Just about everyone has a Don Brutkiewicz story. Everyone, that is, except for me.
I arrive at the Brutkiewicz law office on South Conception Street in the afternoon when I know Don isn’t in. Today, I’m meeting with one of his sons Johnny who, along with his brother Skip, practices law alongside his 86-year-old father. My plan is to arm myself with as much information as I can so that when I finally sit down with Don, I can lob the best bits his way and see what he swings at.
Johnny leads me into Don’s office and sits behind the glass-topped desk. He crosses his legs, leans back and smiles. “Growing up, I was scared to death of him, ” he says with an ironic grin. Johnny is the fourth of five sons Don had with his wife Elizabeth (from oldest to youngest: Skip, Kenny, Billy, Johnny and Carl), and in this household of unruly boys, Don found a secondary use for his skills as an attorney. “He’d cross-examine the hell out of us. Make us admit to things we didn’t do.”
In his 62 years of practicing law, Don participated in about 1, 000 criminal jury trials and more than 3, 000 cases, making him one of the most active attorneys in Mobile since the 1950s. “There are stories of him tackling escaping prisoners, breaking up fights in the courthouse, ” Johnny says. “He whooped some people.”
Johnny then calls me over to a bookcase where framed pictures sit skewed at funny angles, and I get my first sight of Don. In the black-and-white image, he stands behind a jury box of 12 smiling women, all intentionally picked in a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the law passed in 1966 allowing women to serve on juries in Alabama. Don looms in the photograph, standing at 6 feet 2 inches and 210 pounds. “And he had a distinctive walk, too, ” Johnny says. “You could see him comin’ from a mile away … His nickname was ‘Downtown Don, ’” Johnny continues. “And he knew everyone.”
Johnny sends me a few steps down the road to see what else I can glean from attorneys David Barnett and John White, both friends of Don. Barnett is busy speaking on the phone, but when he hears why I’m there, he immediately calls me in.
“I’ve got a guy here looking for stories about ‘Big Daddy, ’” Barnett tells the nameless voice on the other end of the line. He slips into his favorite Don story, for the benefit of both his caller and me.
The story goes that Don was cross-examining a woman who had witnessed an altercation in a Downtown dive bar, coincidentally one of Don’s favorite drinking holes. She testified that the incident in question occurred near the bar’s jukebox. Don then asked where exactly the jukebox was located. “C’mon, Don, ” she said. “You know where the damn jukebox is.”
Barnett then puts me on the phone with his caller to hear what he has to say about Don. I scribble notes frantically. Then White arrives from around the corner and pulls me into an empty conference room.
“Don’s funny in a guy’s way, ” White tries to explain. “He had a way of lightening up the most average cases. Kind of like the old saying, ‘It’s hard to kick a dog when you’re laughing.’” In other words, humor was just another tool in Don’s bag of courtroom tricks. “During cross-examination, Don always followed the witness’s answer with, ‘So says you, ’” White says with a laugh.
I slowly realize that telling Don stories is more than a pastime in some circles. It’s almost a competitive sport. And then I realize something else. After speaking with four people close to Don, I still have no idea what to expect when I meet the man himself.
Weeks later, I step back into Don’s office. He shuffles around his desk to shake my hand, and I’m immediately taken aback by how outwardly friendly he is. “I’m the second oldest member of the Downtown YMCA, ” he tells me proudly. With his gray mustache and thin face, he looks like Mobile’s version of Walt Disney.
“I’ve had fun in this life, I’ll tell you that, ” he begins. I tell him who I’ve already spoken to and a couple of the stories they told me in order to gauge his reaction. What Don likes best is hearing his old stories relayed back to him, which cause him to release a single booming “HA!” when I deliver punch lines he’s heard for more than 50 years.
Born in Mobile on January 26, 1930, Donald Elmore Brutkiewicz would live in the city for five years before his family moved to Gulfport, Mississippi. He describes his childhood in Gulfport as “very enjoyable, ” working odd jobs in grocery stores and at a hamburger joint near his high school. His family moved back to Mobile before his senior year, so he graduated from Murphy High School before ending up at the University of Alabama, where he eventually earned his law degree. After completing school in 1954, the young attorney joined the Air Force and served as a judge advocate general, assigned to a post in the middle of the Sahara Desert. “We had atomic bombs out there in temperatures of 122 degrees!” he tells me.
Once out of the Air Force, Don returned to Mobile to practice law. His uncle Carl Booth, who then served as circuit solicitor, soon appointed Don assistant circuit solicitor (now known as an assistant district attorney). A solicitor for 14 years, he started practicing criminal law in 1970.
“I tried about 50 murder cases, and that’s where I got the reputation for yelling, ” he explains. “In the old courthouse, they say they could hear me all the way back in the clerk’s office.”
“As his son, I could get embarrassed, ” Johnny had told me. “He was often loud and discourteous. He wasn’t civil.”
I ask Don about his “So says you” response and he laughs. “I got in a lot of trouble for saying that. The judges didn’t particularly like it.”
From what I can gather, the relationships between judges and attorneys in Don’s day were bewildering, at once contentious and friendly. Of course, the story that comes to mind is perhaps Don’s most legendary. During a trial in 1966, Don and presiding judge William Bolling were constantly challenging one another. After the court had been recessed, Don let loose some profanities about the judge underneath his breath.
“Who called the judge a sonuvabitch?” asked the bailiff, whipping his head around.
“Who called that sonuvabitch a judge?” Don snarled.
Despite being absent from the courtroom, Judge Bolling found Don to be in contempt of court, fined him $50 and sentenced him to serve five hours in the Mobile County Jail. Don’s challenge to that decision, known as Don Brutkiewicz v. the State of Alabama, went all the way to the state Supreme Court, which ruled in Don’s favor since court had been recessed at the time of Don’s profanity.
As for Judge Bolling: “When he retired, I couldn’t get away from him!” Don says. “We got to be real good friends.”
The old courthouse once overflowed with colorful char-acters like Don. “There was Bill Stuckey, the bailiff, ” he says. “He was about 6 foot 5 inches, 225 pounds and had these great big hands.” There was the toxicologist Dr. Nelson Grubbs whose cadaver experiments sent the odor of boiling livers wafting throughout the courthouse. It was a different world back then, or as David Barnett puts it, “Things just aren’t as funny [in the courthouse] anymore.”
If there’s one consensus about Don, it’s this: He was a born breadwinner who worked tirelessly to provide for his family and put his boys through school. “And the family vacations, ” Johnny says. “As kids we’d sit in the station wagon outside the courthouse. Daddy would finish a murder trial, walk outside and drive us to Mexico for spring break. When we got there, the first thing he’d do was buy a bottle of tequila.”
“Papa Don, ” as he was also known, says that he enjoyed raising five boys.
“Were you tough on them?” I ask.
“I probably wasn’t tough enough, ” he jokes.
Don’s wife Elizabeth, who worked as his secretary and bookkeeper for the majority of his career, passed away four years ago. “Elizabeth used to say, ‘It’s hard being married to a crazy man, but I was never bored, ’” Don tells me with a hearty laugh. These days he sticks to his routine; he goes to the YMCA every day, he spends his mornings at the office doing various tasks for old clients and giving “free advice.” He no longer tries cases in the courthouse or loses his temper in the red face of a judge, but I probably don’t need to tell you that. Because if he did, you’d certainly hear him.
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