By SONYA ROBERTS-WOODS
It’s hard to believe that one of the most influential attorneys in recent history once hitchhiked his way to an education, but it’s all true when it comes to Morris County native Harold Wayne Nix.
Ironically, to parallel his life’s story to a once iconic Virginia Slims catch phrase, Nix has ‘come a long way, baby’ since the days of his childhood. Championed as a titan among titans in the legal arena, Nix appears to have that same fire in his eyes as he did when he first started his career some 51 years ago. Sitting behind a visibly worn, dark wood desk, the small-framed Daingerfield native still enjoys what he does.
“Johnny Scott and I get here to the office most mornings around 7:30,” Nix said. “After all these years, I still get excited about what I do. This is what I love,” Nix said while glancing out the window of his spacious office.
The formative years
The eldest of six children, Nix’s parents were Guy and Grace Evelyn Wakefield Nix. When he thinks of growing up in Morris County, he quickly focuses on one place in particular.
“Daingerfield actually means Jenkins to me,” Nix said with a subtle twinkle in his eyes. “My roots are firmly planted in Jenkins on the west side of Lone Star. And man, were we poor. I mean to tell you we were dirt poor.”
Always managing to survive on meager means, Nix grew up on the homeplace settled by his grandfather William Malberry Nix, who arrived in Morris County by way of Arkansas and Alabama. His paternal grandmother was originally a Gillstrap before marrying. The Nix family made their livelihood as loggers in a saw mill hauling pulpwood. Nix’s father hailed from a large family as one of seven brothers and five sisters. Two of his father’s siblings died when they were young.
“I have great memories of growing up in a wonderful, fine, hardworking Christian family,” he said. “Times were always hard, but we loved each other right on through all of those hard times.”
Nix never knew his maternal grandfather, Wade Wakefield, who was a Baptist minister. He died when Nix’s mother was only 13. Nix’s maternal grandmother, Gladys, was a seamstress within the community near the County Line Baptist Church, some five miles from Daingerfield in the northeastern portion of the county.
With limited financial resources, Nix’s father worked several different jobs when he growing up including as a deputy for then Morris County Sheriff A.E. Howell. It’s that change of professions by his father that arguably also changed the course of Nix’s own life years later. As a young lad, Nix would often accompany his father to town.
“One we made it to town, he would turn me a loose and I’d make my rounds,” Nix said. “The county courthouse always served as a prominent part of my growing up. I would visit the County Clerk’s office and just hang out. The courthouse is where I first fell in love with the law.”
That love affair, years later, led Nix to purchase the old courthouse where several of the firm’s offices are now housed in downtown Daingerfield.
“Back then, it was simply a dream for me to think I could become a lawyer,” Nix said. “I saw it as daunting. Actually, I just couldn’t dream that big back then. “
Back then, Nix often chose survival over scholastics.
“I was not that much of a student until I got into college,” he said. “I got by, in Daingerfield, with pretty good grades and I had great teachers, but I never thought about going much further. In fact, I never really thought I could even go to college. My family had no money for that.”
But during his junior and senior years at Daingerfield High School, Nix got serious about his studies. Graduating from Daingerfield High School in 1957, Nix and several of his classmates spent the next six months in the Army Reserves at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. As soon as he returned, he started working at the Morton Thiokol ammunition plant in Karnack.
And then he met Carol Ann Finley. Well, actually he knew her from when they both were in high school. She was a student at Hughes Springs High School. He would see her from time to time at different local events including weekend dances and socials at the Daingerfield State Park. Those activities have now recently been revived and are held at the park’s pavilion every Saturday night. Nix was completely smitten the very first time he saw his future bride.
‘Boy, now you talk about some motivation,” he said with a wide grin. “Meeting Carol Ann was a game changer for me. She really motivated me to get it together. All that flopping around was over. She was my motivation.”
A match made in heaven
After Carol Ann initially turned him down for a date in lieu of attending a church function, Nix landed his first date the following week on Valentine’s Day in 1958. Five months later, on July 12, 1958, the young lovebirds tied the knot at the First Baptist Church in Hughes Springs. They’ve been inseparable ever since—nearly six decades later.
“Carol Ann was and still is the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “Of all the decisions and deals I’ve made in my lifetime, that was, by far, the best one I made when I asked her to marry me. I’ve never regretted that decision—not for one second.”
As the two newlyweds settled into a small garage apartment in Hughes Springs, Nix began taking classes that fall at Kilgore Junior College. While he attended school, his young bride worked as a secretary at Lone Star Steel. A couple of months later, the couple moved to Daingerfield and lived in an apartment on McReynolds St. Nix would then walk downtown and catch a bus bound for Kilgore early every morning.
“I would schedule my classes from 8 a.m. to around 1:30-2 p.m.,” Nix explained. “The last student on the bus would get out of class ‘til around 4. I never liked waiting on anything. I was never one to stay in any one spot for too long.”
So, the industrial young college student would tuck his books under his arms every afternoon and make his way from campus to Highway 259 headed in the direction of Longview. Without fail, Nix would eventually get a ride back to Daingerfield courtesy of one thumb’s up each day.
“The bus back never caught up with me either,” he said. “I don’t know. I guess they would see me with books and feel sorry for me. It’s definitely not the thing to do today, but back then it was a safe way to get around if you didn’t have a car.”
After his first semester of homework and hitchhiking, Nix decided he needed more money.
“I now had a ring payment and a car payment so I had to make some money,” he said.
So for the next nine months, Nix kept his eyes on the prize starting in early 1959 working in the pipeline at the T&N warehouse in Lone Star.
“I worked seven days a week the entire time I was there and boy, did I make some money,” Nix said.
He made enough money, in fact, to return to Kilgore the following fall semester. With good grades in tow, Nix plotted his next move by enrolling at then East Texas State University in Commerce in January 1960 on an academic scholarship. The couple decided to move to Winnsboro renting a modest downtown apartment. Carol Ann would commute in a carpool back to Lone Star and Nix commuted in another carpool to Commerce. Nix excelled at East Texas and graduated with honors with a bachelor’s degree in 1962.
“When I got to Commerce, I still had that country boy vs. town boys complex,” Nix explained. “It took those years at East Texas State for me to really gain the confidence I have today. I had to learn how to trust myself and believe that I could really do it.”
Now with more confidence under his belt, Nix set his sights on law school at the University of Texas at Austin. In fact, it was the only law school he applied to after taking the LSAT. Accepted and registered, Nix had prepared himself for that $125 a semester tuition starting in the fall of 1962.
But a chance conversation or ninth-inning move by former Hughes Springs lawyer Buck Florence completely changed all that. Florence was a Baylor law school graduate.
“There was no way I could afford Baylor,” Nix said.
Succinctly, Florence instructed Nix to get his transcripts and law school and scholarship applications sent to Waco.
“I can still remember it like it was yesterday,” Nix said. “From the day I sent my paperwork in, eight days later a plain envelope arrived in the mail from Baylor. They offered me full tuition on a scholastic scholarship plus a book loan each semester. Buck was very instrumental in motivating me to apply for that scholarship at Baylor. Otherwise, we would never have been able to afford it. We were just trying to make sure we could swing that $125 UT tuition. And then we still had to buy my books. I owe a lot to him (Buck) for believing in me.”
And just like that, Nix was headed to Waco. At the time, Carol Ann was still working at Lone Star Steel but planning to join him as soon as he got settled into school. But then Black Friday happened. Nearly 400 LSS employees were laid off at the steel plant without warning.
“They went to work and were laid them off with no notice or anything,” Nix said. “Carol Ann was given her final check, a small severance, thanked for her service and that was it. Although she was about to have to leave anyway to come to Waco, it was still devastating how it all happened.”
Carol Ann immediately turned lemons into lemonade snagging a great job at Rocketdyne, an aircraft propellant plant in McGregor near Waco. Nix prepared for the rigors of law school.
“I’m not going to lie,” Nix said. “For the first 2-3 weeks, I was scared to death. Most of the students there had already attended bigger undergraduate schools like UT, SMU and even Brown and seemed to be way more prepared. One day, after class, they were all talking about what they already knew about (legal) contracts. They had already studied all that before coming to Waco. That was a significant moment for me. Hearing them talk about what all they already knew made me more determined to work even harder. Listen, I came from nothing so the one thing I had going for me was that I knew they couldn’t outwork me.”
And work he did. Nix quickly rose to the top of his class acing test after test. Nix relied on his strong short-hand, note-taking and typing skills to get him through. Each day after school, Nix would take the time to type up every single lecture session. With no daily quizzes, the four-hour end-of-course tests were killer.
“But I had the best notes in the class,” Nix said. “Everybody wanted my notes. See how the tables quickly turned.”
A year after entering law school, the Nixes welcomed their first child, Tracy. The couple would also later have a son, Jason. The consummate supporter, Carol Ann, would get up early every morning and take their infant daughter to daycare before getting ready and heading off to join a carpool group to work. On the weekends, she did laundry and whatever else it took to keep the household running smoothly.
“Carol Ann held it down,” Nix said. “She held our family together.”
Nix held down his studies and graduated from Baylor Law School in 1965. Unsure of what direction he would take next, a small law firm in Lufkin came calling. The owner was also a Baylor law graduate. The young Nix family decided to take the offer.
“We didn’t really have much to move because we didn’t have much,” Nix said. “It was me, Carol Ann, the baby, her blanket and some bottles. That’s it. But what we now had was that Baylor law degree and I knew it could take us places. Baylor prepared lawyers to go practice law so that’s what I did.”
Successful at his very first case involving an elderly man with less than a pristine driving record, Nix quickly found himself working late nights researching abstracts and land titles in preparation for pending closings. One night, after only a few short months, Nix had had enough.
“I went home and told Carol Ann THAT night to get our things together because we were leaving THAT next morning. I went to the law office that next morning, thanked them, said my goodbyes and then brought my family home.”
Hanging his own shingle
Settling in, Nix quickly secured a small, two-room office building and began calling people he knew to ‘drum up’ potential clients. After Nix had only been in practice for a few months, a respected, local criminal lawyer, Bo Robinson, suddenly died of a massive heart attack. His widow immediately reached out to Nix and asked him to take up her husband’s practice.
“The rent was $35 month,” he explained. “She turned the whole thing over to me including his law books and from there I really began building up my business. It was, at that point, I knew I could do well and build a successful practice. Fifty-one years later, I still think about those friends back then who supported me. I certainly didn’t do this alone.”
Earning respect by winning case after case, Nix quickly carved out a very successful criminal law practice by following his own Golden Rule.
“Rule #1: you don’t ever talk about anybody’s business and Rule #2, whatever you do, never violate Rule #1,” he explained. “Anyone who steps into this office knows they can talk to me and they know it won’t go any further.”
After several years as a successful local attorney, Nix turned to the big leagues–tort litigation. In a landmark case that put Nix, the Daingerfield/Lone Star area and all of Texas on the map, the Nix, Patterson & Roach Law Firm went after every company who had ever supplied products to the Lone Star Steel plant believing they were toxic and dangerous to the employees who worked there. Once the dust settled and after several years of litigation, some $90 million in damages were eventually collected and distributed to the workers. At the time in the late 1980s, it was the largest lawsuit of its kind.
“We had a lot riding on that case,” Nix said. “I knew I couldn’t let all those workers (at LSS) down. Some of them all but thought I walked on water. Only Jesus did that, but that didn’t stop them from thinking it.”
Coming off the heels of the successful Lone Star Steel case, Nix joined forces with four other lawyers and took on the biggest tobacco companies in the country at the time. Known as The Big Five, Nix, two lawyers from Houston and two lawyers from Beaumont filed the historic lawsuit in the mid-1990s. Nix knew the lead lawyer very well.
“I started and finished the same day with Walter (Umphrey) at Baylor so we went way back,” Nix said. “He called me one day and said he had something to talk to me about. He flew in, picked me up in Longview and we flew to Austin. And the rest is history. “
Indeed, it did make history. The attorneys, representing the State of Texas, sued, won and split an almost $17 billion (yes, that’s with a b) settlement five ways. It was the first time that, after more than 800 cases, anyone, had ever won a case against the tobacco companies.
Taking time to reflect
“When I look back at my life, I know for sure that the Lord has directed me through every single twist and turn,” he said. “There were plenty of times when I doubted myself but never did I doubt Him.”
And that faith has never failed him. To say the law firm he started has had a few successful wins over the years would be a gross understatement. With additional offices in Dallas, Austin and Texarkana, the firm continues to litigate big cases today. In fact, he’s crafting his company’s next big move in litigation.
“It’s been a good life,” Nix said. “We have truly been very blessed.”
Though no longer in the courtroom himself, the connoisseur of some of the finest teas around also enjoys a good read. He’s currently reading a series of Christian books by Abbe Constant Fouard, a French ecclesiastical writer.
“I think the biggest misconception about me is that I’m a loner,” Nix said, “because I’m not out and about as much these days. I like to be alone sometimes, but I’m definitely not a loner.”
Nix and his siblings Glenn, Guy, Jeannie, Gary Lynn and Danny Joe, are all still living and close knit. Their father died several years earlier and they lost their mother 10 years ago at the age of 90. In addition to his two adult children, Nix is also the proud grandfather of grandsons, Hudson, who is a sophomore at the University of Texas, and Luke, 15, and granddaughter Mary Katherine, who will be a freshman at UT Austin in the fall.
“I’m so proud of all of my family,” Nix said. “They’ve each carved out successful lives for themselves.”
One of Nix’s guilty pleasures is chocolate. Ironically, it’s the same way his wife describes life with him.
“Life is like a box of chocolates with Harold because you never know what you’re going to get with him on any given day,” Carol Ann Nix laughed. “Life is never boring with him. We were children when we married so we have literally grown up together. He’s generous to a fault and is a wonderful husband and excellent father and grandfather. He has always been generous to both his family and his fellow man. I love him for always sacrificing so much.”
According to her husband, it was his wife who made the biggest sacrifices in those early days.
“I use to borrow $100 from the (Lone Star) credit union (now North East Texas Credit Union) just so I could buy Christmas,” she said. “It never occurred to me that Harold wouldn’t make it even in the tough times. I always completely trusted that he would be successful. I always trusted him.”
Now looking back on a career that spans more than five decades, Nix contemplates what his legacy will, some day, be.
“I want to be remembered first as a Christian, a loving husband and father, grandfather and family man,” Nix said. “I also want to be remembered as a good friend who was generous, humble and responsible plus I’d like to also be remembered as a pretty good lawyer—in that order.”