• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Reflecting on his life as a small-town attorney


MARK GORMLEY is pictured in front of the Woodford County Courthouse several years ago with, from left, Terrell Renfro, former Kentucky Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo and Toni Curtis, wife of well-known Versailles photographer Jim Curtis. Gormley concluded his tenure as Woodford County attorney in 1993, realizing it he was "ready to call it quits" with major changes coming to that elected office. (Photo submitted)

Longtime Woodford County Attorney Mark Gormley no longer works full-time. Yet at age 83, he continues handling cases as a private attorney practicing law in his hometown. "It gets me up in the morning," says Gormley. "If I stayed in the bed awhile," he adds, "soon I wouldn't be able to get out of the damn bed," and besides, he says, "I enjoy people." Gormley takes pride in knowing he always tried to treat everyone equally. He didn't care if you were a federal judge or a town drunk whom he prosecuted in Woodford District Court "over and over again" as county attorney, who once told him: "You were always so fair." "That came from his heart. And that's why I cherish that compliment more than (one coming from) some big shot," says Gormley during a recent interview in his Versailles home. Looking back at his law career, he says, "I've always been a sole practitioner. I've never been a partner with anyone. I had a general, small-town practice." Deeds, wills and probate cases (the legal process of administering estates) kept him busy at his Versailles law practice, and Gormley never shied away from long hours or hard work. Elected Woodford County attorney in 1973 - a position he held for two decades - Gormley only had opposition on two occasions while being elected and reelected to the office five times. One opponent argued that he had too many jobs: county attorney, master commissioner, director for savings and loan, and a hearing officer for the state Cabinet for Environmental Protection, in addition to maintaining his private law practice. "I acquitted myself very well in whatever I did," remembers Gormley. "And through the years, I'm happy to say . I'm a very thorough attorney," as one recent client told someone. His work ethic - "I never saw an eight-hour day" - came from not wanting to do less than his best for clients, whether he was defending them or their rights in a criminal or civil case. He was always compelled to "cover every aspect of a case" in order to do right by anyone that he represented in court. "I didn't play poker on Tuesday night. I didn't go golfing on Saturday morning. I didn't play tennis on Sunday. I worked. And that was my life, but I enjoyed it very much," he explains. Gormley concluded his tenure as Woodford County attorney in 1993, realizing it he was "ready to call it quits" with major changes coming to that elected office. 'Homesick' After earning his law degree at the University of Kentucky in 1965, then-32-year-old Gormley and his family (wife JoAnn and their three young children) moved from his native Kentucky to Denver, Colo., for a good-paying job with a firm specializing in oil and gas law. "I only stayed one year in Denver, and got homesick quite frankly.," Gormley remembers, "but it was a good experience in Denver." During his year there, he argued his first-ever case in federal court - the U.S. Court of Appeals, "just one rung down from the U.S. Supreme Court." Gormley volunteered his services as a public defender, doing pro-bono work for inmates serving federal prison sentences. He never anticipated being in the same federal courtroom as Edward Bennett Williams, a prominent Washington, D. C., trial attorney who represented high-profile clients including Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Hoffa. And he never anticipated the chief judge telling him that it was the court's practice to allow an unpaid attorney to argue his case first - even before a prominent attorney such as Williams. Gormley politely declined the offer because he wanted to see the other more experienced attorneys argue their cases. But after the judge repeated the court's practice, Gormley agreed to argue his case - first. "Well, I don't remember much about my argument," he says, "but I had worked hard. And when I got through with (my case), the chief judge leaned over the bench (to tell him), 'Mr. Gormley, it's obvious to the court that you have been well-prepared and worked very hard for your client. And the court appreciates that. And we would hope to see you back soon with a paid client.' "That was a nice compliment." While acknowledging the butterflies in his stomach that day, Gormley likens his first experience as an attorney arguing a case in front of a judge to playing football. "Once you get that first lick or two - why then you're on your way," he says. Asked why he chose a career in law, Gormley says matter-of-factly: "To make enough money to put my children through school." Gormley knew his income as a state geologist - earning about $400 a month in 1961 - wouldn't pay the cost of educating his first child, Mark Jr., from first-grade through college. He came to this conclusion after reading an article on the subject in Reader's Digest. Gormley knew he needed to earn a master's degree in geology to secure a higher-paying job with a major oil company like Mobile, but he didn't want to travel the globe. So instead of writing his thesis and earning a master's degree, he chose to instead pursue a career in law. Getting into University of Kentucky's law school began with an unexpected meeting with its dean, William Matthews. "You couldn't . do this today (any more) than you could fly to the moon," Gormley says, before repeating the words of encouragement he heard that day from Matthews: "Mr. Gormley, I think you ought to go to law school." Those words of encouragement made Gormley's decision for him, telling his wife: "I better go." In the years since his conversation with Matthews, Gormley has come to the conclusion that the dean needed to bolster enrollment if he wanted a new law school facility. And sure enough, Gormley's class was the last to graduate from the old Lafferty Hall. 'Blessed' Both of Gormley's sons, John Michael and Mark Jr., finished medical school, and his daughters, Tamra Gormley and Kathleen Johnson, finished law school without owing any student loans because of their father's determination to earn enough while practicing law to pay for their educations as undergraduate and graduate students. "So I was blessed to be able to do that," he says. Gormley says he's not proud of his daughters because they followed in his footsteps and earned law degrees. He's proud of them because of what they did with their law degrees. His oldest daughter, former Woodford Family Court Judge Tamra Gormley, "devoted her entire adult life to helping people who have no voice." His youngest daughter spent her working career teaching others at Northern Kentucky University's Chase College of Law. 'We didn't have much' During the depression, Gormley remembers his parents welcoming hungry transients into their home. "We didn't have much to eat," he recalls, "but my mother would fix them peanut butter and jelly (sandwiches) or something, and send them on their way." Dorothy and John Gormley taught their children to always be thankful for what they had, and to share what they had with people who had less opportunity than them. His mom lost her sight when she was 39 years old, but still managed to raise her children because she "never quit," says Mark Gormley. "I hope I live up to her admonishment." In recent years, Gormley's hearing, voice and sense of smell have been affected by Parkinson's disease. Spinal stenosis and other skeletal problems have impaired his ability to walk without the aid of a walker, but the longtime county attorney remains dedicated to his clients while continuing his work as a small-town attorney. "The people of this county have been extremely good to me," says Gormley before adding, "I've always been willing to help anyone that I'm able to help."

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