miller said. “More importantly, I’ve known him as a good friend.
“Once you got to know him, you realized what a neat guy he was.”
Judge Miller recalled James’ caring nature through his contributions to Canadian County’s Drug Court program.
“Bill volunteered for that,” Miller related. “We met every Thursday afternoon. So, one afternoon a week of Bill’s time was tied up, and he never got paid for it.
“He was just a ‘good guy’ who enjoyed helping other people. If he saw someone who needed some help, Bill was there.”
James was highly respected across the Canadian County legal community, Judge Miller added.
“His word was just solid goal,” Miller pointed out. “He always did what he said he’d do. Whatever Bill told you, you could count on.
“You always knew where Bill stood.”
Another longtime Yukon attorney, Roger Everett, also shared fond memories of James.
“Bill was at the courthouse all the time,” Everett said. “If you had anything with him, he’d be pretty ‘straight up’. I always enjoyed him … he was always good to deal with.
“He’d do what he needed to do for his clients.”
A memorial service will be 11 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 5 in the Vondel Smith Mortuary North Chapel, 13125 N MacArthur Blvd. in Oklahoma City.