By George Stevenson, WDTN
My life in 1982 was in a bit of turmoil. I had recently gotten married and was working as in-house counsel for a regional furniture retailer. My position included a lot of collection work – beating up on debtors in state and bankruptcy courts. I was not unhappy but I was not comfortable with my work – it was clear that this was not to be my career path.
The Chapter 13 Trustee in Memphis in 1982 had served since 1938 and had started administering cases on her dining room table.Over time her caseload grew and she maintained about 2000 square feet in the federal building which housed the Bankruptcy Court. With the enactment of the bankruptcy code in 1978 and the emergence of attorney advertising, the caseload erupted and my predecessor struggled to administer 9000 cases (I believe the 3rd largest trusteeship). Interestingly, she was offered a buyout package. My,my – how things have changed.
I saw an opportunity. Recently appointed Judge David Kennedy was acting Chief Judge while Judge Leffler was recuperating from surgery. Judge Kennedy and I were involved in a few minor matters when he was in private practice. I told him of my interest – he encouraged me to apply. Apparently he was impressed with my veteran status and the fact that I had received an MA from the UT Austin, or maybe he just felt sorry for me; I was offered the position. Interestingly Judge Leffler didn’t believe I should be paid more than the clerk and was to receive $30,000 annually (maximum allowed at that time was $60,000). I took a pay cut and took the position.
One of the things that attracted me to the position was the sorry state that existed. There was no longer room for failure.No one from the trustee’s office had ever appeared in court. It had reached the point where creditor lawyers subpoenaed the trustee to appear and testify. My first day in court in early May, 1982, we had 3 trials before Judge Leffler. I appeared and the court promptly sought my input and quickly adopted my recommendations. We had no third trial as the lawyers sought a recess and wanted to know my recommendation. From day one I have had the complete trust of the bench.I understood that that trust also brought responsibility.
The overall office administration was in shambles. We immediately undertook the creation of a new computer system. The existing system looked like an oversized Singer sewing machine in which you fed large yellow cards. Upon insertion, after much buzzing and humming, a minor miracle occurred and you were told how much to pay to each individual creditor in the case. Small wonder disbursements were sporadic. The initial system was built on a 40 megabyte computer built by Shasta (I believe they made truck bed covers during the day). It was little better than the sewing machine. Not to be deterred we quickly moved to bigger and better and more reliable systems, but memory space and system speed were issues for many years.
One of the early versions required100 hours for the disbursement calculation. There was an energy crisis during this period and federal buildings had to set their temperatures in the 80s. Overheating plays hell with processors and required us to restart the disbursement program from the beginning. Poor Fran Hurst gave her heart and soul to making it work. I am proud to say that we never missed a timely disbursement since my appointment. With refined programming and the reliability of IBM equipment we started to attract the interest of other trustees who were looking for a viable internal computer system. This resulted in the emergence of Data Concepts and later BSS to provide computer programming and support to many trustees.
Whatever success I have enjoyed has been the product of those surrounding me. I inherited some really wonderful folks from my predecessor. Unfortunately, the staff was virtually untrained. New hires under my predecessor would learn their jobs by whispering back and forth. There was over a half million dollars in the expense fund yet employees had to bring stubs in order to get new pencils. Old school – no doubt. With a staff of twenty I had only one black employee. We undertook an aggressive path toward the hiring of minority. I wanted the office to look like our community. Arrogantly, I believed I could hire off the street and make them into my image. It didn’t take long to realize that attitude was the only important criteria.
When I took the position, we did banking business with a regional bank. At the time we were processing about $15 million annually. We peaked out at $200 million a few years later. The account manager and I had a disagreement over whether they could get the monthly bank statements to me or whether I needed to pick them up (an elevator ride of 13 floors). Gentleman told me that I could not move the money because the judge said the money had to be at his bank. Needless to say I met with John Fisher with First Tennessee Bank the next day and the funds were moved as soon as possible. John, with the help of FedEX, was able to create a nationwide system of processing trustee deposits.
Hank Hildebrand and I were appointed on the same day as you now know if you have been looking at the ConsiderChapter13 blog. Hank is one of the best lawyers I have met. He truly qualifies as a legal scholar. I am not and do not want to be a legal scholar. For me there is too much uncertainty. I fancy myself to be a good systems guy who can solve problems. I attribute this to my years working in an Air Force accounting office. Military administration relies on the basics. In other words, keep it simple stupid. I love problem solving.
In the military we had a department called Document Control. Document flow and security is vastly underrated. I have seen offices flounder because documents were simple unfindable. If you think about a trustee’s office, there are essentially 4 documents of importance: petition, claim, orders, and checks. They must have a daily path they can travel with no catch points. My staff had to learn that big piles on their desk would not be tolerated. You got one pile and it must get smaller and not bigger. I owned the desks and only personal items were allowed in the desk. Yes – I searched the desk after hours but staff knew that was a possibility. Over time, with imaging (Amrane Cohen broke that ground) a lot of the document controls were incorporated into the software. Without physical documents I got to go home a little earlier.
I hope you have gleaned from this narrative that these were extremely happy years for me. I didn’t mind the 80 hour weeks because I was truly doing important work. I learned early that patience was paramount. Calculate your responses. Words have consequences. People’s feelings do count. Perhaps you can sense that I am trying to wrap this up. Before doing so I would like to recognize a few very important contributors to my career:
My sweet wife Debbie has stood by me through it all. There has been no one more supportive. She has been chief counsel for 34 of the 40 years providing quiet, behind the scenes leadership.
Judge David Kennedy is responsible for my initial appointment. He retired last year after providing enlightened leadership for over 40 years. He is a true mentor, gentlemen, and friend (also legal scholar).
Judge George Emerson, co-trustee, law partner, and friend who was smart enough to let me run our shared offices.
Harold J. Barkley, the trustee in Jackson, Mississippi, who trudged with me the halls of Congress for 2 years fighting to keep trustees independent. Harold taught me the meaning of “bulldog”.
Judge Brian Lynch, the former trustee in Portland, Oregon, with whom I shared some truly important accomplishments, both with the preservation of the NDC but more importantly forcing the mortgage industry to offer loan modifications to Chapter 13 debtors.
In wrapping up, as I prepare to forward this to dear Regina, I am executing a letter to the UST advising of my resignation effective September 30, 2022. I will maintain an abbreviated role with the NDC so I will continue to have a voice. Thank you all for the great times and friendships that we have shared. I am comfortable that the future of Chapter 13 is in very capable hands. Good luck all.