Longform

Fatal Perfection

Page 3 of 9

During his third year in law school, he started dating Carol Parker, a high school classmate who was now divorced with two young children, Rhonda and Jimmy. They married on August 24, 1968, only months after his law school graduation. "That was before everybody was getting divorced, and marrying people with children was unusual," recalls Carol Crowder. "Everybody thought he was crazy, taking on so much."

But Crowder was so committed to winning by the force of his will (or his fists, if that was the only way to settle the matter), he never seemed dogged by everyday anxieties. Seldom did he show fear. Three months out of law school, he began his own practice, even though it meant giving up the security of a job with an established law firm.

"Donnie never could work for anyone but Donnie," says attorney Greg Ziegler, whom Crowder coached as a child. "He had to be the boss."

In 1970, to satisfy his own ambitions, Crowder formed a partnership with a former law school classmate, Jim Mattox, and an older lawyer, John Allen Curtis. Mattox, just as driven as Crowder, had spent two years in the Dallas County District Attorney's office and now set his sights on the Legislature.

"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.

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Juliana Barbassa