Texas lawyer WARREN BURNETT, 75, designated by the Texas Bar Association as a "living legend" two years ago, died of a heart attack Monday, September 23, while he and his wife, Kay, were visiting in Fort Davis, Texas. The Burnetts have a home in League City and a beach house in Galveston. He was stricken while drinking an afternoon beer with his wife and a friend, Victoria Lowe, in the garden patio at a Fort Davis bed-and-breakfast establishment. Ms. Lowe, an EMT in Fort Davis, helped give emergency treatment to Burnett along with seven of her colleagues from the Jeff Davis County EMS. Burnett was known for his eloquent use of the English language in the courtroom, "pure poetry" according to a colleague, and superb courtroom strategy. Beginning in 1951, Burnett distinguished himself as a 23 year old district attorney for Odessa and Midland in the 70th Judicial District. After two terms he opened his own practice as a trial lawyer. He tried jury cases all over Texas, New Mexico, California, Boston, etc. He flew his own airplane from trial to trial. His law practice out of Odessa spanned 40 years. He became a controversial figure in the 1960s and 1970s doing a lot of pro bono work: getting Hispanics integrated into the system in the Texas Valley; participating in demonstrations and boycotts against grape growers alleged mistreatment of Caesar Chavez and his stoop-labor farms workers; nuclear waste dumps in Texas; as well as organizing memorial marches honoring Dr. Martin King in Odessa. West Texas conservatives abhorred his liberal politics. What was not in the news and the limelight, was Burnett's generosity. He gave millions to nonprofit organizations. He did not talk about it, but he paid for numerous young people's education, often hiring them to clerk for him if in law school, and them helping them get established in the practice of law, or as writers, teachers; whatever they wanted to be. Burnett did not charge a client if he didn't win their case; shared all his legal fees with his entire staff; established a Chair at Texas Tech, and established scholarship funds for minorities at University of Texas at Permian Basin. He provided the seed money to establish a multi-media arts center founded by his wife, Kay. Together, they created a charitable foundation and named it after his mother, Gladys B. Burnett was born to a lead and zinc miner, Jim and wife, Gladys Burnett, in Austinville, Virginia on May 4, 1927. He was the star pitcher of the high school baseball team and was voted by classmates "most likely to succeed." He laughed and agreed with the exclamation by an Austinville contemporary who became a barber in the House barbershop in Congress: "I never was so surprised to see somebody do as good as Warren had did. He never was nothin' special in Austinville. About all he done was lay around and read books." LIFE magazine named Warren Burnett in 1962 as one of the "Red-Hot Hundred", a foldout gallery of the young leaders in the United States who met the criteria of "1) tough, self-imposed standards of individual excellence; 2) a zest for hard work; 3) a dedication to something larger than themselves; 4) the courage to act against old problems; 5) the boldness to try out new ideas; 6) a hard-bitten, undaunted hopefulness about man." Burnett was ranked along with playwright Edward Albee; Boeing's Harry Goldie; NASA's Chris Kraft, Jr.; writer John Updike; opera singer Leontyne Price; physicist Murray Gell-Mann. In 1969, he was featured in Harper's magazine. Numerous articles have been written about him in Texas newspapers and magazines. Burnett attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute (VPI), now known as Virginia Tech, after graduating from high school, but dropped out to join the U.S. Marines. He served in the China-Burma Theater near the end of World War II. Former Galveston Superintendent of Schools, Frank Vollart, served with Burnett. After the war Vollart called Warren Burnett through the "company store" in Austinville and suggested he come to Texas and attend Lamar College in Beaumont with him. Burnett hitchhiked to Texas, attended Lamar on the G.I. Bill, and roomed with Vollart. Burnett was an English major with dreams of being a writer. "I was tired of being poor, and I realized a chimpanzee could be a lawyer and make money at it," Burnett has said through the years. He applied to Baylor Law School, "because it was the only place I could get in at mid-term". He thumbed rides to San Antonio for his first job in the district attorney's office upon graduation from law school and passing the Texas State Bar exams, and soon applied and was hired as a trial lawyer in the Odessa office of John Watts. Moving to Galveston in his late 50s, Burnett opened a small branch office. "I keep this small office and the Odessa office open only to help young lawyers, and the investigators and secretaries who work there," he told friends. He rarely practiced law after that, and would share a percentage with young lawyers who worked on his cases, taking over those files. He occasionally returned to West Texas for a trial, but spent more time with old buddies and various ladies. He eventually gave his law practice to his oldest son, Abner, in the mid 1990s. Warren Burnett is survived by Kay Taylor Burnett, his wife and constant companion of the last 15 years; daughter Melissa Burnett and husband Wayne Warren of Midland; stepdaughter Stacie Pauls and husband Allan Legge' of League City; sons Abner Burnett and wife Susan of Mexico, and Paul Burnett of Houston; stepsons Britt Pauls and wife Lou Wunch of Galveston, and Taylor Pauls and wife Priscilla Rios of League City; grandchildren Hunter and Blake Legge' and Kayte Pauls; and also Burnett's cat, Nasdaq, and the family dog, Dow Jones. A memorial celebration of Warren Burnett's life is set for 10:00 a.m. Sunday, October 13, at The Arts Alliance Center at Clear Lake. It is for friend and foe alike. Memorials may be sent to the Warren Burnett Fund at The Arts Alliance Center, 2000 NASA Road 1, Nassau Bay, TX 77058.
Published in Houston Chronicle from Sep. 27 to Sep. 29, 2002.