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Walter Umphrey

Born:  May 13, 1936 - Port Arthur, Texas

Died:   September 7, 2021 - Port Arthur, Texas

Walter grew up in Port Arthur, Texas. He and his sister Carolyn were raised by their beloved stepfather, Justice of the Peace Judge Fulton Lee, and their mother, Grace Gardner Umphrey Judge Lee was a wonderful and highly respected pillar of the community.  

Walter graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in 1954. 

He was the Sportswriter and Editor of the Pilot, the school newspaper, in high school, in his senior year. That year he was also elected into Senior Court royalty As Gentleman in Waiting. He also wrote Game stories for each football game featured in the Yellow Jacket Class Annuals. In his senior year, Walter loved football and was an All-District Guard and All-State Second Team. Growing up, he made time to play and to work side jobs to save up for things he wanted. Walter used to paint houses to make some extra money.


After Graduating High School, Walter went to SMU on a Football Scholarship but later transferred to Baylor University, where he graduated in 1959. earning his BBA.

Walter Umphrey's wife, Shelia Umphrey, was a powerful force in his life; some say he met his match in her. They first met Walter when he was a Junior in College and had come home from Baylor. 


Walter had a strong work ethic and worked 12-hour days. So many of his accomplishments are remarkable. He was a trailblazer in his profession. He was known for his landmark work that resulted in huge early judgments and settlements of Asbestos that harmed workers. Walter is also known for representing the State of Texas by taking on the HUGE Tobacco Industry. 


He did what no one said could be done. That 1995 landmark case resulted in Big Tobacco settling for $17.3 billion, the largest legal settlement in American history. Umphrey ultimately ascended to the summit of legal history. In 1998, he served as the lead counsel of the five-man "dream team" of lawyers selected to represent the State of Texas in its historic lawsuit against the tobacco industry. Walter Umphrey engineered the largest civil suit settlement in U.S. history in this role. It later became the Template for settlements for the other 49 states against BIG Tobacco that ended up reaching a 25-year, $246 billion deal with the country's largest tobacco companies. The staggering sum was intended to hold the industry accountable for the lethal effects of smoking and provide support for anti-tobacco programs.


According to one of his Partners, "Walter has always been a visionary leader amongst lawyers. Asbestos, toxic torts, tobacco – you name it- and Walter led the charge. He has been bigger than life, a real lion of the bar. What a giant!"

Walter was recognized as a "Legal Legend" in June 2000 by Texas Lawyer magazine. In the company of other luminary trial attorneys, Umphrey was rightly placed among the "Top Texas Lawyers of the 20th Century". In 2010 its "Special 25th Anniversary Issue," Texas Lawyer again recognized Umphrey, naming him one of the twenty-five greatest Texas Lawyers of the past quarter century. He was included on the exclusive list of Texas Super Lawyers from 2003-2004 and again from 2006-2015. Additionally, he was listed as a "Best Lawyer" by U.S. News & World Report from 1991-2016.


A long-time Texas Trial Lawyers Association member, Umphrey was granted Board Emeritus status and received the TTLA's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015. He was also a Fellow of the International Society of Barristers, a Fellow of the Texas Bar Foundation, and an American Board of Trial Advocates member. These associations and memberships merely hint at the giant footprint that Umphrey's long, illustrious legal career leaves behind.


Walter's staff often, unbeknownst to many, would witness him reaching out and repeatedly helping people across the region, many of whom he did not even know. He may hear of their difficulties and would do something to help them, often some with special monetary needs. Today we often would refer to it as paying it forward, but Walter would often see a need and quietly step in and help. Of his many observed traits, he described Walters's personal commitment to return every call he received, if not that very day, in a timely fashion.

Walter was a boy from Port Arthur, Texas, that accomplished so much, but more importantly, Walter built relationships and lifelong friends. He was able to relate to everyone because of his common humanity and was known to listen. Walter always remembered where he came from. Walter and Sheila always remembered their friends and their hometown area. Walter was the trail-blazing champion of the working man. Thomas Walter Umphrey was a once-in-a-generation transformational leader. 


Shelia's comment about her relationship with Walter was that 

He was her best friend and the love of her life for 63 years, married for 61, but started dating two years before that. He was not only a legend in his profession but a legend to me personally. He loved being considered a champion for the working people."

L-R Coach Jimmy Johnson, Comedian Don Rickles, Walter and Dallas Cowboys Owner Jerry Jones at the Walther Umphrey Roast to benifit the Museum.

Walter and Shelia Umphrey

Walter Umphrey - Hometown Roast

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