‘He taught me reverence for everything.’ Earl Denham’s family remembers his life
His truck was stuck on the family land, so Earl Lamar Denham Jr. pressed his legal secretary into service for rides the last two of weeks of his life.
They discussed life and death. They argued, of course, because Denham was an attorney who relished debate. The legal secretary, Kathie McCormick, was a little aggravated about ferrying Denham to the courthouse and here and there when she had work to do.
And then the 71-year-old died, rather suddenly. A black wreath hung Wednesday on the door of the Denham Law Firm, a rambling wood-frame warren of offices, once a house, with a tower added in the years he had been there and light filtering into the darkened reception hall from windows on the second floor.
A broken-hearted McCormick now cherishes those two weeks. “I just wish his truck had been stuck a little longer,” she said.
Fighting for ‘the little guy’
Denham was a son of the South, a man who insisted on opening doors for women, and a lover of critters large and small.
He was born in Biloxi and spent his high school years in Gulfport, where he first crossed paths with Joe Sam Owen, another of Mississippi’s formidable defense and trial attorneys.
“Earl has always been a very smart person,” said Owen, the first of many friends and family to note Denham’s exceptional intellect. When Owen worked as prosecutor earlier in his career, he and Denham found themselves on opposite sides in more than one contentious court battle.
“He was, I thought, a skillful lawyer and spoke well on his feet,” Owen said. “He was very articulate . . .”
Right or wrong, Denham adamantly defended his position, a trait that earned him friends and enemies.
“ . . . Earl was pretty aggressive,” Owen said. “We would have very heated, robust debates in the courtroom, then walk outside and have a civil conversation.”
Denham established his law practice on his 26th birthday under the oak-shaded main street of downtown Ocean Springs, forming a partnership with attorney Dempsey Levi.
Levi remembers Denham as a fast reader, capable of absorbing vast amounts of material and distilling it for lawsuits. He was particularly good with complex medical records, Levi said.
Levi contemplated retirement after a few decades, but not his partner.
“Earl, he wanted to practice forever,” Levi said. “He loved it. . . . I would go by somewhat frequently and go over to his house. We kept up our relations, although we were no longer partners. I loved Earl.”
Denham was known throughout Mississippi for the big cases he tackled: medical malpractice, Hurricane Katrina lawsuits filed against big insurance, the fight for recognition of the Vancleave Live Oak Choctaw, and his last struggle to save the retirement benefits of former Singing River Health System employees.
By the time he took on the SRHS case, his health was flagging. He needed heart surgery to save himself, but he put if off for more than a year to work on the Singing River case. He finally underwent heart surgery at the Cleveland Clinic in early 2017, shortly after he lost his oldest son, Israel Anderson Denham, an attorney, to suicide.
The elder Denham mentored a cadre of Coast attorneys who passed through his law office. They jokingly refer to themselves as the Earl Denham Alumni Association, said attorney Sam Tucker, who worked for the firm for five years.
“Earl, he was completely unique,” Tucker said. “He was completely his own man. He related to people from all walks of life and he had clients from all walks of life.
“If I had a legal problem, he would be the first person I would go to.”
Attorney Wendy Hollingworth went to work as an associate of the firm after graduating law school in 1999 and stayed on as a partner until 2007. Denham was a mentor and father figure to her.
“Earl was by far the greatest trial lawyer I have ever met and I was truly fortunate to have had him as my friend and mentor,” Hollingsworth said. “He was the only lawyer I ever met who could sit through another attorney’s entire direct examination of a witness without ever taking a note, and then get up and conduct a flawless cross examination without missing a thing.
“He was a simply a master at his craft.”
He liked to pass along his favorite maxims to young attorneys:
▪ “Don’t let the big-uns eat the little-uns,” from one of his own mentors, deceased attorney Bobby Gene O’Barr
▪ “Get there the firstest with the mostest,” from Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest
▪ And “ I believe in everything, nothing is sacred; I believe in nothing, everything is sacred,” from a Tom Robbins novel.
Not all his cases were in the headlines, but the work nonetheless shaped Ocean Springs of today. He notably represented the heirs of renowned painter Walter Anderson and his brother, master potter Peter Anderson.
“He refused to take any money from us,” said Peter Anderson daughter Marjorie Anderson Ashley of Shearwater . “If one of our children was in trouble and we didn’t ask for help from him, he was highly insulted. It hurt his feelings.
“He never let go of us. He has been a lifeline . . . . He did so much for so many people, a great many people.”
He also bought art from the families and was generally a patron of artists, filling the walls of his home and office with paintings and cabinets with sculpture and pottery.
Mary Anderson Pickard, Walter Anderson’s daughter and an artist herself, said Denham was a voracious reader. She liked to give him books but had to make sure he had not already read her selections. Her last gift to him was a book of Choctaw folklore.
“He was a fascinating man,” Pickard said. ““He was a very, very well-read, rounded person. He knew a great deal about a great many things.”
Friend of snakes
Denham’s eight living children, including those who have moved far from the Coast, began gathering after he was hospitalized in the pre-dawn hours of Oct. 13. He suffered a massive brain bleed after blows to his head.
With no chance of recovery, Denham was taken off life support and passed away a short time later, on Tuesday.
Three of his children gathered Wednesday at his last home, Saint’s Retreat, to talk about their father. Two dogs loped up to greet them, valuable Shepherds given to Denham by a client who could not pay. Goats, snakes and other critters inhabit the family land, which Denham had expanded over the years.
He planted the trees and azaleas, dug the ponds, and even designed one of the houses and poured the concrete foundation.
He bought an adjacent property after the owner, Margaret St. John, passed away and named it Saint’s Retreat in her honor. The home appears to have been built in the late 18th century, with a wide central room that looks like an enclosed dogtrot.
His children reveal wholly new facets of the lawyer so well-known about town.
He loved to hunt. Nathan Levi Denham recalls the time he reported to his father that an injured possum appeared to be dying in a box trap they had set.
His father told him he would need to shoot the possum. And then he said, “Now you know we have to eat it for dinner.”
“What?” Nathan protested.
“You know the rule here, son,” his father said. “We eat what we shoot.”
Earl Lamar “Trey” Denham III also remembered the unappetizing bite or two of possum he was forced to take on a different occasion, while Beth Denham Buford said she got rid of a possum herself after calling her father and realizing they would have to cook the creature if he came to her house to assist.
He studied and kept snakes, including a cottonmouth moccasin that lived in one of the ponds. His Choctaw name, in fact, was Friend of Snakes.
A Facebook friend was offended when he posted a picture of a moccasin. She said one had bitten her several years earlier. “Please delete me,” she wrote. “It’s not funny.”
Denham responded, in typical form, that the post was not meant to be funny: “ . . . I am associated with a Choctaw Tribe. This is my totem animal. It is normal for people to fear what they do not understand. Your reaction of rage extending to me is not normal, but also understandable. You know how to delete yourself if you want to.”
His children said he was a marvelous cook. Their favorite was his lasagna, a creation that incorporated leftovers he selected from the refrigerator. To the childrens’ surprise, none of their friends recognized the dish as lasagna.
He also loved to travel and took his children on magical trips, in groups or separately. They remembered visiting the wilds of Minnesota to view the aurora borealis, or northern lights.
On one of the trips, Denham and several of his children were dropped off in the wrong spot. He had warned two of his daughters not to buy hot-pink hats at a stop along the way, for fear of frightening off the wildlife but they didn’t listen.
They lived off their provisions and the fish they caught for five days, perfectly content. Finally, the pilot located them. He had spotted the pink hats from the sky.
Denham was a student of religion. His children and close friends considered him spiritual, not religious. He also was a horseback rider, having ridden his horse Dummy out of the woods during Hurricane Elena, a storm he thought would pass when he decided to go camping.
He also took up photography and painting.
“Daddy was brilliant,” Beth Buford said. “Brilliant. I can’t think of anything he wasn’t good at.”
He had time for his family and the law, they said, because he slept little and rarely if ever watched television.
‘Crossing the bar’
Denham’s children saw him as infallible.
He practiced law until the end. Attorney Dustin Thomas recently saw Denham at the Pascagoula courthouse carrying one file under his arm. Thomas told Denham this seemed to be a departure from the banker’s boxes of documents Denham sometimes hauled in on a dolly.
“He just laughed and told me he had enough in that small file,” Thomas said. “I am sure he did.”
His last week in the law office, he stood in the doorway and read to his secretaries from “Crossing the Bar,” the poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson. The last stanza says:
“For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place,
“The flood may bear me far,
“I hope to see my Pilot face to face
“When I have crost the bar.”
When he had finished, Denham said: “How appropriate. It’s the last page of the book.”