Fatal Perfection

Don Crowder was obsessed with being the best--as a lawyer, family man, and friend. So why did he kill himself?

"Crowder and Curtis knew I had been planning to run since I was in law school," says Mattox, who now lives in Austin. "We worked out an arrangement convenient for all three: I would be the firm's rainmaker and attract the business. Don handled the civil litigation, and Curtis did the corporate."

Crowder built his practice with workers' comp and personal-injury cases, believing himself to be a champion of the underdog, the lost cause. He personalized his clients' problems, fighting for them as though his own life were on the line. There was no middle ground for Don Crowder. If you attacked his client, you attacked him.

"When he was your lawyer, he was a passionate advocate for you," says friend and Collin County attorney Howard Shapiro. "When he was your opponent, he was tenacious."

Crowder was the kind of lawyer who could think outside the box because he didn't acknowledge that the box even existed, often coming up with novel legal theories that neither the Legislature nor the courts recognized. But his clients loved having someone who would fight for them, and he quickly built a successful practice.

"Don could not abide the thought of not winning," says Frank Jackson. "His approach to law was full-steam ahead, and not too much compromising. When he ran, he ran like a marathon runner. When he decided to lose weight, he looked almost anorexic. Everything he did--in his practice, in his life--was extreme."

By the mid-'70s, Crowder & Mattox had grown into a six-person law firm, and they bought a building just outside downtown Dallas on Cedar Springs. The firm would later open a second office in Allen to take care of its Collin County business. Crowder, forever conscious of his looks, kept his year-round tan by lying on the roof of his Dallas office, often coming to work in the same sweat pants and running shoes he used to jog around Turtle Creek. His overarching intensity set the tone in the firm.

"He was very demanding--he was a perfectionist and volatile," says Deborah Blackshear, his legal assistant for 28 years. "He would explode over something, but when it was over, he forgot all about it...Underneath all that, he was a good and caring person."

Generous to a fault, Crowder hired his own mother, Tynie, to work for him, but they had trouble getting along. "Don and Tynie were a lot alike in the anger department," remembers Carol Crowder. "They would get mad at each other, and he would fire her. He'd fire his own mother. She was just like him; she refused to be fired. He must have fired her about four or five times, but she never quit."

Never quitting was a Crowder family credo--and a sermon Don constantly preached to his kids as they grew older. Don and Carol had three more children, a son, Austin, and two daughters--one of whom died as a toddler in a tragic accident in their Dallas home. The accident made Crowder want to sell the house and drew him closer to realizing his nostalgic notion of raising his kids in the Texas countryside, much like his father had been raised.

In 1970, the Crowders built a home amid the brushy farmland of Lucas, Texas. Allen, the closest town, had 2,500 people at the time, and only one grocery store. As the community grew, so did his influence on those around him.

By the late 1970s, Crowder had become the municipal judge in both Lucas and Seagoville as well as Allen's city attorney. Allen's city judge at the time, Shapiro, says, "Crowder got pretty feisty on people, and you have to understand we are talking here about speeding tickets and dog-leash violations. He was aggressive even as city attorney."

But if he was on your side, if you were a kid in trouble, someone who needed direction, a mentor, Crowder would be there for you.

"There isn't a week that I don't think of Donnie, his generosity, and what he did for me," says Greg Ziegler, staring at a photo of himself and his brother Jason after the UT-SMU football game in which they played opposite each other. "None of this would have been possible if it had not been for Don."

The Ziegler brothers were among the many kids growing up in the Allen area in the late '70s and '80s who benefited from Crowder's fanaticism for children's sports. He saw in the teenagers he coached the fiercely determined athlete he had been, and Crowder gave them every opportunity, offering them coaching, money, emotional support, and in the case of the Ziegler brothers and a handful of others, a home.

From the time his own kids were old enough to join peewee football, baseball, or basketball leagues, Crowder became an untiring coach. He established and financed Allen's Striding Eagles track and field program and coached it for 15 years--even painted yard lines on his street so kids could use it for training. The Striding Eagles became so successful that several of the participating kids--including Don's daughter Christy--went on to receive college scholarships.

"Donnie could have been a giant in the legal profession if he had wanted to be," says Mattox. "But his greatest pleasure in life was kids' sports, and seeing not just his kids but all the kids that he saw as his own be successful."

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