Read an Excerpt
The Ultimate Life
By Jim Stovall
David C. CookCopyright © 2007 Jim Stovall
All rights reserved.
Observing the parade of life from my unique vantage point for more than four decades has allowed me to consider the very best and the very worst that humanity has to offer. That particular morning began much like any other. Little did I anticipate or even imagine that it was the dawning of the day that would change my life and the lives of countless others forever.
Sunrise found me, as it generally does, seated at my ornate monument of a desk. These many years I have allowed the outdated and excessive beast to remain, as people who are supposed to know such things assure me that it is befitting my status and a symbol of my chosen lot in life. If the desk is a compromise to my colleagues and position, my chair is an oasis of self-indulgence. It is a custom-made leather creation that, over the years, has expanded and transformed itself to accommodate only me.
I have heard myself described as imposing and overpowering, among other adjectives. If this is true, it is no doubt a distinct advantage in my chosen profession. Nevertheless, if anything, my legendary leather chair dwarfs even me.
I was attempting to coordinate finishing off the remainder of my second cup of coffee. The anticipated chiming of the historic grandfather clock would announce to everyone up and down the corridor that the beginning of this day would wait no longer. As the majestic clock began to chime ten times, I left the comfortable environs of my chair, traversed around the colossal desk, and made my way toward the ten-foot mahogany door.
I heard the familiar words solemnly intoned that signaled the beginning of my workday.
"Court is now in session. The Honorable Judge Stanford A. Davis presiding."
I stepped through the mahogany doorway, mounted the three steps that rose behind the judicial bench, and settled into my adequate but decidedly less comfortable chair. I gazed out over the assemblage a few beats longer than absolutely necessary, then announced, "You may be seated."
Over the years, I have come to anticipate the gravity or importance of a particular case based on how many participants, observers, and representatives of the media crowd into my courtroom. While not perfect, this barometer has proven itself to be quite accurate over thousands of cases. If it were accurate on this day, I knew that I had never before presided over a case quite like this one.
Each case is unique as the people, situations, and law governing them vary greatly. The law, when adjudicated properly, lies somewhere between a science and an art. A judge must be scientific enough to know the pertinent, repetitive volumes of case law and how they impact every situation while, on the other hand, be artful enough to get into the minds and spirits of those who formed and framed our laws to discern their intent and their lofty ideals as they relate to the modern and current circumstance.
I knew—just as everyone gathered knew, and everyone in the civilized world knew—that the time had arrived for the battle over the estate of Red Stevens. Even though we all recognized this, I stared at the paperwork arranged before me until the courtroom grew deathly silent. Then I pounded my gavel, nodded to my bailiff, and addressed the court reporter.
"The case before the court today is the estate directed by the last will and testament of Howard 'Red' Stevens."
The court reporter's fingers flew unerringly over the mysterious keys just as they had done for many years in my courtroom. I paused reverently, gazing at the counsel and litigants on both sides of the aisle that bisected my marble majestic courtroom.
I knew, in theory, the day I first sat at this bench—and I now know from practical experience—that among the primary roles of a sitting judge is that of appearing, conducting one's self, and acting judicial. When I was first appointed to the bench, I was among the youngest to have ever sat in this position.
I remember commenting to my beloved wife, Marie, that my walk down the corridor each day was intimidating as I had to pass beneath the portraits of all the solemn and wise judges who had gone before me. As a fresh-faced youth, at least in judicial terms, I felt inadequate to fill their shoes, much less their robes. In the ensuing forty-plus years when I have expressed my concerns about my inevitable aging and my own mortality, Marie has repeatedly admonished me, "You're not getting old, but you are getting very judicial."
I am ever mindful of the fact that the pomp and circumstance surrounding the courtroom is not to elevate me but is, instead, to show the respect and reverence for everything that this courtroom, as a symbol of our law, represents. I concern myself little with what people think of me as I live and move and have my being on the sidewalks and in the streets of our city. But seated here at the bench, attired in my judicial robes, I become a symbol of all that we hold dear.
As such, I demand respect—not for Stan Davis, husband, friend, and neighbor—but, instead, for Judge Stanford A. Davis, symbol and arbiter of the law.
What can I or anyone say about Red Stevens that hasn't already been said, written, or broadcast to every part of the civilized world? Red Stevens was one of those people who became a legend in his own time and a cultural icon after his death.
Generally speaking, a judge would be called upon to recuse himself or vacate the bench, turning the case over to another judge if he had heard as much about the case and the people involved as I had. Fortunately or unfortunately, there was no judge anywhere, or person anywhere, who had not heard about and formed an opinion about Red Stevens, the terms and conditions of his will, and the case to be presented before me.
Red Stevens was a giant human being in person, reputation, and deed. His life had been lived so much in the spotlight that it was hard to separate myth and legend from reality. He had been so famous for so long that his life seemed to have bridged many generations or eras of history.
Red Stevens, as both legend and history tell us, was born into obscurity and unbelievable poverty in the swamplands of Louisiana. As a very young man, he left home headed for Texas with nothing more than the clothes on his back, a head full of dogged determination, and an indomitable spirit full of dreams. Over the next half century, Red Stevens forged an empire in cattle, oil, finance, and industry that rivaled anything the world had ever seen.
Red Stevens did everything in a big way. He was a hard-driving, sometimes ruthless businessman. He was a generous and compassionate philanthropist. He was a valued friend to many and a feared enemy to some. He knew virtually every person of fame and fortune who lived during his time. In many ways, Red Stevens and a handful of people like him defined the twentieth century and established much of what we know as the twenty-first century.
His accomplishments were legendary, but in many ways he was endowed with the human frailties that plague us all. Red Stevens worked unbelievably hard to give his family everything he thought they wanted. Far too late in life, he discovered that mostly what they wanted and needed was him. Near the end of his life, Red Stevens came to realize that, regretfully, he had spent far too much time, effort, and energy at coronations, negotiations, and state dinners and not nearly enough time at Little League games, birthday parties, and family reunions.
He came to this realization at a point in time when he knew he had only a few days or at most a few weeks to live. As he considered the generational dilemma that too much of his money and not enough of his time had created among his relatives, Red Stevens knew that it was too late to help any of his children and most, if not all, of his grandchildren. However, Red in his final days identified what he thought and hoped could be a spark of promise in his young grandson Jason Stevens.
He devised a plan that he executed privately in his last will and testament that became front-page news and popular conversation in every part of our culture. Red left his oil wells, cattle ranches, and financial empire to his children. But, to his grandson Jason, he left through his will a bequest that has become known as The Ultimate Gift.
The Ultimate Gift was a revolutionary idea and was groundbreaking within the field of estate law. It was as unique and special as was Red Stevens. The bequest that Red left to his grandson involved a twelve-month odyssey during which Jason was both encouraged and forced to learn about The Gift of Money, The Gift of Work, The Gift of Friends, and a number of other life lessons. There were a total of twelve gifts that, together, comprised Red Stevens' Ultimate Gift, which he planned for his grandson Jason.
The terms of Red's will called for Jason to learn a real life lesson both through Red's words on video and through tasks Jason was to complete. If Jason successfully completed each task, the will called for Jason to inherit a mysterious Ultimate Gift alluded to by Red Stevens in his will and in the videos he left behind for Jason. Each video message expressed Red's thoughts and experiences pertaining to that individual gift; but the bequest representing Red's Ultimate Gift was never disclosed.
During the year after Red Stevens' death, Jason—under the direction of Red's lifelong friend and lawyer Theodore J. Hamilton—completed to Mr. Hamilton's satisfaction each of the twelve gifts, therefore qualifying to receive Red Stevens' bequest of The Ultimate Gift.
Jason Stevens grew and developed as a person throughout the year, much as a wildflower would flourish that suddenly received the attention of a master gardener. By the time Jason completed the twelfth lesson, which was The Gift of Love, he thought that the lessons themselves were The Ultimate Gift. While this was certainly a major part of Red Stevens' plan for completing The Ultimate Gift, Jason—as a result of accomplishing all twelve tasks—was then directed by Red Stevens' will to receive virtually unlimited control of several billion dollars with which Jason was to help other people experience their own version of Red Stevens' Ultimate Gift.
The seed of an idea that began in Red Stevens' mind was played out as a drama in headlines around the world, and now it had ended up in my courtroom.
On one side of the aisle sat Red Stevens' children and grandchildren who collectively had retained a veritable dream team of high-profile, high-priced lawyers to contest and attempt to overturn Red Stevens' will so they could divide among themselves several billion dollars more than they already had received.
On the other side of the aisle sat Jason Stevens, flanked by one decidedly underwhelming lawyer who, if I had not checked the records, I would have assumed was not old enough or experienced enough to have finished law school. Basically, this looked like a courtroom version of David and Goliath.
Red Stevens' lifelong attorney and friend, Theodore J. Hamilton of Hamilton, Hamilton, and Hamilton, had left the country for an extended sabbatical shortly after Red Stevens' will had been executed and The Ultimate Gift had been presented to Jason Stevens. When last heard from, Hamilton was traveling, lecturing, and studying throughout India and the Far East, and his last communication had come from a remote village in the Himalayas.
The dream team had successfully completed legal maneuvers, freezing all of Jason Stevens' assets, so the totality of Jason's legal firepower in the courtroom before me was embodied in the person of one young Jeffrey Watkins, Esquire. Jeffrey Watkins, my research revealed, had indeed graduated from law school in a somewhat undistinguished manner from a relatively unknown institution of higher learning. As this was virtually his first case, he had no track record to indicate what level of skill or expertise might be hidden behind his unkempt hair, thick glasses, and acne-riddled countenance.
I cleared my throat, waited through a pregnant pause, and then directed my gaze toward the plaintiff's side of the aisle. I inquired, "Are all the parties present and accounted for today?"
An immaculately coiffed and tailored middle-aged member of the dream team rose from the table in front of the Stevens clan. He theatrically gestured, bowed slightly, and spoke.
"Your Honor, if it please the court, I am L. Myron Dudly of the firm Dudly, Cheetham, and Leech appearing before you today representing the rightful and legal claims of the Stevens family, heirs in fact and in law to the estate of Howard 'Red' Stevens."
L. Myron Dudly smiled smugly as muffled applause could actually be heard from the Stevens family scattered throughout several rows behind him. I pounded my gavel forcefully and sat up straight. I peered over my glasses and down my nose at the lawyer who appeared to have just stepped out of the pages of a gentlemen's fashion magazine.
I growled, "Counselor, you will advise your clients to respect the order and dignity of my court and these proceedings. The court will enter into the record that you are Mr. Dudly of Dudly, Cheetham, and Leech and, further, that you represent the Stevens family in this matter. As to who may or may not be the rightful beneficiary in fact or in law to Howard 'Red' Stevens' estate will be a matter to be decided by this court."
I took three deep and audible breaths and pointed the business end of my gavel toward L. Myron Dudly as I asked, "Do we understand one another?"
Dudly appeared to deflate significantly as he muttered, "Yes, sir."
I set down my gavel and continued.
"Counselor, you can save your theatrics and suppositions for an amateur theater night or game of charades somewhere, but in this courtroom, we deal with facts and law."
Dudly nodded once and dropped into the chair behind him. I think he would have welcomed the opportunity to disappear under the table if the chair had not stopped his progress.
I then shifted my gaze to the other side of the aisle and raised my eyebrows inquiringly. As this elicited no action, I finally had to ask, "Counselor, would you do us the honor of introducing yourself to this court for the record?"
Jeffrey Watkins shakily rose to his feet. His suit had seen better days—I assumed being worn by someone else as it certainly did not fit him. He leaned on the table in front of him as sweat poured down his face. After a few false starts, he finally squeaked out, "Your Honor, I am Jeffrey Watkins representing the defendant, Jason Stevens."
He plopped back into his chair, appearing to have run a marathon as a result of making the one statement before the court.
I was considering the overwhelming mismatch among the legal talent arrayed before me. This was particularly distressing to me as I knew this was going to be an extremely high-profile and complex case with unbelievable assets at stake. Then, without preamble or warning, in one brief instant, the tide turned.
Both of the double doors in the back of my courtroom swung open at the same time. I was reaching for my gavel to admonish my two loyal and long-time bailiffs, Jim and Paul, who knew better than to open the doors while court was in session, when it happened.
Out of nowhere appeared an immaculately dressed gentleman who majestically—almost regally—strode down the center aisle of my courtroom. His ebony skin virtually glowed with energy, and the fire in his eyes was evident to all in attendance. As he slid behind the table on the defendant's side of the aisle, he announced what I and every student of the law already knew.
"Your Honor, I am Theodore J. Hamilton of Hamilton, Hamilton, and Hamilton, for the defense."CHAPTER 2
LIFE IS A JOURNEY AND A DESTINATION
The shock of Hamilton's grand entrance reverberated throughout the courtroom. As I pounded my gavel and called for order, I could hear Jason Stevens excitedly exclaim, "Mr. Hamilton, I couldn't reach you. I thought you were lost."
Hamilton smiled wisely and replied, "Young man, there is a vast difference between being lost and simply not wishing to be found."
Before the court could fully come to order, L. Myron Dudly jumped to his feet and declared, "Your Honor, I most vigorously object to this theatrical and disrespectful display exhibited by opposing counsel."
Theodore J. Hamilton slowly rose as the courtroom grew silent. He addressed me but glared across the aisle at Dudly in much the same way that someone would look at an unknown foreign object stuck to the sole of their shoe.
"Your Honor, it was not my intention to upset, intimidate, nor agitate opposing counsel by simply walking into the courtroom."
Mr. Dudly visibly reddened and raised his voice in anger. "Your Honor, I must most vigorously object."
I pounded my gavel for order. I stared sternly at both lawyers then motioned to them as I spoke. "Counsel will approach the bench."
Excerpted from The Ultimate Life by Jim Stovall. Copyright © 2007 Jim Stovall. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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