Y.You may not know who Leon Jaworski was – but as a Houstonian, you probably should.
“He was one the architects behind Houston as a world-class city, ”said Steve Dillard, Partner at Norton Rose Fulbright. From the 1950s to 1970s, Dillard explains, “Jaworski’s fingerprints were on almost every consequence that happened in Houston.”
Still nothing? Perhaps that will help. In addition to being a named partner in one of the most famous litigation in America (Fulbright and Jaworski at the time), Jaworski also served as independent councilor (think Robert Mueller) during the Watergate scandal. He was also a close friend and trusted advisor to former Presidents Lyndon Johnson and George HW Bush. Miller says, “I think they came up with the term trusted advisor to describe someone like him.”
Jaworski was born in Waco. His father was a preacher and Jaworski remained a devout Christian all his life. At 19, he became the youngest person to ever be admitted to the bar in the state of Texas. He tried cases in his early twenties, including defending a young African American for murder that didn’t make him friends. “In the 1920s, Waco was Klan territory,” Miller explained.
In fact, the young attorney was known for his willingness to take on the difficult cases, seemingly untouched by the political winds that often swirled around him. He even wrote an article for the American Bar Association Journal in 1961 called “The Unpopular Cause”. It prompted the federal government to ask him to represent them against the state of Mississippi in the event a young black man was denied access to the University of Mississippi. He won.
“That wasn’t a very popular thing to do in the legal community in Houston in the early 1960s,” Miller says.
But it was the Watergate indictment that put him at the forefront of American politics. After the well-documented Friday night massacre, when the entire team of prosecutors was banned by then-President Richard Nixon, Jaworski was set up as an independent council. Not long after, he argued in the Supreme Court to bring out the now infamous tapes starring Nixon as a co-conspirator in the Watergate break-in.
He embodies the epitome of Houstonian: someone who was not born or raised here, but came here and who, through his talent and ambition, has not only shaped his profession, but also the city, his state and his country.
After Nixon resigned, Jaworski was forced to indict the former president, but he refused, saying he did not believe Nixon could get a fair trial, so he returned to Houston. His diligence in prosecuting the White House was as unpopular with supporters of the president as his decision not to prosecute Nixon was unpopular with his critics.
It was clear that Jaworski was a man driven by the law and a sense of fairness that was rare then and is rare today. “He had a command presence,” says Miller. “He was a natural leader. But he was also humble and treated others with courtesy and respect. “
That brings us back to his adopted home. While he was too young for what many history buffs imagine as the cigar-filled room at the Rice Hotel with early Houston realtors like Jesse H. Jones and George R. Brown, he was certainly part of a second wave of influential business and political leaders, that changed the landscape of the city.
He was president of the Houston Chamber of Commerce (now known as the Greater Houston Partnership), the Rotary Club, the Houston Chapter of the Red Cross, and the Baylor Medical Foundation. He was a trustee with the MD Anderson Foundation, Baylor College of Medicine, and Texas Medical Center, a position in which he was a major influence.
Although he was not from Houston and eventually passed away on his Wimberley ranch at the age of 77, he loved his adopted home and this was evident from the fingerprints he left. Miller recognizes a Houston man in Jaworski.
“He embodies the epitome of Houstonian: someone who was not born or raised here, but came here and who, through his talent and ambition, has not only shaped his profession, but also the city, his state and his country.”
Almost 40 years have passed since his death in 1983. If you didn’t know beforehand who Leon Jaworski was, you might be forgiven. But his legacy demands that we all take notice.
“He was called every time something important was going on in Houston,” says Miller. “He really was one of the giants in town.”