The Abilene Bar Association in 1968 had just three women members, including Beverly Tarpley (seventh row, far right). (Photo: McMahon Surovik Suttle law firm)
There is a framed photo of the Abilene Bar Association in a conference room at the McMahon Surovik Suttle law firm in downtown Abilene.
It’s from 1968, and it pictures 108 members, including Tom McMahon, Bob Surovik and Steve Suttle, who still is living.
Abilene attorney Beverly Tarpley, in 1985 (Photo: Reporter-News files)
There are three women, or 3 percent of the group. But they carry a lot of history.
J.M. (Jo) Jameson is one. J.H. (Joanne) Strauss is another. Both are ID’d by their initials.
Ironically, Strauss followed Jameson as the city of Abilene’s Corporation Court (now Municipal Court) judge. She was Taylor County’s second female judge. Jameson, hired by the city in 1968, was the first. She died suddenly in September 1969.
Strauss, whose husband, Henry, was Taylor County’s domestic relations court judge, in 1978 ran unsuccessfully for associate justice of the 11th Court of Criminal Appeals and in 1984 for Taylor County judge.
And the third attorney pictured is Beverly Tarpley.
Leading the way
At the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who served as a U.S. Supreme Court justice for 27 years and was the second woman confirmed, Tarpley’s history again becomes relevant.
Ginsburg became the first woman to lie in state at the nation’s Capitol.
Joanne Strauss on the bench in the city of Abilene’s Corporation Court in November 1969. She succeeded Jo Jameson, who died that year. Her husband was Henry Strauss, who presided over Taylor County’s domestic relations court. (Photo: Reporter-News file photo)
To start, she was the first Texas woman and youngest at 27 to argue before that very court.
She was Abilene’s first woman attorney, hired by Davis Scarborough to assist his father, Dallas, at the end of his career.
Then Beverly Potthoff, she was one of four women in her class at the University of Texas School of Law, but the only one to graduate. There were 600 law students at the time, only 15 of whom were women.
She graduated in 1951 and quickly had a job offer. A Houston firm was interested in hiring her … as a legal secretary.
Potthoff wanted to be an attorney, and got that chance in Abilene.
She was 21.
Two years later, she married newspaperman Dick Tarpley.
Decades later, she said being a female attorney wasn’t as hard as being a young one. As to being in the minority at UT Law, she said the small number of women made their presence insignificant. In the 1960s and 1970s, when more women — and more vocal women — were accepted into law school, they got more pushback, she said.
Jo Jameson with outgoing Corporation Court judge Don Lane in December 1968. She was hired at $800 a month by the city of Abilene (Photo: Abilene Reporter-News file photo)
A first for women, first for Texas
Five years into her career, Tarpley stood before Chief Justice Earl Burger and the other eight justices of the Supreme Court. It was a case of sexual harassment, though not called that back in the 1950s.
Tarpley was assisting a woman identified in Reporter-News archives as Mrs. Cecil Horton with a child custody issue.
Horton mentioned her sore back. She had been lifting 50-pound mail bags at work at the Big Spring train depot. And not by her choice.
A supervisor had made advances, and she had rebuffed him. He assigned her mail bag duty.
Tarpley sued the railroad company for the back injury and won a $5,700 settlement.
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the jury verdict, and Tarpley appealed to the Supreme Court.
She opposed John Look, of Abilene’s Wagstaff law firm. Each had 30 minutes to argue. It was brought up that Texas at that time had no limit on what women employees could lift. Tarpley later said the eight justices looked questioningly at the Texan in a black robe, Tom Clark.
In a 6-3 vote, the High Court sided with Horton.
She had an Impact on Abilene
That win propelled Tarpley’s career.
She represented Tom Roden in his efforts to incorporate Impact, a city within a city. It was where alcohol could be sold even if Abilene remained dry as a bleached West Texas bone. The novelty of the case intrigued her, she later said.
And, she said, she respected Roden’s plan to “run it exactly right.”
The plan worked, as Roden became a rich man. It would be years before Abilene voted to go “wet.” That led to one of the great quotes in Abilene history.
Asked if the historic vote would make him cry in his beer, Roden said he knew the day was coming and had saved his money.
“Thanks to the good Christians of Abilene,” he said, “I will die a wealthy man.”
Representing the Stonegate Association in October 1974, Beverly Tarpley showed alternate junior high school boundaries to what the Abilene ISD proposed, based on enrollment. (Photo: Reporter-News file photo)
Tarpley then moved from booze to porn, or so it seemed to some residents of Abilene.
She defended the owner of the local drive-in, where a pair of 1960 films, “Never On Sunday” and “Not Tonight Henry,” had been shown. Tame by today’s standards — Tarpley said in a 1997 interview “(‘Never on a Sunday’) wouldn’t make a respectable stag party” — the films were considered obscene.
Tarpley sought to defend First Amendment rights and the theater owners’ economic gain.
The local ordinance, she argued, was superseded by federal law. And, besides, who was to say it was “clearly obscene?” The city’s ordinance was too vague.
A judge agreed and ruled the ordinance invalid.
Tarpley didn’t get much flak here but when she returned to Houston, where she had grown up, the minister at her former church condemned her for defending what he called “filth.”
Two members of the McMahon Surovik Suttle Law Firm are pictured in 1968 on the same row of attorney Beverly Tarpley. (Photo: McMahon Surovik Suttle law firm)
What two women say
Former 326th District Court judge Aleta Hacker called Tarpley “fearless.”
And while like attorney Cindy Allen the retired judge called Tarpley “a mentor,” she said that not only was “for the few female attorneys in town but for all young lawyers.”
Hacker provided an example of Tarpley’s fearlessness. Because all the men at the Scarborough firm at which she hired flew, she got her private pilot’s license, too.
The two met in 1977, when Hacker was just out of Baylor Law School. She said the fact that Tarpley went to UT “only mattered during football season.”
Hacker was hired for the Taylor County district attorney’s office and didn’t have much contact with Tarpley until leaving and trying civil cases.
She credited Tarpley for inspiring her to seek her judgeship, which she held from 1985 through 2014.
When Tarpley retired, there were lunches with other attorneys and when Hacker retired, the two enjoyed a meal and exchanging books.
Beverly Tarpley at work. She was hired as an attorney in 1951 and practiced throughout her career in Abilene. (Photo: Reporter-News file photo)
“We both shared a love of reading and passed books back and forth,” Hacker said. “She had a good sense of humor and she was so smart.”
Allen said when she heard of Ginsburg death, she immediately thought of her mentor, Tarpley. In the days that followed, while talking with other women attorneys, they expressed their fondness for Tarpley.
Sometime to the point of getting emotional.
“She set such a high bar for us all,” Allen said. “Her door was always open.”
Tarpley challenged young attorneys “to be the best lawyer you can be,” but “she never talked down to us,” Allen said.
They first met in 1984, when Allen started at the Whitten Law Firm. The founder, C.G. Whitten, and Tarpley were good friends and faithful Democrats, she said.
Allen’s acquaintance with Tarpley advanced by 1990, when Allen began trying family law cases. She went to Tarpley and the two talked for at least 2½ hours.
“She answered all the questions I had and explained how the court worked,” Allen said.
She laughed and said Tarpley met people such as Justice Antonin Scalia, “people the rest of us read about.”
Like the justice known as RBG, Allen said Tarpley had “a big impact” on the lives of women seeking to make their way in the local law world.
Attending the 1976 Doctors-Lawyers Banquet were, from left, Dr. David Harper, attorneys Bud Arnot and Beverly Tarpley, and Dr. Jim Webster. Harper was new to Abilene while Arnot was a new member of the Abilene Bar Association. (Photo: Reporter-News file photo)
A final first
Tarpley continued in her career with important but less headline-grabbing cases.
She was the local bar association’s president in 1975, and 10 years later was appointed to the National Conference of Bar Examiners. She was chairperson from 1992-93.
She was appointed to the state Board of Law Examiners and served for 16 years, the last six as chairperson.
In 1997, in her 46th year as an attorney, Tarpley was named to the American Bar Association’s section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. She was the first Abilene attorney to head any ABA section.
And so, when considering the ground broken by Justice Ginsburg, who followed Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, Beverly Tarpley, too, was a woman whose skills as an attorney made her gender irrelevant.
Dick Tarpley died in 2012. Beverly Tarpley died Valentine’s Day 2016.
Greg Jaklewicz is editor of the Abilene Reporter-News. If you appreciate locally driven news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.
Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg
The Taylor County Democratic Party will conduct a candlelight vigil at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at Abilene City Hall, 555 Walnut St.
In lieu of flowers, visitors are encouraged to bring small stones for a memorial to be assembled in accordance with Jewish tradition of placing stones on a gravesite as a symbol of lasting presence.
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