Remember standing in the schoolyard clapping and celebrating for that courageous kid who finally put the bully in his place? Well, Attorney Willie Gary elicits that same response—that “go-ahead-and-get-’em-brother” feeling of triumph that makes everyone around feel like winners. But, before he began battling bullies in the courtroom, he repeatedly fought odds that always seemed to be against him, right from the start.
Attorney Gary was born with medical complications that forced his migrant parents to mortgage and lose their 200 acres of farmland, something few Blacks owned in the 1940s. Yet, neither the hard life of extreme poverty, working in fields, nor living in a shack with his parents and 10 siblings stopped him from going after his dreams. Now, 54 years after that difficult birthday, he’s being cheered on by the masses for conquering corporate giants who bully the small guy. Gary asserts, “Success is about an attitude. It’s like winning: you have to believe you can do it. If you believe in yourself, have a positive attitude and deal with adversity, things will get better.” And despite the early difficulties he faced, things did get better for Gary. Today, he is recognized as one of the nation’s best trial lawyers. He has won over 100 cases valued at more than a million dollars each, and he has achieved one of the largest jury verdicts in U.S. history-$500 million. What makes his success so extraordinary is the fact that most of his clients are ‘small’ working- men and women, the rural poor and children. Yet, most of his opponents are huge, like hospitals, chemical companies and insurance companies.
But it wasn’t just his attitude that got him where is today. Gary’s always had big dreams and insists that taking action is the only way to make them realities. “Don’t wait for things to happen, make them happen,” says the former migrant, who is now a self-made multi-millionaire. And, that’s exactly what he’s done over and over again.
Building opportunities for success
Although education should have been the building blocks of his success, they were the stumbling blocks to it. As a migrant child in North Carolina, Gary could only attend school for a half day; then, he’d work well into the evening and arrive home as late as eleven o’clock. On weekends, he mowed lawns and sold produce from the back of his dad’s truck. With a strong desire to learn, he still found study time by grabbing any free minute he could, like on the rides to and from the fields in which he worked. In spite of a slow academic start, he was the first Black child from Indiantown to go to college.
Of course, getting there was equally as challenging, because Gary had no money for college. He worked hard toward obtaining an athletic scholarship and eventually earned an invitation to compete for a spot on the Bethune-Cookman football team, but was cut from it on the last day of tryouts.
Disappointed, but not sidetracked, the hometown hero came up with another plan. Hoping to turn pocket change into a pot of gold, he went directly to the doorsteps of Shaw University on a hunch that there was an opening on the football team there. When he arrived however, the roster was full. Gary, with only $13 in his pocket and a personal motto to ask for nothing but a chance to prove yourself, spent a week sleeping in the lounge of a boys’ dormitory and cleaning up the locker room after practices. A few days before the first game, a defensive lineman was injured giving Gary the chance he’d been waiting for. He tried out for the spot on the team and won a scholarship.
Attorney Gary believes that everything happens for the better. Perhaps the ‘better’ that came from the obstacles to his educational attainment is evident in the relationship he has with Shaw today. He has served on the board for the past 15 years, is currently the chairman of it, and through The Gary Foundation, he has contributed $10 million to it, the largest gift bestowed upon a historically Black college or university by an alumnus.
Eyes on the prize
Willie Gary has always epitomized how to set goals and stay focused on them. After completing his bachelor’s degree in business administration and attending law school, he moved back to Stuart, Florida, with his wife, two sons and a brand new law degree to open the first Black firm in Martin County. “You have to know what you want and keep your eyes on the prize,” urges Gary. “In my first year of law practice, I said I wanted a Rolls Royce, and I was willing to burn the midnight oil to get it. I put a photo of one on my door to keep me focused and often worked until 2 a.m., just to get it right.”
And since Gary was no stranger to hard work, it didn’t take long for his diligence to pay off—a million times over. Within two years of opening the firm, he was a millionaire.
Moreover, he has gone from being a sole practitioner to being the owner of a thriving national partnership that has tried cases throughout most of the United States. The headquarters for his firm is located in downtown Stuart in an old whitewashed building that was once a hotel where Gary washed dishes as a college student. His partnership has more than 7,000 clients, three offices, 10 partners, 42 lawyers, doctors, investigators, accountants and pilots among its staff of more than 150 persons, not to mention that it brings in more dollars per associate than the biggest firms in the country. He also enjoys a lavish lifestyle, including a personal jet, a 50-room mansion, and, needless to say, he’s no longer wishing for a Rolls Royce.
These days, the multi-million dollar man is taking his success to another level in the courtroom, the classroom and the boardroom. In fact, he may one day become the billion- dollar man. Recently, he’s gone up against Microsoft and Office Depot, in cases worth $5 billion each, and against Anheuser Busch for $2 ½ billion. Furthermore, he not only exemplifies success, but he freely shares all his resources with others. He has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to local causes and health charities; $60,000 to fund a local day care, $100,000 to help build a new church in Indiantown, FL, and tons of money to several colleges. His foundation hosts the annual Willie E. Gary Celebrity Golf Classic, the funds of which are raised to provide educational opportunities for needy youth.
He also shares his secrets of success. “Hard work is of the utmost importance. No one will give you anything. African Americans were promised 40 acres and a mule, but America reneged,” says Gary, a motivational speaker who often addresses elementary and high school students about the importance of staying in school and away from drugs. Equally important is finding a good mentor, and being one. “No one person is an island. Regardless of how successful you become, you will need someone to lean on, someone to inspire you, someone who will say ‘you can.’”
And although he can’t personally mentor as many people as he’d like to, he passes along as much knowledge as he can by speaking to groups and by serving on the boards of seven universities and numerous foundations. Why does such a busy person make the time to share his wealth? “I don’t have the right not to. I am indebted to Shaw and to all the others, especially to HBCUs; to those who never had the chance I did, and to those who were the broad shoulders I stood on. You can’t make it and get amnesia or hang out a ‘do not disturb’ sign. You must give back.”
Gary’s generosity extends to doing good deeds whenever possible including using his private jet, the Wings of Justice, to transport critically ill cancer patients to treatment centers or to give people, like Rosa Parks, a “lift” home. On the day she was honored in Montgomery with a library and museum dedicated in her name, he offered her a ride to Detroit and considers the deed to be a small down payment on the debt America owes her. His tireless work on behalf of injured persons, the less fortunate, and our youth prove that he believes in making every second count. “Every day is a day you won’t see again, so make good use of it,” urges the man who spends his days defending against wealthy bullies and removing obstacles that hinder others from their paths to success.
Pamela M. McBride is a freelance writer and regular contributor to THE BLACK COLLEGIAN Magazine.