Texans in My Path: Selfless Success, Bob Wortham Style
By: Penelope Butler, Contributor*
I have just finished reading an article on Generation Me. Generation Me consists of people born in the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s. This demographic has been defined as a group of people who take it for granted that self comes first and feel no natural general responsibility or obligation to help other people. Naturally, this is a generalization and there are many individual exceptions. Still, as the mother of two boys, it concerns me that my children are growing up in a time where there is more of a shift toward self and more of a disconnect toward community. This is a time that is more about entitlement, than hard work and personal responsibility.
As I continue to think about my reading, I walk out of my front door to water what remains of my poor potted plants, having barely survived yet another summer in Southeast Texas. While I water I notice a man mowing the lawn at the rental property across the street. This is no ordinary lawn man. He is the owner of the property. An accomplished man who is so busy; there are a myriad of things he could be doing with his time. Instead he works, pushing the mower, in the sweltering heat. I realize that this man, Judge Bob Wortham, is as far removed from Generation Me as a person could possibly be.
He waves at me and I walk over to visit with him. The entire time we are talking he seems in no particular hurry. We talk about our families, his rental property currently being for sale and the tree growing in the front yard, his favorite, a river birch. As he tells me how many chores he has yet to do on this evening, I tell him I would love to come to his office and do an interview. Bob modestly tells me he would make a boring storing, but graciously gives me his office number and agrees to meet with me within a few days.
Upon my arrival at his office, I quickly learn that Wortham, the presiding judge of the 58th District Court, was not born wealthy. A life-long Beaumonter, he was the only child of working class people. Wortham’s mother, Lauretta, was a collection agent for an insurance company during World War II. His father, Glenn, was a merchant marine who later gained employment with Magnolia Refinery in Beaumont. Wortham recalls living on South Street. One of his neighbors at the time was Paul Manes, an artist, whose work was later exhibited in North America and Europe, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
He attended St. Anne’s Catholic School, which he was asked to leave while in the 2nd grade. Bob reports having a thyroid problem which left him weighing in at 149 lbs at that young age. The nun in charge encouraged Bob to turn the other cheek when the other children would taunt him, but when he could no longer tolerate being bullied, he was identified as the problem and asked to pursue his education elsewhere. Wortham’s parents enrolled him in Averill Elementary where he concluded his primary education. He then attended Austin Jr. High School and later graduated from Beaumont High School.
Once out of high school Bob immediately started attending Lamar University. No stranger to hard work he began working as a painter’s apprentice in the summer with his friend, Wayne Reaud, to pay for his college tuition. Wortham recalls this type of work as the lowest form of employment one could ever seek to gain. At the time Reaud senior worked as a pipefitter. This was a much more desirable position and the pay was good. When Wortham later inquired why the senior Reaud had not gotten them work in pipefitting, Mr. Reaud reported he wanted the boys to work at a position that would encourage them to want to seek something more. He feared that they would have gotten complacent with pipefitting jobs and may not have pursued their education any further.
Upon graduation Wortham’s friend, Wayne Reaud, went on to Texas Tech to attend law school. Bob immediately shipped out on a Mobile Oil tanker. The tanker went from Venezuela to New England picking up high sulfur oil and transporting it to refineries. He did this for 6 months working 4-6 hours of overtime daily and working other people’s shifts. Wortham planned to save enough money during his time on the tanker to pay for law school. That was the goal and, true to his nature, that was the way it happened. Bob sent all of his money, minus $20 for each shore leave, to his mother, who then deposited his wages into the Jefferson Savings and Loan. Once Bob was off the tanker and installed at Baylor Law School, Lauretta Wortham withdrew $300 from savings at the end of every month and placed it in Bob’s checking account so that he could cover his monthly expenses.
Throughout Wortham’s life have come a series of firsts. At Baylor Law School he became the first Catholic ever elected President of the student body. At age 31, he became the youngest district judge in the state of Texas. After being appointed as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, he indicted wealthy rancher Rex Cauble, deemed untouchable by others who feared that prosecuting him could end their careers due to Cauble’s power and political clout. In this case, the Eastern District of Texas was the 1st district to take the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO) and use it in the way it was intended to be used. This gave the act the volition it needed to be used by other prosecutors as an instrument of power. In addition, more assets were seized in this one case than all of the U.S. attorneys had seized collectively in the preceding twenty years. Wortham also started the Gun Free Drug Free School Zones program. This program made it a federal offense to possess or use weapons or illegal drugs within 1,000 feet of a school or playground.
As I sit and listen to the very long list of accomplishments of this distinguished and well respected judge, he again begins to hone in on what has been on my mind for the last few days. Judge Wortham recounts his commitment to the community. Although he has enjoyed every job assignment of his pioneering career, he keeps returning to stories of his ground breaking time in the U.S. Attorney’s office. He divulges that he worked as a U.S. attorney for twelve years because he believed there he would have the most impact on his community. He was able to pick landmark cases that had mass impact on the local community as well as the nation. Consequently, Judge Wortham’s son, Baylor Wortham, is currently working as a U.S. attorney, in the office his father helped to develop. Wortham also recalls his mother’s commitment to volunteer work. “My parents believed you had to help your community become a better place. Before I had resources I used my talents to help.” He recalls his mother working with the Cerebral Palsy Foundation which is currently the Shorkey Center. Lauretta had Wortham spending the night outside of City Hall for several nights, in order to secure a place in line for the Cerebral Palsy Foundation so that they could be first to reserve the Harvest Club for the Foundation’s annual event. At the time Bob was in Jr. High. Wortham continues to help numerous local charities, which literally are too many to list. “The Lord blesses you when you help people that are less fortunate than yourself.”
As Wortham embarks on his 65th year, he continues to be devoted to his wife of 27 years, Karen Wortham, as well as his 4 children and 5 grandchildren. He and Karen continue to give to numerous local charities through their foundation, the Karen and Bob Wortham Charitable Foundation, Inc. The always forward thinking judge, also reveals some possible future plans. These plans of course, would allow him to continue to diligently serve the community that he loves. Wortham imparts he will prayerfully consider running for the District Attorney’s office, in the event that Tom Maness, District Attorney of Beaumont, Texas, decides to retire. But, only if Maness retires, as Wortham states he will not run against his friend.
The interview is over, and I am back among Generation Me. As I revisit all of the information I have attained, I come to some realizations. I do not want my children to have the Generation Me mentality. They need to know that there are selfless, accomplished people in the world. People that enjoy serving others. People that are self-made, that do not make excuses and give up when things get tough. People that won’t back down from a fight, even though it may cost them personally. People who consistently look out for the well- being of others and are willing to work hard to attain and exceed their goals. People like Bob Wortham.
My youngest child looks out the window. Bob Wortham is at it again, mowing the lawn. My son asks me why he is mowing it himself. I think The Honorable Judge Wortham and his story will be our dinner conversation tonight!
*Polly Stratiotis Butler is a licensed professional counselor in private practice. She lives in Beaumont, Texas with her husband Carlton, and two sons Jonathan and Alex Butler. Born in Athens, Greece, Polly has been a transplanted Texan since 1979.
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