For Delaware Circuit Court Judge Marianne Vorhees, the memory is still vivid.
On one side was her mentor, attorney Frank Gilkison Jr., and on the other side was then-Henry Circuit Judge John Kellam, both arguing over what was and was not law in the state of Indiana.
They were heated and impassioned, going back and forth, voices rising, each insisting his view was right and the other’s was wrong.
Vorhees, then a young attorney who had just started practicing at Gilkison’s firm, Beasley & Gilkison in Muncie, was stunned by the display, as well as a little scared. What happened next surprised her even more.
After the pair exhausted their fight – the judge won – both shook hands and laughed.
During his more than 60 years as a lawyer, Gilkison gained a reputation as one of the great litigators in Indiana. Gilkison used his trial skills to fight big battles, like those for county welfare workers and beer wholesalers, along with smaller disputes, like a personal injury claim for a woman hurt by falling glass or a farmer seeking restitution for cows made sick by contaminated feed.
Vorhees observed Gilkison’s lawyering skills during the argument with Kellam, but she also saw he was civil and respectful to his opponents. He was tenacious in the courtroom, but once outside he would smile and engage in friendly conversation with opposing counsel.
His professionalism and congeniality, along with his abilities and accomplishments as an attorney, have earned him special recognition from the Indiana legal community.
Gilkison, 87, has been named the 2014 Indiana Bar Foundation Legendary Lawyer. The award honors Hoosier attorneys who have built a legal career of 50 years or more that embodies the highest principles and traditions of the profession.
He is the first recipient of the award from Delaware County.
As others praise his legal work, Gilkison credits his career to the telephone. He was in the office to answer the phone when people needing help called.
One of those calls came in 1972 from the director of the Delaware County Welfare Department. The director was complaining about local welfare workers being paid less than their state counterparts.
Gilkison met with the director and then traveled to Indianapolis to talk to other county welfare workers. By the end of those conversations, he said, it was clear to him that the state had violated the law.
He represented the county workers all the way to the Indiana Court of Appeals in State of Indiana v. King, 413 N.E. 2d 1016 (Ind. Ct. App. 1980). Gilkison successfully argued the salary schedule for the local welfare employees was separate and unequal to the schedule for state employees and, therefore, violated the State Personnel Act and Indiana Personnel Board Rule 4-2.
A key hurdle in the class action was calculating the amount of back pay the welfare workers were owed. Throughout the litigation, the attorneys never knew the exact amount of money involved because, in those days before computers, even formulating an estimate was difficult.
The Indiana attorney general, at one point, called Gilkison and his co-counsel to a meeting in Indianapolis and presented its estimate that the state was liable for $30 million.
However, the attorney general never made a settlement offer. Instead, Gilkison called upon a Columbus company that had the computers to figure out the money owed. The final figure to compensate the thousands of employees who had been underpaid during a 15-year period was set at $18 million.
Gilkison believes that may have been his biggest case in terms of money, but his other cases were just as hard fought. There were times when he was surprised he won a particular case, he recalls, and other times he was surprised that he lost.
Always, colleagues said, Gilkison was prepared.
Attorney Robert Beasley, son of Gilkison’s law partner John Beasley, worked at the firm for 11 years. He described Gilkison as a student of the law and, when working on a case, he would identify the issue then very thoroughly research the matter. In court, Gilkison used this preparation to be a great advocate for his clients.
Those advocacy skills helped Gilkison win a case for a woman who suffered a long-term disability when a 14-foot wall of glassware in a retail store gave way and fell on her. After two years, the glass company agreed to settle for $14,000, but by that time Gilkison’s client was not interested.
Unsure how sympathetic a jury would be, Gilkison got testimony from doctors who described the woman’s continuing medical ailments and from her friends who talked about the woman’s inability to enjoy her favorite activities.
The jury returned a verdict for the woman for $107,000.
Outside the courtroom, Gilkison is just as competitive. Beasley recalled times he and his brothers would be playing basketball in their backyard and Gilkison, having come to his parents’ house for a cocktail party, would shed his sport coat and join the game.
Gilkison grew up in southwestern Indiana in Daviess County where he played on the high school basketball team and listened to his father’s stories from his law practice. His father, Frank Gilkison Sr., former justice on the Indiana Supreme Court, told his son the key to becoming a great trial lawyer was watching other attorneys in court and trying cases himself.
Since being admitted to the bar in 1950, Gilkison has honed his litigation techniques and, perhaps unknowingly, set an example for other attorneys to follow.
Judi Calhoun, chief deputy prosecutor in Delaware County and the president of Indiana Bar Foundation’s board of directors, never encountered Gilkison in the courtroom but she quickly learned of his reputation. She called him a classic, gentleman lawyer who is respectful to other attorneys, nice to clients and witnesses, and always professional.
Knowing the influence Gilkison has had, Calhoun nominated him for the legendary lawyer award. She highlighted his cases as well as his friendly demeanor that, she said, is often missing among today’s attorneys.
Fittingly, she notified Gilkison of his award with a phone call. The elder attorney, as he had been through much of his career, was near the telephone when it rang.
The award came as a surprise and has Gilkison feeling deeply honored. At the upcoming bar foundation reception, he plans to talk about some of the phone calls he received, the cases he handled and how being named a legendary lawyer is a great capstone to his career.•