Words by Al Blanton | Images by Blakeney Cox
A little over a year ago, inside a wood-washed dining hall deep in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, Phil Laird slumped over in his chair. Phil and his wife, Nancy, had been enjoying a lovely dinner and visiting with a couple from Boone, NC, who were seated at the table next to them. Chance as the meeting might have been, the couple requested Phil’s business card because their daughter, a student at the University of Alabama, had already received a ticket and may need future legal assistance. Then Phil “kind of propped his head down and I punched his arm,” Nancy said. “When he looked up, I could see that he had the stroke.”
That was August 24, 2016. For the last year, Phil has resided at Ridgeview Health Services, where he entertains nurses and takes frequent escapes to local knick-knack stores and Burger King. Around him, his tight-knight family has rallied: Nancy, his adoring wife of fifty years; Andy, his firstborn, a successful lawyer and accomplished marathon runner; Wells, his only daughter, the apple of his eye and a teacher who lives in Akron, Alabama; and Matthew, the youngest, an established financier at Raymond James in Birmingham. Phil was recently crowned as Ridgeview’s “Prom King” and bestowed a shiny sash. He takes it all in stride.
Phil arrived at Ridgeview as one of the most respected and hardest working attorneys in the history of this county, his legacy to the Jasper legal community unparalleled. But the stroke has debilitated the once-diligent barrister to the extent that he has to travel by wheelchair and simple acts such as eating and drinking have become laborious. He can no longer practice law. It’s safe to say that this medical setback was not what Phil—or the Laird family for that matter—had in mind for the dusk of his career.
Phil Laird grew up near Cordova in a little community called Riceston, just off Gardner’s Gin Road. “It was a simple life but a good life,” Phil recalls. Phil’s world rotated around church, around hunting and fixing things. He loved to squirrel hunt with his father, and his mother, a religious woman, encouraged her son to stay inside in the evenings, unless he was going to the church house, in which case he was allowed to go six nights a week.
Because of his father’s influence, Phil loved to work with his hands. He’d take things apart and put them back together. Things that don’t work, make them work again. Old cars and such. “My father didn’t have much of an education, but he could do anything. Plumbing, electrical work,” Phil said.
As soon as Phil was of age, he began to work odd jobs in the Cordova area. He worked at E.K. Barnes Grocery and even drove the school bus some while he was in high school. From time to time, he’d mule-plow fields and cut grass for neighbors.
“It was just a real humble kind of beginning,” Phil said.
In 1961, Phil matriculated under the respected thumb of Cordova High School’s principal, Mr. Wilburn Hudson. He attended Walker College and for a time thought about becoming an engineer until a professor, Mr. Winfred Sandlin, instilled in him a craving for the law. Sandlin, a history professor at Walker College, was intrigued with U.S. Supreme Court cases and imparted this fascination into the minds of his young pupils.
“That just hooked me,” Phil says.
So Phil moved on to the University of Alabama and prepared for a career in law. Graduating in 1966, he was accepted to Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham. By that time, Phil had been introduced to Nancy Goodwyn, and the two were married on August 19, 1967.
While attending law school, Phil worked forty hours a week and Nancy taught school at Curry Elementary near the Birmingham airport. The newlyweds lived at Fox Hall apartments in Crestline and somehow made ends meet. At one point, times were so tough that Nancy refused to turn on the air conditioning until she saw Phil pulling up into the parking lot of the apartment complex at the end of a hot day.
After graduating from law school and passing the Bar exam, Phil and Nancy moved back to Walker County. Phil went in with Hoyt Elliot Sr., who already had a thriving legal practice in an office on the second floor of the Blanton Building in downtown Jasper. Phil now says he appreciates that Hoyt had enough confidence in him to “turn him loose” in the Walker County legal scene and do what needed to be done to build a successful practice.
In the 1970s, the thirty-five or so attorneys practicing law facilitated a strong legal climate—a handshake romanticism, if you will—as honesty and mutual respect flowed between offices. “There was a camaraderie,” Phil recalls. “You’d call someone down the street if you needed something, and they’d bring it to you.”
Across the years, Phil did a lot of work for school boards and represented several corporations throughout the state. “Whatever came in the door that was productive and legal, we tried to handle it,” Phil says. A fierce advocate, Phil worked tirelessly at his cases and attacked each project as if it were his own.
After 13 years with Hoyt Elliott, Phil and fellow attorney Hank Wiley launched the firm of Laird & Wiley, later adding Russ Robertson as partner. In 2001, Phil and Russ formed Laird & Robertson. Phil had the pleasure of practicing with the following attorneys throughout his career: Ken Guin, Nathan Bellville, Colby Bellville, Carrie Lawson, Scott Johnson, and Steve Byars.
“Besides being one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever met, what really stands out about Phil is how, no matter the situation, he always tries to treat people the right way, with honesty and respect,” Robertson said. “He is the consummate gentleman. Besides my own father, I’ve learned more from Phil than I have from anyone else, about the practice of law, certainly, but more importantly, about being devoted to family, about being honest—all the time, even if it’s not easy—and about treating people the way they deserve to be treated.”
Although Phil enjoyed working with school boards, his most fulfilling work was with individuals. “Not much pay, but it often involved a very important need,” Phil says. Often, children were involved, cases that involved the legal rights of foster parents.
“He put his whole heart in that,” Nancy said.
Outside of work, Phil enjoyed following the progress of his children. From scouting to marathons to science fairs to beauty pageants, Phil was mad about his kids. “I think they’re the best looking and the brightest and the best,” Phil says reflectively.
The feeling is reciprocated. While touring various shops in Asheville after Phil’s stroke, Wells found a perfect gift for her father, a painted sign that read: “You’re the Dad that everybody wishes they had.”
Nancy, who has been by his side for the last six decades, said, “He’s just a wonderful, loving, giving person.” To that end, Phil always made it a point to help those in need. When the kids were young, Phil would often demonstrate this selfless attitude by taking food to needy families or bicycles to children at Christmas. That mind-set has not been lost on his children, who look for opportunities to make the world a better place.
In his adult years, Phil continued his childhood fascination of working with his hands. In his spare time, he enjoyed woodworking. Building baby cradles, armoires, tables, and tree houses. It was not uncommon for Phil to have 100 hours invested in a project. In a couple of instances, Phil’s creations brought pure comedy to the household. Once, Phil convinced Russ to dress up as Santa Claus and entertain the family—particularly Phil’s young grandson, Miller—at the Laird’s home on the river.
“But how will Santa know where the house is?” Miller inquired.
Phil was taken aback by the question because he hadn’t concocted a plan. So he decided to construct a huge wooden star out of timber. He charged into the woods, axed down a few logs, hung the star and strung Christmas lights on the outside of the home. “When you stood it up, if you were at Martin High School, you could see it,” Phil jokes.
The second comedic anecdote occurred when Phil made a massive armoire out of an old family tree house. “Problem was, when we got through with it, I didn’t think we’d get the damn thing in the house it weighed so much,” Phil says. Not to be undone, Phil acquired an apparatus called a “car creeper” with plastic wheels and wrestled it into the house.
“When you laid it on that, you could roll it to Atlanta,” he says.
As inherently adversarial as the practice of law is, Phil managed to be respected and well-thought-of by his peers. Attorney Eddie Jackson, who has been practicing law in the Jasper community for forty years, said of Phil: “He was tenacious and dogged in his determination. He never quit. But he was also a gentleman. He remained a gentleman and a professional. When you shook Phil’s hand, you had a deal.”
Phil’s life philosophy comes from the text of an old bulletin once sent out by Corinth Baptist Church in Cordova. The bulletin was entitled “The Call” and his father, Homer Laird, was featured as the “Member of the Week” in this particular installment. The piece introduces Homer as the child of Etta George and Rufus Laird, and goes on to say that Homer worked at the Cordova Brick Plant, Barney Mines, and retired from the Gorgas Mines in 1979. But the words of the fourth paragraph hold special significance to his son:
“Homer’s philosophy of life is hard work, if you have a problem settle it before the day is over, help other people, and don’t worry (leave that to your wife). His philosophy on raising children, teach them to work at an early age, assign responsibilities, establish a policy of discipline, and reward them for a job well done.”
Phil is a man who is as comfortable with a compliment as he is a challenge. Recently Phil spoke at a Sunday school class and half of them were crying because Phil admonished them to tell people how much you care about them. He pointed to one man and said, “you need to take your wife out to lunch.” But Phil also has a soothing presence, knowing the importance of inserting a kind word into his encounters.
Because of his humble beginnings, Phil Laird was enlightened with the early understanding that this life is not about him. Phil has embodied the ideals his father held so dear. Hard work. Family. Faith. Treating people right. Those values born in the Riceston fields.
“Whether in the church or the courtroom or at the river, he was the same person,” his son, Matthew, said.
Phil Laird lived one life.
Over the last year, Phil’s absence has been felt in the Jasper community. Things just don’t feel right without the presence of Phil Laird, and small towns seem to ache when those whose lights once shone brightest are absent. Yet he continues to speak to us because his life does not seek fanfare or recognition. He quietly and often, discreetly, goes about the business of helping other people.
And if you want to find him, just follow the star. 78