“I have decided to appoint you to represent Lt. Calley.”
Those 10 words changed Houston Gordon’s career, and his life, forever, and put him on a national stage the likes of which he had never planned to see.
The fall of 1971 saw Gordon (UT Martin ’68, UT Law ’70), a fresh law school graduate and newly-minted member of the Army Judge Advocate General Corps, preparing to take on what is arguably the most pivotal military case of the 20th century. Lt. William Calley, a former U.S. Army officer, had been found guilty of murdering no less than 22 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians on March 16, 1968, during what became known as the My Lai Massacre.
“In September of 1971, I was called into my boss’s office, and he asked me a bunch of questions, and then he leaned over his desk and said, ‘I have decided to appoint you to represent Lt. Calley in his appeals,’” said Gordon. “I had a lot of time left in the military. I’d only been there 18 months. I thought about it for a day and a half, and I thought, ‘This is the biggest case in the history of the military in the 20th century!’ I mean, it was all over the world, everywhere. And I thought, ‘Well, why not?’ So I accepted it, and I did it, and it changed my history. …
“It was the most life-changing (case) in that it took a country kid from rural West Tennessee, a history major at UT Martin who knew nothing about Vietnam, and it caused me to learn a lot about Vietnam. … It caused me to question, to question what people said, to question the propaganda of government,” he said. “It taught me to accept people where they are and how they are and who they are, because there, but for the grace of God, go I.”
The Calley case made headlines in every country with a published newspaper, and Gordon’s role in it was not unnoticed.
“It matured me early. All of a sudden this happy-go-lucky, let’s just go-with-the-flow approach to life got real serious. When you get death threats, and you get bomb threats at your office, and you get Christmas cards with pictures of dead bodies in them, it causes you to step back,” he said, remembering. “It caused me to dig and search and question and try to get to the core of who I am and what’s important to me – what my priorities are. … I never intended to be a trial lawyer. I got a master’s (degree) in tax law. I’ve never practiced a day of tax law. So it changed my career path. … The idea of being able to search for the truth begins with, first of all, being honest with who you are. I think that’s what (the case) did for me. It made me look at who I am.”
During his time representing Calley, Gordon often found himself on the banks of the Potomac River in the middle of the night. It was there, under the dome of the Jefferson Memorial, that he found wisdom from one of the nation’s forefathers.
“As I sat there, worrying and meditating, I looked up and read what was carved in the marble around the rotunda – the words, ‘I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility toward every form of tyranny over the minds of men,’” said Gordon, addressing UT Martin’s fall 2016 graduating class. “The deep truths in Jefferson’s words changed my life. The events which caused me to see that truth ever so clearly changed history, mine and our country’s.”
Since handling the Calley case and his ultimate return to Covington, Gordon has represented hundreds of clients in cases ranging from civil rights and police brutality to corporate liability and death penalty trials. After all that, it’s hard to believe his career started with a series of semi-spontaneous decisions – or, as Gordon calls it, “long-range planning.”
Gordon’s original life plan was to become a Boston Celtic, and then, after ending his professional career, coach high school basketball and teach history. It was this dream that brought him to UT Martin after a failed attempt to make the UT Knoxville basketball team.
“I got to Knoxville and I realized I wasn’t going to make that basketball team, so I transferred to UT Martin the very next term,” he said. “I sat on the bench for a couple of years at UT Martin and found out I wasn’t going to be a Celtic, and I realized I might need to go to college,” he added, laughing.
The 1960s were full of turmoil – from civil rights to the Vietnam War – and Gordon needed to find his place in the world before graduation. Near the end of his time at UT Martin, two of Gordon’s friends were discussing their upcoming law school aptitude tests. Gordon had two questions for them: “What is that?” and “How much does it cost?”
As fate would have it, Gordon could afford the exam. “I had enough money to take the test, so I rode to Memphis with them. I did well enough on the test to get into law school, and that’s called long-range planning: about ninety minutes,” he said.
Another spontaneous decision to try out for the National Moot Court team in law school helped determine his future. “One day (a friend and I) were walking down a hallway at the law school and a poster said, ‘Try-outs for the National Moot Court Team.’ He said, ‘Why don’t we try out?’ So, being a deep thinker and analyzing things for a long time, I immediately said, ‘Sure!’ So we tried out for the National Moot Court Team,” said Gordon, laughing. “I will admit that, at the time, I did not have any idea what the word ‘moot’ meant.”
The challenge given to potential team members was a fraud case. Gordon, still a first-year law student, hadn’t taken any related courses and felt in over his head. He went to the law library in search of help, and the librarian pointed him toward a reference book. It turned out to be the sentinel book on the tort of fraud, and the moot court judges were impressed by Gordon’s references.
“You would have thought I was a genius!” he said. “So I made the team. That year I was a first-year law student, and every time I argued, we won … and every time I didn’t, we lost. We went all the way to the finals in New York, and everybody thought I was smart. They were wrong.”
However, Gordon’s success with the team brought him to the attention of a retired Army colonel named R. McDonald Gray. Under his mentorship, Gordon found his way into the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General Corps Defense Appellate Division, which handles the appeals of soldiers convicted of crimes.
“Standing in the breach is what I’ve done, and I appreciate the opportunity to do that.”
“One of the first cases I got was a case out of Vietnam that had to do with a speedy trial issue. I got busy, and I read every case the appellate courts had decided on speedy trial, and I just decided they didn’t make any sense at all,” he said. “So, not knowing any better, I stood in front of the Court of Military Appeals, which is the supreme court in military cases, … and I said, ‘I’ve read every case this court has decided and every case the Court of Military Review has decided on the issue of speedy trial, and with respect, your honors, they make no sense at all.’ I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to say that to judges, so I did.
“The new chief judge leaned down, laughed and said, ‘Well, Captain Gordon, what do you think we ought to do about it?’ I had written down five things that I thought they ought to do, and they accepted three of them. It didn’t give my client any relief in that case, but it changed the speedy trial rules in all military cases (after that),” said Gordon. “When that (decision) came down, I went back to the office, and they were fooled too! They think I know what I’m doing!”
That bold move helped lead to his appointment to the Calley case, which ultimately gave Gordon the courage and experience necessary to take on other unpopular cases.
“I represented an African-American couple down in Mississippi. In Marshall County, Miss., you could not get white lawyers to represent black people (at that time). Their young son was driving an old Ford tractor across a county bridge when the bridge fell and killed him. The county commissioner’s reason for not fixing the bridge was, ‘Well it’s only a (negro) road anyway,’” said Gordon. “As unpopular as I was in Marshall County, Miss., among white folks, I took that case, and we recovered for that family. I’ll never forget it. … Had it not been for the Calley case, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”
Gordon’s career is marked by unpopular, controversial cases, but he is not ashamed of his tendency to fight for the “little guy.”
“I’m serious about the idea that Providence had something to do with where I ended up and what I do,” he said. “(The Calley case) caused me to be willing to stand in the breach, even when it’s not popular, even when it’s not the accepted thing.”
While Lt. William Calley probably played the major role in Gordon’s career, he thanks his UT Martin education for providing a foundation on which to build.
“UT Martin’s the first place, I think, that I ever thought an original thought. And that’s assuming that I have.”
“For folks who grew up on the farm, like I did – picking cotton, slopping hogs, milking cows – (public education) was a way for us to learn and see a bigger world. UT Martin’s the first place, I think, that I ever thought an original thought. And that’s assuming that I have,” he said. Gordon’s association with the university stretches back to his grandmother, who rode a mule from Henderson County to earn her teaching certificate at Hall-Moody Institute. A long line of family members followed over time, and Gordon has seen the influence of higher education on all of them.
“Good gracious, you think about where I am! I’m practicing law? In a building like this? I remember looking through the floor and seeing the ground,” he said. “What education has done for my family and done for me, it’s something that everybody ought to have an opportunity for.”
Gordon and his wife, Deb, have given generously to the university in support of student scholarship. The couple believes that giving back is a powerful tool to help shape the upcoming generation and has faith that UT Martin is a place from which a person can go anywhere.
“I don’t think we really live unless we give. I think if we spend all of our lives getting, and not giving, then we miss all the joy that comes from giving. And if we see someone who otherwise could not go to college, or someone who needs help along the way, or someone who’s struggling to find out what they want in life – to help them in that search or to be able to make it easier for them is a blessing,” said Gordon.
Today, the walls of his Covington office are covered in framed letters from clients and their families: a child, disabled in a tragic car accident, now a young man in college; mothers mourning children and families mourning fathers; students, now lawyers themselves, inspired by his courtroom arguments. They all thank Gordon for his time, his help, his understanding in their hours of need.
“I have plenty of ‘I-love-me’ plaques, but I don’t need them,” he said. “There was a time when I did. I spent years gathering all this resume-building material, and then I finally realized, ‘I have a job!’ … I love being a trial lawyer. … It’s exciting. It’s challenging. It’s the last great theater! Think about it. You get a new script every time, and you’ve got at least 12 people who swear they’re paying attention to you.”
Gordon has been a trial lawyer on the national stage for almost five decades. He’s handled cases in 17 states and had clients from multiple countries. “I’ve represented people from California to New York to Ohio, all from the square in Covington,” he said. “Standing in the breach is what I’ve done, and I appreciate the opportunity to do that.”
He may be slowing down and taking a little more time to enjoy his nine grandchildren, but Houston Gordon’s impact on the lives of those he’s served will never fade. The writers of those thank-you letters, and countless judges, juries, clients and family members, will always remember him standing in the breach.