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Interview with John Burney, April 4, 2002 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with John Burney, April 4, 2002
April 4, 2002
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Interviewee:  Burney, John Interviewer:  Hayes, Sherman / Haas, Michael Date of Interview:  4/4/2002 Series:  Southeast North Carolina (SENC) Length:


Hayes: Okay, today we’re interviewing John Burney, esteemed and famous lawyer of Wilmington and the interviewers today are Sherman Hayes, university librarian and Mike Haas, also a lawyer as John is and resident expert for the interview. I’m the university librarian at UNCW. So thank you John for talking with us.

Burney: Glad to be here.

Hayes: Although we’re concentrating on the law, we would like to start with a sense of how you ended up practicing law in Wilmington.

Hayes: Where did you start out? What were your roots?

Burney: I was born and raised in Wilmington.

Hayes: Oh my goodness, that’s great.

Burney: My father was an attorney and ended up as a judge in Superior Court. My father had a sixth grade education. Born in Bladen County, a little place called Elkin, and he said he quit in the sixth grade cause he knew more than the teacher (laughter). I mean he was serious. He was not being facetious. His name was John Jefferson Burney and he had done a lot of reading as a young boy and he always admired John J. who was the first Supreme Court Justice in the United States so he changed his name to John J. instead of John Jefferson so that’s where I get the John J. Burney cause my daddy had changed his name.

But I want to tell you something. You just introduced me as a lawyer. I’m going to tell you what my daddy told me the day I went to start practicing law. He said, “You’re going down there to open up your law office today. Some fool is liable to walk in there and ask you if you’re a lawyer.” He said, “Don’t you tell him a lie. You tell him you’ve got a license to practice law cause there’s a hell of a lot of difference between a man whose got a license and a real lawyer.” (laughter) So every time anybody’s ever asked me if I’m a lawyer, I always say I’ve got a license.

My father worked for the Atlantic Coastline Railroad. He was in the freight rates and receipts business and was in the Army in World War I. When he came out of the Army, he found out the government had taken over the railroads and overcharged everybody. He knew freight rates and so he opened up a freight audit receipts business and went all over the south auditing people’s freight rates and made a lot of money.

Hayes: So now explain that. Who was he working for then?

Burney: Himself, he formed a company.

Hayes: And he would offer this service to the freight company?

Burney: He said he always totally operated on _______, a _______ more than half and what he’d do, he would go in and audit their freight bills and find out how much the government had overcharged and they’d get half and he’d get half.

Hayes: My goodness.

Burney: And he did that til I was two years old. He started the first U-Drive-It business in North Carolina, but he always wanted to be a lawyer and he sold that and his freight audit and receipts business so he could start practicing law. And he started in Wilmington. When I was two years old, Mr. Rogers here, probably one of the few Republicans there were in New Hanover County back in those days (laughter), had a law school.

My father went there, Aaron Goldberg, a lot of lawyers that are now deceased, Hardy Ferguson, Jimmy Swayles, a lot of the younger people went to Mr. Rogers’ law school. My daddy went to Mr. Rogers’ law school and when he finished there, he went to Wake Forest for one summer school to study for the bar. At that day in time, the Supreme Court would bring in and ask you questions for whether or not you were going to pass the bar or not.

Hayes: Wow.

Burney: And he stood before the Supreme Court after going to Mr. Rogers’ law school and Wake Forest summer school and he passed the bar. And Aaron Goldberg was a great trial lawyer here who used to tell me before they were at the law school, he was running a pool room (laughter). He said he and my father used to get over in the back table in the pool room and discuss different things before they went to Rogers’ class so they’d be prepared and that nobody would ever believe that (laughter).

He came back and he and Colonel R. S. McClelland formed a partnership, Burney and McClelland and their offices were in the Odd Fellows Building which was then at Third and Princess Street right across from the City Hall.

Hayes: Let me ask you about that school because we’ve had other people tell us about it and yet there’s very little record of it, but it must have done a good job. I mean people passed, right?

Burney: Oh it did a great job. Let me see if there’s anybody left alive.

Hayes: Yeah, that’s what we were wondering cause you know Dan Cameron told us about that school. He said he had lawyers he knew and people who went there. It must have been an important ….

Burney: ______, Brown’s dead, ______ dead, Goldberg’s dead, my father’s dead, I don’t believe there’s a lawyer alive now that went there.

Hayes: It’s a little earlier time period. So was it conducted as far as you can tell from your dad’s stories, like any law school with lectures and the drill and …

Burney: You know, I don’t know whether they studied the case law system that I went to school on. That was more of a modern thing. I don’t think my father and them studied under the case law system. I think they memorized what Mr. Rogers told them. But you know, there was another law school in North Carolina in Asheville, a man by the name of Judge Love and he used to give a lot of lawyers after finishing law school, went up there and studied for the bar examination. But we had an excellent course at Wake Forest to study for the bar.

Hayes: So even though Wake Forest was a competitive school, they would offer this course to help everybody get through. They separated those…

Burney: That’s after you graduated from law school and you were getting ready to take the bar examination. Wake Forest, we went to the course at night. Judge Love had this and a lot of lawyers, especially from Duke, cause they didn't teach much North Carolina law at Duke. They went up to Judge Love’s course to learn.

Hayes: And they still had to pass the bar exam, right? It didn't matter how good you were in school, you had to…

Burney: You know, I never took an exam in my life that I didn't know if I passed it or not. I came out of there and told my wife, dry your tears, I passed that thing and I knew I did cause they trained me well at Wake Forest and I knew I passed.

Hayes: So anyway, I didn't mean to get you off there. Your dad’s back and he’s opened an office with Colonel McClelland. And when you say Colonel, was that just…

Burney: He had been in the Army. He came through and formed a National Guard unit. In fact, he joined at WLI as a private, went to France in World War I. He was in the ______ units, one of the first and he stayed in and was made to be a full colonel in the National Guard here. He left here with the National Guard in World War II and served 4-1/2 years in World War II so he was in World War I and World War II.

Hayes: Wow!

Burney: The most honest man I ever knew in my lifetime.

Hayes: And then he came back like your dad.

Burney: He came back and when I graduated from law school, I went in partnership with him, with Colonel McClelland, my father’s former partner. That’s where I started out.

Hayes: Interesting, so he was an elderly gentleman at that point or not? Gee, World War I would make him…

Burney: I have his picture right up on the wall.

Hayes: Well that’s great.

Burney: I always admired him, thought so much of him. Even after I went on my way and he went his way, we stayed inseparable. We were close, close friends.

Hayes: So you were infused with the law then even as a child.

Burney: I was infused with it, but I didn't know what I wanted to do. I went to Wake Forest two years before I made up my mind I wanted to be a lawyer cause I never went and hung around the courthouse. The most embarrassed I was in my whole lifetime, I went to court with my father one time when he was district attorney. He was prosecuting a rape case up in Whiteville, Columbus County.

I went and got me a seat, I didn't think he knew I was in there. They picked the jury and they were getting ready to start and he turned right around in the courthouse and said, “Alright John, stand up and go”. (Laughter) I had to get up in front of all those people and leave the courtroom, but I was embarrassed. I never forgot that.

Hayes: Well why did he want you to go?

Burney: Cause it was such a rotten dirty case, he didn't want me to hear.

Hayes: Oh, he didn't want you to hear it. Oh gosh, you got up and you left (laughter).

Burney: But when I came out of the Army, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I didn't even know if I was going back to school or not. I came home. I got discharged early cause I came home in a hospital ship, got wounded and I didn't do anything but hunt and fish from September 4 until the end of hunting season so I decided to go to college. So my daddy took me to college and I’m glad I went.

Hayes: Were you older at that point since you’d been serving for quite some time in the Army?

Burney: Well I went into the Army when I was 18, I was right at 21.

Hayes: Now was this going to college as an undergraduate?

Burney: Undergraduate.

Hayes: Oh boy.

Burney: See I went straight out of high school into the Army and I went up there and started brand new when all the other bastards, you couldn't buy any clothes back then, you know, we were still wearing khaki pants (laughter) and so forth, but we had a good time.

Hayes: Now Wake Forest at that time, how big was that?

Burney: I was the 1600th student, they had about 2000. I wish I was still in Wake Forest (laughter).

Hayes: Do you think they should change their name to something more honest.

Burney: I think they should change it to _______ (laughter). Move Wake Forest back to where it was.

Hayes: So you went to school, so what major did you take for pre-law? Was there something ….

Burney: Well I was taking primarily government and history courses cause I liked that. I didn't go to school under the GI Bill. I went on what they called Public Law 16, that was for disabled veterans. I automatically got 48 months of schooling plus they paid all my books, all my supplies, that was for disabled veterans. And I took an examination. You had to take one. They said I couldn't go to law school because they said the examination said I ought to be a sailorman.

I called my daddy up (laughter) and said, “I never asked you to use any political influence, but I want to go to law school and I want you to do something.” He called Congressman Clark who was our congressman from Elizabethtown and he made arrangements for me to go down to the Veterans’ Administration in Fayetteville to take the test again. This time I concentrated on it. I don’t know who graded the papers, but it said I could go to law school. (Laughter) That’s how I got to law school.

But Wake Forest was a great school. I loved it, still do, but I wish it was still in Wake Forest.

Hayes: Tell us a little bit about how, as a smaller law school then, you must have known every single…

Burney: Knew everybody there, where they were from and even knew their dogs (laughter). Bill Taylor had a dog named Spike that he had brought back from Germany with him in World War II and old Spike went to class. Right before the bell would ring, every time Spike would take his tail and start hitting the floor and Bill would say, “Alright Spike, I hear the bell” (laughter).

Hayes: That’s great and many of them were veterans just like you?

Burney: About all of them. In fact, we just had, the state boy had us up, the one that’s been practicing law for 50 years, I saw many of my classmates at this 50th…of course a lot of them have gone by the wayside too. But we had a good time, get together and talk with each other.

Hayes: So tell us a little bit about what was law school. This would have been about ’47.

Burney: I graduated in 1951, so I went three years to law school so that took me back to about ’49. I went to Wake Forest in January of 1946, went to some summer school. Back then if you had three years, then you went to law school, they let law school be your major. So I got a BS degree.

Hayes: Oh interesting, so you didn't have to do that four. I think now…

Burney: I didn't have to do the four, I did three. I think they’re required to do the four now, but I only had to make it three.

Hayes: That’s interesting, that’s good, but you still got the diploma then?

Burney: Got it on the wall over there (laughter).

Hayes: (Laughter) They can’t take it back. So what were classes like?

Burney: We walked in there. They had long tables with benches, straight back chairs. We sat in those old chairs and those old benches. We had three classrooms. The law school was upstairs over the library at Wake Forest. They had an excellent library, good librarian and Doc _____ Lake who ran for governor in 1960 was my main professor. He was the hardest professor.

He taught me negotiable instruments and constitutional law, the hardest courses in law school. When Dr. Lake called on you, you stood up and he might, you won’t sit down for the rest of that class. He would start asking questions. I know he called on me on Marbury vs. Madison. But the thing about it is, he’d carry you out, but he’d never let you drop. He would bring you back. Every question on the bar that Dr. Lake had taught me, I knew the answer to.

That’s the reason so many of us…now we were scared of him because he wasn’t playing with you and when he ran for governor in 1960, that’s the reason so many of us supported him because of what he had done for us in law school. We didn't much care what kind of governor he’d make, we were for him.

Hayes: Well that’s great. We’re going to get to that later because I think you were really instrumental in his campaign in this particular area.

Burney: I sure was.

Hayes: And so a lot of his campaign were lawyers who had….

Burney: That’s exactly right.

Hayes: Whether they were Democrats or Republicans, it didn't matter.

Burney: You know, we put on the first television rally here for Dr. Lake. I’ve got pictures here, that were ever put on in the United States. We put on a live political rally. Nobody will ever believe this in the courthouse yet. When we went on the air that night, we had not practiced one minute. We just started (laughter).

Colonel McClelland, my law partner I told you about, he introduced Dr. Lake and when they popped all those lights on him (laughter), he froze. He just froze there for a second, but I’ve got the pictures here. I ought to give you those.

Hayes: You know, not only should you give those, but we have a corroborating story from Mr. Jackson. You probably remember from the television station.

Burney: Wayne Jackson.

Hayes: Wayne Jackson, he told us the story. He was so proud of that same time period. He was making history. They were the first…

Burney: They put on the first one that was ever put on. They didn't even know whether they could do it or not (laughter). I called up Dan Cameron and they wanted to do it so bad. So they finally called me one day and said “Get Dr. Lake down here, we’re going to put it on”. And really, we went on the air, but I tell you, it did so much good that we even got contributions from South Carolina (laughter). It was a lot of fun.

Hayes: So was a class, the case study method, tell me a little bit about that since I don’t know.

Burney: What you do, they give you a book, I think I’ve got one here. Anyway the first case I remember studying was Hadley vs. Blackstone. That had to do with a shaft on a mill and you’d read the case. You would brief that case, put the facts in it, what the issue was and what the law was. You might have five or six cases to study for that night.

The next day you went to school, you didn't know whether they were going to call on you or not. But if you weren’t prepared for a certain professor’s class, you skipped the class (laughter). You didn't go to school unprepared. The thing about law school they never called the rolls, they didn't care if you were there or not. If you wanted to learn, you could learn. If you wanted to goof off, goof off. If you were going to flunk out, they’d flunk you out, but they never called the roll, but I always figured they knew who was there and what not.

Hayes: And it would show up on the test, right?

Burney: That’s exactly right and what happened. You went to school the whole semester and never had a test. You had one final examination and that examination would last anywhere from two to three hours. And they would write the questions. You sat there and wrote.

Hayes: Now were they case law, again on the case law?

Burney: Well they’d made up…, it might have been the facts of some North Carolina case you studied or they normally made up the facts themselves. And no matter, you could answer those questions wrong, but if you gave sound legal reasoning for your answer, you could still get 100%.

Hayes: I see.

Burney: Now we went to school with a boy named _______, I can tell this cause he’s dead. _____ would write so nobody could read it (laughter). Then he would go study. Then they would call him into the office and make him read the writing and ______ would tell them what they wanted to hear (laughter).

Hayes: (Laughter) And it worked?

Burney: Must have, he graduated and became a very good lawyer. His daddy was a _____ from up in the mountain district.

Hayes: And you were in class what? Six, eight hours a day? How long were you in …

Burney: No, each class lasted an hour. Some days you had three to four classes. Now a course like legal ethics met maybe once a week. Contracts, criminal law…and the thing about criminal law, they only taught but one course of criminal law. Everything else was civil.

Hayes: Why do you think, did they just think their graduates were going to end up…

Burney: They think I reckon if you were wanted to practice criminal law, it’s like a doctor that performs abortions____? But I understand that’s different now, they teach a lot of criminal procedure and things of that nature. But they wanted you to learn the law that you were going to use in civil law. I used to go…started out in criminal court, I didn't know what I was doing. I went to court with a lot of brave people.

Hayes: Did you, now in this time period were you like working with an attorney while you’re in school? I didn't know if they had any programs where you would…

Burney: We’d have a trial court.

Hayes: Moot court.

Burney: Moot court. My father came up to preside, Judge Henry Stevens came up to preside and they would make up facts and we would try the case. Different law students would get on the stand and testify. We’d cross-examine them. It was a good course and we did a lot of work on it. We always were prepared.

I remember Judge Henry Stevens came up there. He said, “I want to tell you fellows, I graduated from Harvard Law School. There’s one damn thing I want you to know. I didn't get the accent___?”. He was a good judge, tried a lot of cases before him and his son became an attorney. He sat next to me in law school.

One day he was sitting there asleep and I pushed him and said, “Henry, they called on you”, and he stood up and started to recite the case. The professor said, “Go ahead, Mr. Stevens”. He never did forgive me for that (laughter).

Hayes: Sounds like good memories though cause you were pushing yourself.

Burney: Oh yeah, we had to study. There was no playing around there. It’s like I said, they didn't care whether you came to class or not.

Hayes: Now was Wake at that time an all male school or was there a mixture of people?

Burney: No girls, the only girl I ever saw was the librarian.

Hayes: Probably changed later.

Burney: Hell, there’s more women lawyers here now than there are men. There were men when I started.

Hayes: Interesting.

Burney: Women taking over the world.

Hayes: It’s not so bad (laughter). Get your wife here to comment on that one.

Burney: Oh yeah, I wish she was (laughter).

Hayes: Do you have any other things on this particular area before we go on to the bar exam.

Haas: I was just wondering if you had any choices, were there any electives or did everybody…

Burney: Yeah, there were electives?

Haas: Did you have some?

Burney: Yes, I took public utilities as an elective. I don’t know why, but I did.

Hayes: Interesting, did you use it? Did you feel like you used it later?

Burney: I used it on the bar examination because there were questions on it. And I did a lot of work for Carolina Power and Light Company when they built the nuclear plant here. In fact, I did work for Brown and Root and Carolina Power and Light Company.

Hayes: That was a good choice.

Burney: Brown and Root was an interesting outfit to work for, I’ll tell ya.

Hayes: Go ahead, tell us.

Burney: They had a man named Bill Brown. They had a law firm. They did nothing but represent Brown and Root. The senior partner did all their overseas work.

Hayes: Now who was Brown and Root?

Burney: Brown and Root was a construction company from Texas, a Lyndon Johnson buddy (laughter). And they were the ones that built the nuclear plant here. They would all fly in here on an airplane every Monday, leave on Friday and go back to Texas to spend the weekends. They were something else now.

Bill Brown, they hated unions. I mean the worst you’ve ever seen. I mean they hated them. Their construction workers from Brown and Root wore these helmets and every state they ever worked in, the foreign country had the flag of the state and the foreign country on the side of the helmet. I remember one time there was a lot of larceny going on down there.

Bill Brown told me to do what I could so I hired some deputy sheriffs off duty to go to all the junkyards and places to find out who was selling this stuff. And I got into hiring a man who had been formerly head of the state Bureau of Investigation to kind of head all this stuff up, to be in charge of security. I thought he was a good man. Bill Brown came up here, didn't like him and he and I were going to Raleigh one day to meet with Sherwood Smith who was the general counsel for Carolina Power and Light.

He said, “I’m going to tell you when I get back to Texas, I’m firing your security man. I don’t like him”. I said, “Brother Brown, he’s one of the most competent men in this state. He’s a good man”. I said, “Please don’t fire him”. He said, “I don’t give a damn what you say. When I get back to Texas, I’m firing him”. But we found a lot of stuff that had been stolen. We found the people who had been stealing and they were discharged.

One time there were a bunch of them that were putting in false claims about going to school to take their ______. I reckon our light bills are what they are today from building that nuclear plant. He and I went to Columbia, South Carolina on that plane that carried about 30 people to go to a meeting with the Carolina Power and Light Company. Wasn’t anybody on the plane but Bill Brown and I, a case of Coor’s beer to go down there and fly back. I don’t know what it cost. The only time I ever sent a bill, a purchase order, because Brown and Root were being paid on commission.

So when I sent a bill for my legal services, I had to send a purchase order in. They would approve the purchase order and what they would do is they would charge cost plus for my legal service. I billed them so much, I don’t know how much it ended up costing Carolina Power and Light Company. I’ll tell you something else.

They were putting on a seminar in Washington and they wanted me to go to it. They said, “Alright, you can take your wife. We’ll pay all her expenses and we’ll pay you $100 an hour while you go to school.” Now that was the best deal I ever had in my life, to go to school for 8 hours a day and make $800 and they’re picking up all expenses.

Hayes: And you were learning the whole time.

Burney: I was learning the whole time, learned a lot. But when I came back I said, “You got anymore schools I can go to” (laughter). I enjoyed that. It was an interesting experience representing them.

Hayes: And how long were…it took them a long time to build that, complicated.

Burney: With the canals, they had problems with the steam coming, how it affect navigation on the Cape Fear River.

Hayes: And why would they need an attorney on retainer just for these kinds of issues?

Burney: You just don’t know. There was something every day. Employees in trouble, state boards, government boards, trying to keep everything straight, like security, stealing. I mean there was something every day to do.

Hayes: Interesting, so for that time period, took a lot of your time.

Burney: But it was interesting.

Hayes: What did that last, about three years?

Burney: Three or four years. Let’s get back to Wake Forest.

Hayes: I’m sorry, we got off (laughter).

Burney: I graduated from Wake Forest Law School in 1951, took the bar examination.

Hayes: Well tell us a little bit about that. Do you think its changed a lot from your own knowledge?

Burney: I don’t know, but I know this, when I took the bar examination, the examination was held in the old state capital. You could either sit on the senate side or the house side. And I was so nervous when I read the first question, and I knew the answer to it, I promise I had to take my hand and hole it like that to write the answer to the first question. But after the first one, I even remember what the first question was.

Hayes: Tell us what the question was.

Burney: The question was about a man escaping from prison, and the state had sued to try and get the money _____ him, before we captured him and I had had a footnote _____ about this North Carolina case it said, it was a crime to escape from prison, and they did not have a cause of action. ________ and I wrote that out so quick I couldn’t keep my hand from shaking. But the Bar examination lasted 3 days. And the most miserable man in to stay in North Carolina, was an old man named Ed Cannon, grouchy, and the first day that had something to do with a dog, he came in the second day saying, “I understand a damn dog came in and bit a bunch of you yesterday.” Well that just tore everybody to pieces. But you went in the morning, went back in the afternoon and lasted 3 days. How they do it now_______.

Hayes: And each test was on a different segment of the law?

Burney: Yes, and you had an elective too, that’s why I took public intuitives, _______. Wake Forest has prepared us greatly because it was primarily on North Carolina Law. What’s so ironic about that is the people that made the highest grade in my class flunked the bar. I haven’t figured that out yet.

Hayes: Is that right?

Burney: It sure is, the best students in our class flunked the bar.

Hayes: Sometimes they’re just overconfident I think.

Burney: I don’t know what it was, but they didn’t pass. When they started they used to do it twice, now they only do it once that I know of.

Hayes: So you’d have to wait now, if you passed the bar, then you don’t have to serve with a lawyer or you set to go?

Burney: NO, its so different, Law School now. I went down to ______ Wake Forest. They go work in lawyer’s offices, they do community services, its just so different from when I went. There wasn’t anything going on like that when I was in law school. Once you passed you went. My father took a lawyer named Carl _____ up to Whiteville ________, I forgot, I wanted to start so bad, wanted my daddy to swear me in. But I said daddy will you carry me up there and introduce me to the court so I can get started. So he carried me, Carl ______ to Whiteville, Judge __________ J. Bone from Nashville was presiding. And he swore me in, in Columbus County. I came back and tried a case the next day.

Hayes: Wow!

Burney: I didn’t know what I was doing, but I went over there, I think they prepare them better by going to court, then we were prepared.

Hayes: Didn’t stress the protocol of the court?

Burney: They say they’re so much smarter and prepared than we were, that I’d like to debate. Or I’d like to try a case against them.

Hayes: You came back, and you were planning to stay in Wilmington, and your first…

Burney: Then I went in partnership with Colonel Claude and my father.

Hayes: But your father was a judge at this point?

Burney: My father was a judge of superior court, and I tried a case before my father, and appealed it to the supreme court and reversed it.

Hayes: Fairly soon after this?

Burney: Well yes.

Hayes: He still talked to you right?

Burney: Oh yeah, one or the supreme court justices, when I went up there to argue the case said, “Burney, what is your father going to say about this?” I said my father always told me the reason ______ because people make a mistake. I said my father made a mistake, he didn’t bother me anymore.

Hayes: If you went into business with this older lawyer, what were your first cases, you didn’t get the juicier case necessarily, how did you…

Burney: Colonel ________ was primarily a defense attorney for insurance companies. That wasn’t my ball of wax. I like to go to court for people that’d been hurt. Colonel didn’t do any criminal work, I love the criminal law, so after about 18 months he said why don’t you go up there, hook you up an office, and I’ll send you all the criminal stuff. He said you just not interested in what I do. I said, well that’s true. So I went up on Third Street, up over Dr. B. Williams, which is my neighbor, and opened up an office on top of his medical office and started from there. Then my father retired, he became a ________. And judge Clifton L. Moore, called district solicitors back then, it’s what our D.A. is now, and when my father retired, Governor ______ appointed Clifton L. Moore from Burgaw to Superior Court, I had been Judge Moore’s assistant district solicitor, I used to go help him, and Governor _______ appointed me District Attorney or district solicitor, I would be 20 years old, youngest one in the state.

Hayes: What jurisdiction is that?

Burney: I had Columbus, New Hanover, Pender, and Brunswick County. And we tried all appeals on misdemeanors, and all felonies, and murder cases.

Hayes: So you were working for the government?

Burney: I was working for the state of North Carolina. But back then you could practice civil law too, so I didn’t have to give up my civil practice, which I had right good practice. I had one assistant, Alan Cod, who is now deceased, his son is __________.

Hayes: He just recently died. Was not too long ago.

Burney: That’s right, not too long ago. Reason I ________ him, he’d never done anything with search titles, and I wanted somebody to learn with me, not somebody to tell me what to do. So I said Alan will you become my assistant, we’ll go over there and learn together, and we did, and we made a good team. And I was the district attorney for 9 years.

Hayes: Don’t they run for office now?

Burney: I had to run.

Hayes: Oh, you had to run, oh okay.

Burney: I had to run at the next election. I had to run in 4 counties.

Hayes: But it was non-partisan.

Burney: No sir, democrat vs. republican, but back then there weren’t any republicans in the 4 counties. I’m serious, the republicans could have met in a telephone booth. And there were 3 parties within the democratic party.

Hayes: 3 parties?

Burney: That’s what I always said.

Hayes: What were the 3 parties?

Burney: Well you had state rights, liberal, conservative.

Hayes: What were the state’s rights, were they beyond conservative? Is that… in other words where do they fit in that… liberal, conservative.

Burney: I think you’d put them in conservative.

Hayes: A sub-set of conservative.

Burney: Back then people would fight you about politics. My granddaddy Burney was a confederate veteran. His brother got drunk one time said he was going to vote the republican ticket. He went to the polls with a shotgun and said he wasn’t ashamed of his poor kin, it was all these damn _______ kin he was ashamed of. My granddaddy _______ was a farmer over in Columbus County, he went to the 3rd grade in school. He jumped out the window of the school house, he said, and never went back. Education was his strong point, he served on the school board in Columbus County. He was such a _______ democrat. My aunt Berta who is a WA _________ and my aunt Mia were the oldest girls to leave to go off to school. And the reason he sent them to school, _________ granddaddy _______ said he wasn’t having any damn republican teaching his children. So he mortgaged his farm and sent aunt _____ and aunt Mia to what is now ________ College. He was an interesting man. Everyone of his children went to college. Two of them became doctors. Education was his strong point and he jumped out the window in the 3rd grade. I know that’s a long ways from practicing law.

Hayes: Not its not, its great history. Those are great stories, you never know how you get formed up, it sounds like its stayed in your family.

Burney: When I started practicing law, you knew all the lawyers.

Hayes: Tell us a little about those early years, no we’re talking about 1952.

Burney: I started in 1951-52, and all the lawyers were honorable men, they gave you their word, you didn’t need anything in writing. You needed time for _____ after you’d call them up and say give me 30 days or 20 days, they’d say okay. I remember a lawyer here named Dick _________, I filed a complaint, did work for the insurance company, well Dick wouldn’t do anything. So I called him one day I said Dick please file an _________. He said well you didn’t do it, so I drew the _________, signed his name to it, and went and filed it to the court so I could get things started. I said Dick, I just want you to know I try an ______ for you, I denied everything, now we are going to file this law suit. But we would meet in a bar. Oh course lawyers drink a lot of liquor back then too. But they wouldn’t let them drink anything till we finished the business, then they’d open the bar.

Hayes: Now what bar was this?

Burney: __________ they didn’t have liquor by the drink back then. I tell you another interesting story about drinking. My daddy was the commander of the American Legion ________ in 1920-1928. and the post office was where it is today but it was an old post office, and behind the post office was a building called Hut. And that’s where the American Legion met. And they had it… well what they’d do is they’d have their meetings and they’d put _______ liquor in a barrel and squeeze lemon in it, and they’d call it punch. Well one of the men had too much to drink one night, and they couldn’t do anything with him. Tried to keep him from driving, he wouldn’t, so they man-handled him down and took all his clothes off and hid them. Left him in the American Legion Hut naked. My daddy said about 3 am that morning a policeman called and said “ Cinnabder Burney, we got one of your men down here, and I think you better come get him before we put him in jail.” Daddy said what’s the problem? He said he was walking across 3rd and Princess wrapped up in the American flag, and that’s the only thing he had on. He said pleaser come down here and get him and get some clothes put on him. And that is a true story.

Hayes: That was prohibition time, so they could only drink punch.

Burney: That’s right. And another great lawyer, he was Mr. ______Bellamy. He’d been County Attorney here for 30 some odd years.

Hayes: Now this is from the Bellamy’s that went way back. The Bellamy Mansion, and related to those folds. There’s still some Bellamy’s.

Burney: One of the greatest men I ever knew, and I learned more history from him, he said his father was the best man for Governor Russell, the republican when he got married. He told me about the only reason Russell became a republican, he was in the confederate army. Wanted to go to Virginia and fight. And they stuck him down here at Fort Fisher. And Governor Russell ran for office, was elected _______ a JP over in Brunswick County. And bought writ of habeas corpus, and got out of the Confederate Army that way, cause he _________. He could just tell me all kinds of stuff like that. One of the funniest things he ever told me, said you know things have really changed. Back in Wilmington when we first started, said, everybody knew everybody by their first names, and their dogs. He said, I had a bird dog, he lived next to the Lutheran Church up on Market Street, 6th and Market. Said I had a bird dog that loved my next door neighbor better than me. One night the Ku Klux Klan had a big parade down on front street. He said, my next door neighbor was in the Klan, said he put on his robe and went down to march in the parade, he said my dog followed him. He said they walked down front street, my dog was there walking with my neighbor. Next day he said, said Marvin we saw you walking with the Klan in the parade, he said now Pastor I was not at that parade, he said well your dog was walking right with you. He said I always got accused of being in the Klan because my dog walked with my next door neighbor.

Hayes: That’s a great story.

Burney: He told me… he used to come to my office in the afternoons, and we’d sit there and talk, he taught me so much history about this county and Wilmington. Things that happened way back then, God, I wish he was living so he could talk to you.

Hayes: So you said you early on got into the district attorney side, but you called it something different.

Burney: District Solicitor.

Hayes: District solicitor, and you had to run for office, and as long as the democratic party supported you, you didn’t have any…

Burney: I never had any competition, now if a democrat had run with me I had to run in the primary. But…

Hayes: Was it lucrative or not lucrative? I mean I don’t think it was…

Burney: I’d of made a whole lot more money practicing law.

Hayes: That’s what I thought, it was…

Burney: I liked it.

Hayes: You liked it… but when you said you could still keep your civil case going, what were those kind of things?

Burney: ________ death cases, automobile accidents, uh…. Land suit, land suit, I knew how to try land suit. Very few people knew how to try land suit.

Hayes: Now what is that, tell me what that…

Burney: Well like title of the land who owns land, you know in the country they’ll fight you over 3 feet of land. But I learned earlier how to try a land suit. And I knew how. No lawyers today hardly know how to try a land suit.

Hayes: But If you were working as a civil, and you had to go up before the judge, that would be a different judge.

Burney: That’d be a different judge, it might be the same judge, but he might be holding civil court, see the judges rotated in the state. Let’s say Judge Henry Stephens came to Wilmington to hold court, __________ district, so he held court for six months in New Hanover, Pender, Brunswick, Columbus. They didn’t have near the court amount of criminals as they do now, of course they have more people. You have so many weeks of criminal court and so many weeks of civil court. He might hold two weeks of criminal court and the next week he hold civil court.

Hayes: But on one day you’re processing the case of uh…

Burney: One week, I might be processing, then the next week I might be trying a civil case.

Hayes: But you’re the defendant then on that one right?

Burney: No, I did all the plaintiff’s work.

Hayes: Okay, I see.

Burney: Maybe a defendant every now and then. But it was purely civil on that. But I couldn’t defend anybody in criminal court.

Hayes: Was there any separate equity or chancery courts then here?

Burney: No.

Haas: Everything was combined?

Burney: Everybody… see you clerk of the court is your ________ your probate court. Someone dies, you take your wills, and probated before the clerk of the court. If somebody bought a ______ to the will, tried to get the will set aside, that automatically went up to the superior court. That was my favorite, to try will cases. I don’t know why, I just loved to go back and reconstruct someone’s life and bring it forth. But we had one court. All, civil, superior, court was your equity, and everything.

Hayes: And was this judge, I mean Judge Stephens, was this for years and years and years these people were in this position?

Burney: When they were elected, they were elected every 8 years.

Hayes: They were elected every 8 years huh?

Burney: He was elected in 1938 cause he ran the same time my daddy did. And his son who became a Superior Court judge, we came out of law school together. And I went to Washington D.C. in 1937 to the National Boy Scout Jamboree. First one they ever had. And I met young Henry Stephens. He went from a troop up in Warsaw. And that’s the first time he and I met, was in 1937 in Washington D.C. at that jamboree. And we became friends… ___________.

Hayes: If you had to guess in your group of lawyers then this was a small close knit, I mean were talking a hundred, two hundred, I mean how many?

Burney: 60 something.

Hayes: 60 something, you all belong to the bar.

Burney: New Hanover Bar Association.

Haas: Any women at all?

Burney: There was one woman ________, her husband was a …. ________, see the black coast line was here in Wilmington and their legal department was here, and they had a great library. So we used to go up to the coastline and use their library to do our research because they had such an excellent library. There was a girl, as I remember her name was ______. And she, her husband as I think was an attorney at the coast line, or had some affiliation with it. But she left him when the coastline moved to… but she practiced with a lawyer here named Maury James. Course this has been 50 years, now I’m trying to remember if I’m right.

Hayes: Let me ask you the other side of that question, for that time period, it’s a different time, were there any black lawyers?

Burney: Robert Bond came along.

Hayes: Robert Bond, Bond?

Burney: B-o-n-d. And this was sometime later. Robert Bond was originally from _______ county. A good man, drank a lot of liquor. Back when I was district attorney a detective called me one day and says, “John we got a problem.” I said what is it, said “we went to raid a place for selling white liquor.” Said a lawyer Robert Bond was down on his knees skinning. That’s a card game colored people play. And he had a jar of white liquor with him, he said what do you want me to do. I said “go home, leave Robert alone, he’s a good man.” And I’ll tell you another interesting story, Dr. Hubert ______ became chairman of the board of trustees at the university, I succeeded him, was a great civil rights man. He integrated our schools with his daughter. And Dr. ________ was indicted for murder for performing an abortion. He came to me said, “Mr. Burney I want you to represent me,” I said “Dr. _______ I don’t like you, you and I have always opposite about all this civil rights stuff and everything,” he said, “won’t you think about it?” I said “Yes I’ll think about it.” So I got to thinking one night, I said, well what if one of my children got real sick, and I couldn’t find a doctor, I’d take them to Dr. ______. I said he wouldn’t turn me down I’m not going to. So I called him, I said, Dr. ______, I’ve reconsidered, I’ll represent you. I know for him to save face, he took Robert Bond into case with him. One day we were in there going over this case, Dr. _______, jumped on Robert Bond’s lots of drinking. Robert Bond rented the office from Dr. _________, he never would pay him any rent. Robert Bond looked at him and said, “Hubert, you might tell me what to do between 9 to 5 when I am on your time, but come 5 o’clock I’m going to do as I damn well please. And when we were picking the jury in Dr. Hubert’s case, I asked the jury, any member of the jury have a __________, or any organizations that’s similar to the Klan. (Raises his hand). I said what have you done, he said I was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. I turned to doctor and said Dr. _________ there’s an honest man on the jury. I said we ought to keep him. He said Mr. Burney, you excuse that man, said if you left a Klansman on the jury I’d never go to sleep again as long as I live. And the real ______ about this case I _________ Dr. _______ who was chief medical examiner for ________ and we took the tissues of this person. Got a deputy sheriff to go with us on an airplane and flew them to Virginia for him to examine. We did that and the Dr. Mann went one step further and sent it to a history chemist up in Washington D.C. And we were in my office one Sunday preparing the case, getting ready to go to the court. And this history chemist calls and says ___________ its nothing but broken down red blood cells. Dr. Mann was a doctor and a lawyer. Dr. ______ was an Englishman, a pathologist at _______ hospital. Dr. Mann says Mr. Burney I must call Dr. ______ immediately. I said what do you want to call him for? He said we’re professionals, I must tell him what I found, so he won’t be embarrassed. I said doctor, please don’t call that man, he is the most egotistical Englishman that’s ever been ______ if you tell him what we’ve found all hell will break loose. He called him anyway. Before the week was over Dr. L _______ had gotten the chief pathologist, _________, one from Georgia, and one other one. I said Dr. Mann, you see what you’ve done. He said I’ll never notify another one as long as I live. And I knew what would happen.

Hayes: Anyway we’re just going to stop for a second and change the tape, if that’s okay we can continue.

Burney: Maybe I’m talking too much.

Hayes: You’re not talking too much, we got plenty of tape so just hang on a second here.

Hayes: Okay, we are back again with John Burney, and with Mike Haas and Sherman Hayes, continuing to talk about John’s career in the law.

Burney: Well I can start in 1951 when I started practicing law. The clerk’s office stayed open a half a day on Saturday. Judge Winfield Smith was ______. We held court ________ a half a day on Saturday. When I started practicing law, Saturday was the busiest day in the week. We worked all day on Saturday because the people from your rural areas and the people who had regular jobs couldn't take off the time to go see a lawyer during the week so he came on Saturday. So everybody worked on Saturday.

Hayes: Did you take another day then sometime off that was a slower day or was it just a six day week?

Burney: Things were tough starting out. You didn't take anything off (laughter). I reckon the more affluent lawyers were making money to take time off. But one thing we always did, no matter what was going on, when the bluefish started biting, the fishermen, we all quit and went fishing. We would quit long enough to go fishing when the fish started biting.

Hayes: Now did you take on a partner later? You talked about you shifted…

Burney: No, I went in with Colonel McClelland and by his advice, I went in by myself and I became the district solicitor. My brother went to law school. When he came out, I said, “Louie, let’s don’t go together to start with”. I said, “You need to learn to think on your own. If you come to me, I’m going to be telling you this and all that”. So he stayed, he practiced law for 18 months to two years by himself. Then I resigned as district solicitor.

Hayes: So there was a gap there, you ages were…

Burney: I’m eight years older than my brother. So I resigned and we formed a partnership, Burney and Burney, built us a building between 4th and 5th on Chestnut Street and we practiced together. In 1966, I ran for state senator and after I served that term in 1967, my brother said I was going to get him some help cause he couldn't do all that stuff by himself. He said, “Now you come on and work Friday afternoons a little while Monday. I’ve got to have some help”.

So we took in a lawyer named George Sperry and became Burney, Burney and Sperry. We were on Chestnut Street. Then we built a building that’s located now on 5th Street between Princess and Chestnut and we took in David Barefoot and formed the firm Burney, Burney, Sperry and Barefoot. Then later we took in Lloyd Bane.

Hayes: That was Barefoot?

Burney: Yeah, Barefoot was our first cousin, David Barefoot, Burney, Burney, Sperry and Barefoot. He did nothing but real estate work.

Hayes: Now is he still practicing?

Burney: He’s still practicing here in Wilmington.

Hayes: Cause his name came up, does he go by any other nickname?

Burney: He’s got a brother named Poley whose my first cousin who became a judge in Superior court.

Hayes: But tell me the derivation of Barefoot? That’s just an interesting name.

Burney: My mother was a Barefoot, my Granny Barefoot. My mother was Essie Mae Barefoot, born and raised in Columbus County.

Hayes: Was that a Native American name or just a Brit…

Burney: A Scottish name.

Hayes: Scottish name! It was just interesting, Barefoot, I guess Braveheart.

Burney: I was reading something about England back when the Romans were in England and they were talking about a man named Magnus Barefoot. We did some research and found out Magnus Barefoot came over from either Sweden or Norway and went to Scotland and that’s where the name originally came from.

Hayes: Is he somebody we should talk to? Is he earlier generation?

Burney: They’re younger than I am. Poley is a retired Superior Court judge, but David Barefoot is still practicing.

Hayes: Still practicing, okay. And your firm is still going?

Burney: We took in Lloyd Bane and a girl named Mary Beth Wurtz, Lee Crouch, David Smith and Frank Jones and we got to where we were spending a whole lot of money on secretaries and everything. My brother and I and Frank Jones stayed together and it became Burney, Burney and Jones which is still in existence today. My brother and I wanted to retire so we sold our building to Frank Jones who’s there today.

He had been so loyal and such a good employee, we gave him everything inside the building, all the law books, all the furniture, just gave it to him because he’d done so much for us. He insisted we keep an office in the building after we sold it. So my brother goes down there every day today and stays until 12:00. He’s still going, wills and doing estates. I usually go on Monday and see if I got any mail or use the fax machine or the copy machine. In fact, I went down there this morning and used the copy machine. But Wilmington has grown so that Frank does nothing but criminal law now. He is an excellent civil lawyer.

Hayes: I want to get back to that time when you were the district solicitor. Were there cases that our listeners really want to know about? What were kind of breakthrough big cases that you can remember in that time period?

Burney: Had a lot of murder cases.

Hayes: Is that right?

Burney: Especially over in Columbus County.

Hayes: I think they still do (laughter).

Burney: My daddy said when he was district solicitor, my daddy was district solicitor from 1934 to 1938, over in Columbus County. He said he had a murder case that tried over there one time. Part of the evidence was they stood around the man’s grave and sang, “I’ll be glad when you’re dead, you rascal you”. (laughter).

Pender County was always I thought the best county I had as far as jurors were concerned because most of the people in Pender County including the blacks owned their own land. In Brunswick County, you had a lot of white liquor. Horrible cases coming from there. But after they voted in the liquor store, I could see the difference in the type of crime we had from having the store bought liquor compared to the white liquor.

Hayes: You mean it was just better liquor?

Burney: The store bought liquor was better, we didn't seem to have any bad crimes, like we used to. But that was an interesting place to go. I could write a book on Brunswick County.

Hayes: Well tell us a little bit about Brunswick County (laughter).

Burney: They would only get so many jurors down there and they played politics in everything. People stood around the courthouse and the sheriff would pick the jurors. See I had been going down there since I was a boy with my daddy in politics and I knew him. (Laughter) I said “I’m not leaving you on this jury, you know him better than you know me.” And they’d just do anything to you, they thought it was funny. But it was a great place.

There was a great judge named Judge W.H.S. McGuine, great historian from North Hampton County. Senator Clyde R. Hoey died. We were holding court in Brunswick County. He took the moment and gave a eulogy on Clyde R. Hoey and had the court reporter type it up and put it in the minutes of the court. It’s down there in Columbus County in those minutes somewhere and it was a great eulogy to Clyde L. Hoey.

Something just came to my mind and I think we ought to talk about it. This horrible problem that we have in the Middle East today between the Israelis and the Palestinians. I was reading the life of Dean ______ and in this book, they quoted Mrs. _______, who said that when President Roosevelt died, “We rode on the funeral train from Washington to Hyde Park to attend President Roosevelt’s funeral. When we returned, President Truman went over two solid hours, gave us this history of the Middle East. He told about every civilization that had ever been in the Middle East and we finished lecturing us, he said ‘World War III will start in the Middle East’”.

This was in 1945. When Roosevelt died and Truman said, predicted all the troubles started in 1945. Truman was probably the best read president we ever had. I read at the Library of Congress that Truman would take books out that the Library of Congress said nobody else had ever read. There were 1600 books and he read every one of them. He was an incessant reader.

Hayes: Are there court cases that are in the criminal sense, any that had statewide, where you kind of….

Burney: Yes, I don’t know many of them, mostly murder, Dr. Eaton’s case. When I defended Dr. Eaton, I mean that was all over the state. I indicted all of the JP’s over in Columbus County one time.

Hayes: (Laughter) The whole lot?

Burney: Just about because they were using criminal court to collect _____, grocery bills. You just don’t know how awful it was. When I tried those JP’s they were surprised, I remember Jay Jenkins used to ________. He was a newspaper reporter for Charlotte Observer. He had people from all over the state here. When I defended the Marines here, supposedly bashing the gays…..

Hayes: Oh yeah, was that in the late 80’s, early 90’s?

Burney: Yeah, we were on public television, we were on court tv, they had us on court T.V. and what’s so funny about that, when I got back to my office from court, lawyers had called from all over the United States telling me what to do, what to be on the lookout for. There were correspondents here from everywhere.

Hayes: Interesting.

Burney: I remember we had world ________. They sent Navy investigators down there. He ran them off. A commander of the Marine Corps called him, they must have known each other, and cussed him out. When that case ended, I don’t talk to newspaper people. Katie Couric called me from the Today Show and wanted to talk to me. I said, “Betty, I don’t talk”. You can’t believe them.

She said “Well I told her if she would call back, you would talk to her and I want you to please talk to her.” I let my wife talk me into doing it. And I talked to Ms. Katie Couric. She said, “We want to interview you. We’ll send a limousine to pick you up”. I said, “Well let me tell you something maam, Wilmington is not so big that I can’t find my way to the T.V. station. You tell me what time to be there and I’ll go. But one thing about it, I will not appear with this prison fellow who brought this stuff against the Marines. He’s no good and I will not stoop.”

She said, “Well I promise you he will not be there”. Let me tell you what she did. They sent a jet airplane down here that night and picked up ______.

Hayes: He was the defendant?

Burney: No, he was the prosecutor, and they flew him to New York. Now she kept her word. He didn't appear down here. So she flew him to New York and the minute I got through, they put him on and I’ve never had any respect for her since cause she told me a lie. But don’t tell me about newspaper people now. I could write a book on them.

Some good, some bad. I reckon that’s the most publicized case I ever gotten tied up in.

Hayes: Now what year was that? Was that even in the mid-90s? Trying to think.

Burney: Late 80’s or early 90’s.

Haas: Court T.V. came in about ’89.

Burney: Well I was on Court T.V. I mean my knows people called these boys I was in the army with, everyone, I didn’t know ______ and know you talk about getting some nasty letters now, me bashing the gays, I’m telling you.

Hayes: And what was the end result?

Burney: Found not guilty. Pridgen was such a liar and see he was appearing on all these talk shows all over. I had a picture. When he came out of the hospital, he had a little band-aid on his ear. He’d go up on these talk shows with big ol’ bandages on. Dr. Joe Hooper who is now deceased, but Dr. Dineen is still alive. Pridgen had testified about how they kicked him in the kidneys and how he was hurt and Dr. Dineen was an old Navy man and I knew he would put a _________.

But Joe Hooper was one of the foremost urologists in this country. He graduated from Yale or Harvard. I mean he was just recognized all over this country and I asked them a hypothetical question. I said, “Assume that Mr. Pridgen was kicked so forth and so on, would he have blood in his urine?” And they said yes. Then I put on the people from the hospital and showed that Pridgen didn't have any blood in his urine and I think those two doctors is one thing that helped. We tried the misdemeanor case for over a week.

Hayes: This was a misdemeanor case?

Burney: This was a misdemeanor case. It took a week to try it with the Court T.V. there and one of the district court judges later said, “I want to tell you, you did a good job because that judge was against you to start with, but public opinion and what ya’ll put on persuaded him”. We just proved he was such a liar.

Hayes: But I guess the national gay movement kind of adopted it as a case.

Burney: Oh my Lord including Bill Clinton. He got into it. We drove on.

Hayes: Do you think those times that you were on the other side of the criminal case, then turned around so that after you left being the district attorney or district solicitor that you were then that much better as a defending lawyer?

Burney: Sure, I got nine years experience. I had just tried over 10,000 cases. How are you going to get that kind of experience anywhere.


Burney: Yeah.

Hayes: Wow.

Burney: Of course you might count 50 against one man, ________

Hayes: Oh I see.

Burney: But I got clerks and I’d say how many cases did I dispose of as district attorney. They said, “Oh, 10,000”. But I mean during nine years time, you try every kind of case there is in the world.

Hayes: Everything, from little stuff to big stuff.

Burney: I mean it gets like pushing _____ in the creek. I could put a witness on the stand and try a case without ever talking to him. I knew what to ask.

Hayes: Interesting.

Burney: And I reckon I could still do it today if I had to.

Hayes: Well your lawyer’s license is still current so if you’re…

Burney: Sure is. I’ve got to go to a seminar next week (laughter). We have to go to seminars at least 12 hours a year to keep your law license. I figure after 50 years, we ought to be able to be exempt from that, but we’re not.

Hayes: Has it always been that way? I mean you talked about…

Burney: No, no, they didn't start this until maybe 10 years ago.

Hayes: But you talked about that you had used, was it F. Lee Bailey you said you had brought in for a seminar?

Burney: No, I told you Dr. Mann said F. Lee Bailey knew as much about pathology as … I’ll tell you another interesting story. F. Lee Bailey was in the United States Marine Corps and a boy from Jacksonville told me this.

F. Lee Bailey came to court and appeared before my father in Jacksonville, North Carolina and he told this man, this was after he got out of the Marine Corps, he said that Judge Burney was one of the finest judges he had ever appeared before in his life. My daddy never mentioned F. Lee Bailey.

I wish he had so I could have talked to him about it, but he never did. But F. Lee Bailey at one time was in the Marine Corps right up there at Camp LeJeune. I read the other day where he lost his law license.

Hayes: That’s right, he struggled with some estate thing wasn’t it? I can’t remember. So what prompted you to decide to run for the state senate? I mean you’re the premier defense lawyer.

Burney: Probably Mr. Marvin Bellamy, the old lawyer that I talked to so long. He always told me, he’d gone to the Senate or the House one time, he said how much it helped him. He told me if I ever had a chance to go. And so in 1966, I went to Cisero _____ who was our state senator. I said, “Cisero, are you going to run?” He said, “I’m not going to run.” Well I said, I’m going to run. Some of the powers that be around here don’t much want me to be senator so they talked Cisero into running again.

So I told him one day, I said, “Cisero, I’m ______. Are you going to run for the senate after you told me that.” He said, “I’ve got to run”. I said then there were going to be two of us. So during this time, the brown bag bill came out. That’s how people used to carry their liquor to a restaurant in a brown bag. Supreme Court held that was unconstitutional, I mean unlawful.

Tom White was a senator from Kinston, North Carolina who was Chairman of the Advisory Budget Commission. I knew Tom White had recommended zero increase funding for Wilmington College back then so I heard Tom White was coming down here to make a plug for Cisero. So I got me a great big brown bag and put a question mark on it. I bought five minutes of T.V. time. I said, “Ladies and gentleman, I’ve got a big brown bag with me tonight. I don’t know whether I’m going to open this now or open this later, but before this election is over, I’m going to open this brown bag and let the contents flow there from”.

Then I put out the word that I had Tom White in that bag so they didn't bring Tom White to put him on. But you know, I got to thinking you know, I got to open that bag of one of these nights. I was just sitting there and it hit me, I got to go to the office. I’m going to dictate a brown bag speech. So I bought 30 minutes of time on T.V. the night before the election and I opened up the brown bag. All they talked about was seniority. Cisero was a good man, but he had seniority.

So I got the Secretary of State to write me a letter that seniority had nothing to do with _____ in the state senate. Then I started pulling the names of the different senators and I said, “Now here’s so and so. He’s chairman of the Finance Committee and he never served but one term. He didn't have seniority”. And I just started eating him alive and I told them I had two birddogs. One of them was named Whitey. I said Old Whitey got to where he wouldn't mind me, but he had seniority. I said next time I go hunting, I’m going to leave old Whitey at home.

Hayes: (Laughter) Oh God.

Burney: And I advertised that thing. The man at the T.V. station told me that people were calling begging to buy spots, offered $1000. The man told me the adjourned the Rotary Club in Whiteville so they could hear me open up the brown bag. The man told me, he said, “Mr. Burney, I stopped at Lake Waccamaw to buy some gas that night. I asked the man if he would come out there and give me some gas. He said Mr. Burney is going to open that damn bag and I want to see what’s in it.” (laughter). He said if you want some gas, you pump your own.

They said at that time they had the largest T.V. audience they ever had in southeastern North Carolina when I opened up the brown bag that night.

Hayes: And it was full of letters?

Burney: Full of letters. I had a hatchet in there and I took the hatchet cause Cisero said he was going to be the hatchet man so I cut that out of the newspaper and I had different things in it. That speech might be in this mess I’m giving you.

Hayes: Great, that would be great.

Burney: I got a truckload out there I’m going to give you.

Hayes: Good.

Burney: I haven’t gone through any of this.

Hayes: That’s alright, we’ll look at it. BURNEY: What’s so sad, I lost most of it during the flood.

INTERVIEWER: That’s why we’re talking to you now. Do you think that part of it was that Cisero was just part of the machine. He didn't ever have to…

Burney: He was city attorney.

Hayes: But he never had to really campaign and do this.

Burney: He campaigned this time.

Hayes: That was his first serious somebody challenge.

Burney: I went to Dr. Wagoner who was superintendent of public schools then. I said “Dr. Wagoner, tell me what you need in education in North Carolina”. I made me a folder, I have it somewhere in a scrapbook. And I did what Dr. Wagoner told me to do and I think I made a lot of changes in education by listening to Dr. Wagoner.

And I went to people that I thought were in the know to find out what we needed and the biggest mistake I ever made as a state senator – I promised that I would never raise, vote to raise interest rate one time. Well we were so smart that when it came up, they didn't raise the interest rate or they raised it and exempted churches. There wasn’t a church built in North Carolina for two years. A bank wouldn’t loan them any money cause of that and I learned then and there that interest rate is determined by the market, not by legislature.

That’s the biggest mistake I ever made as a state senator, promising something, I kept my word and I was wrong and knew what I did, but you should never promise what you’re going to do when you get to the legislature because you get up there and learn the facts. That taught me a good lesson.

Hayes: And how long were you a state senator then?

Burney: I was three terms, six years.

Hayes: Six years, you had to run every two years?

Burney: Every two years.

Hayes: Oh man, that’s….

Burney: You know, I wouldn't mind running again if I didn't have to serve. I love to run, loved to run. Always had the public and opposition. A man named Dick Shue I’ve known all my life. Of course, he’s dead and gone. He was a wealthy real estate man. I was down there at the City Council running by my mouth which I shouldn’t have been and I called him a fat cat, made him so mad, so he ran against him (laughter).

Hayes: And he was a friend?

Burney: Well, I’ll tell you about him. He was always in court about something and nothing pleased him. He hired me one time as a lawyer. We had to go to Supreme Court. We got through, I said, “Dick, every lawyer you’ve ever hired in your life, you’ve ended up firing”. I said, “I quit”. I said to him I was going to break your record. I said I’m going to quit before you can fire me. He said, “I reckon you’re right”. (Laughter).

I said, it was the last time I ran for Senate and I made a mistake there. I said if I can’t beat Dick Shue without asking one soul to vote for me or spend one nickel, he ought to beat me. And I had voted for the gas tax, I voted for raising tax on soft drinks which we had to do. Man, he’d get on the television and shake the _____ bottle and I never replied to him. Really he did twice as well as I thought he’d do and I should have been working. But I ended up winning. I learned then in politics, never take anything for granted, always work hard.

Hayes: But after six years was enough. You decided it was….

Burney: I’ll tell you what made me quit. One of my children’s Sunday School teachers told me, “You know how good your boy’s behavior is when you are home. When you’re gone, it’s makes all the difference in the world” and I thought it was more important for me to stay home and raise my children. That’s the reason I quit. Based on what the Sunday School teacher told me.

Hayes: Speaking of that, what has been your family, your wife, kids, what?

Burney: I had a wife and two boys and a daughter and I love my grandchildren better than I do my children.

Hayes: And where are your kids now?

Burney: My son Shaw is the youngest boy. He’s here in Wilmington. My son Jay, he works with the state and has a hog farm. He’s a hustler.

Hayes: What county is he in?

Burney: He’s right here in Wilmington.

Hayes: Oh, he’s in Wilmington.

Burney: He’s a hog farmer. He has two partners there up in Pender County and they’ve done well. He just bought him a big fancy new house. I’m glad he’s done well. My daughter worked in my old office and when I retired, she got her job at _______Clerk’s office. She worked at the club. She’s unmarried, still lives at home.

Hayes: But she’s like a specialist in the Clerk’s office?

Burney: I think she does most of the microfilming there. I have one granddaughter that’s 16 that I want her to go to the University of North Carolina in Wilmington. She wants to be a cosmetologist.

Hayes: Well we don’t offer that.

Burney: I don’t know what she’s going to do, but I wish I could get her in there as a special student just to take some business courses. If she’s going to run a business, she’s got to know it. But she’s a sweet girl. We’ll work it out somehow. And I’ve got two other grandchildren I call hurricanes (laughter). Boy, when they come, the hurricane is here. That’s a long way from talking about the law though isn’t it?

Hayes: It is, but we also want to talk about you as a person because we have your papers and I think it’s important for people to see more than your senate. That was kind of a highly visible time period. But most of it has been, you’ve been a practicing attorney. I didn't realize you prosecuted so many cases and then you defended hundreds and hundreds.

Burney: Oh my Lord, Good God, I don’t know how many. You know, 50 years you do a lot in 50 years. My mom and daddy were very patriotic people. I grew up in a very patriotic home and you know it’s a funny thing, I never heard my mother and daddy say one thing about black people in my lifetime cause we grew up with black people as friends. We played with them.

My daddy said, he didn't think I’d ever learn to talk and I called water broth and we had a colored woman who I considered a member of our family named Hattie Pace and I couldn't say Hattie so I called her Tattee and everybody in Wilmington including all the black people called her Tattee. She worked for my family for 55 years. Every time one of the girls in the family got married, Tattee always helped them dress, went to the church with them and really she was a member of our family.

When Tattee died, we were all in the church, the preacher said, “We have one of Hattie Fredrick’s dearest and greatest friends, Senator John J. Burney. We want to call on him to say a few words.” My wife said, “If you open your mouth today, I’m going to leave you”. (Laughter) So I told her, I said, “Well the only thing I know to say is that I’m here to grieve with all of ya’ll”. But we dearly loved her and God knows, she looked after my brother and I.

Hayes: That’s great. You know, you talked about UNCW. As a lawyer, you were probably called on into the community to be on boards and activities. What are some of the ones that you enjoyed and participated in over the years? Because I think…

Burney: Well I was real active in the Kiwanis Club and I was real active in the American Legion and if you want to hold any political office, you just stay a member. You cannot hold a political office and hold an office in the American Legion which is a good rule. I was very active in that. I was active in the Azalea Festival when it first started.

Hayes: Oh good.

Burney: But becoming district solicitor having four counties to look after, I resigned from the Kiwanis Club. I quit going to the Azalea Festival thing and I just tended to the business. If somebody needed me, I did what needed to be done. I was always interested in education.

I became very close with Dr. Wagoner when he was superintendent of schools. When I went to the State Senate, he introduced me to Bill Friday. I became very close with him. Seemed like we Wake Forest people were always the fighting battles with the university. I’m serious. The graduates of the university didn't seem to want to do anything for us Wake Forest boys, that’s what Bill Friday used to say.

And I’ll tell you an interesting story. When I introduced the bill to _____ the University of North Carolina of Wilmington into the university system, the State Board of Higher Education was fighting mad. Some of the other jealous counties didn't want us, our university in it so Bob Scott was governor. So I’m a great hunter and I had a lot of ducks, quail, so I said to Bob Scott how would it be if I put on a deal over at the mansion. I’ll furnish all the food and let me bring Dr. Wagoner, Billy Hill, Benny Schwartz and some of the people that know about our university and let them explain this to you, what we want to do.

So we had this dinner and Bob Scott became very interested. I thought he was coming our way and Bob Scott said, “I’ve got a pool table up here in the Governor’s Mansion. Let’s go up and shoot a game of pool. Billy said, “Well I’ll shoot with you”. Benny Schwartz started running the rack (laughter). I said, “ Benny, for God’s sake, don’t you beat the governor in a pool game (laughter)”. “We’re up here trying to get him to help us become a university and you’re going to beat him in a damn pool game. Don’t you do it”. (Laughter).

To make a long story short, Benny started missing. I said, “Benny, when was the last time you shot pool?” He said it was probably 20 years ago. He couldn't miss a shot. But from that meeting, Bob Scott came out for us and through his help and others, Wilmington College became a part of the university system and that was a interesting fight.

Bill Wagoner and Bill Friday used to get me in trouble all the time (laughter), because I’d listen to them. I felt like two governors over higher education from listening to those two because fell out with Governor Moore about East Carolina University, I stuck with the East Carolina crowd and then when they wanted to consolidate all the universities back in 1971, that was Bob Scott. He and I became bitter enemies and I stuck with Bill Friday and Bill Wagoner on that.

Hayes: And you served on the UNCW Board of Trustees?

Burney: I served on the Board of Trustees for eight years, Chairman for two terms.

Hayes: Wow, that was great.

Burney: I’m on the Board of Visitors right now. In fact, I’m getting ready to go to my last meeting cause I think I rotate off this year. But it’s been a labor of love I think.

Hayes: Did you find that other lawyers also were called into the community like that? I mean… I wonder is that a…

Burney: Oh yes, yes. You know, Cy Hogue, he started before I did and Wallace Murchison. You need to talk to those two. They started practicing law before I did.

Hayes: We have both of them on the list.

Burney: They’re both great lawyers, both of them.

Hayes: Are there others that you can think of that we ought to do too, you know, that would help us.

Burney: Cy Hogue, Wallace Murchison.

Hayes: Judges are fine too, I mean anybody….

Burney: I’m trying to think of somebody, Robert Caulder started before I did. He’s done moved to real estate law. He’s an old Wilmington boy, born and raised here. In fact, all three of these lawyers have been born and raised in Wilmington. Gosh, so many of them have died. If I think of anymore, I’ll call you.

Hayes: Good, we’d appreciate that because we want to get that memory.

Burney: They’re the main ones here right now that you need to talk to cause they were practicing law when I started.

Hayes: Wow, that’s great. I know a lot of lawyers have come in now as we’ve gotten bigger and bigger. I guess Mike you mentioned that there are more lawyers because more people.

Burney: The lawyers here are now taxicab drivers. I’m going to tell you something the clerk tells me. She says the lawyers that came up with us and practiced law, she said, “Y’all told the truth”. She says, “I have lawyers coming to me now telling me they settled the case to get it off the docket and they have no more settled the case than flying to the moon. She said that that really upset her. And now the older lawyers are telling me if you want anything from this new crowd, get it in writing.

Hayes: So that’s kind of one of the big changes you’ve seen.

Burney: George Roundtree, he’s still practicing and he’d be a good man to talk to. His grandfather was a lawyer, his father was a lawyer and he was a lawyer. George’s grandfather is the one that put it in the constitution that you had to know how to read and write to be able to vote and that was back when they were getting rid of the Republican method in 1898.

Hayes: If we asked you to kind of contemplate, what do you think are the biggest changes in this 50 year period. A lot of things have stayed the same.

Burney: The biggest change is that I think lawyers, there weren’t too many of us, we used to go off and eat together. We’d cook out together. We did a lot of things together. Our wives did things together. You don’t see that anymore. It was really a fellowship. Maybe it’s because there’s so many different types of people.

Most of the lawyers were born and raised in Wilmington. We’ve known each other a long time. I call them outsiders. I mean they’re good people, but they’ve moved in here. And some of them are great lawyers, but I think the relationship, the fellowship that existed between the lawyers is gone. I think that’s sad.

Then everything has changed so in law. The rules of civil procedure have changed. The Supreme Court with some of the stuff they’ve come up with. Back then, now you have to have a lawyer for everything. Back then, when I was the D.A., if I thought of it, I’d ask a lawyer, will you defend so and so, be glad to do it, he wouldn't think about getting paid for it.

I’ve asked many a lawyer in the four counties that I had if they would sit there, especially with a poor black man, I said he needed representation and they’d do it out of the goodness of their heart. Man, you don’t see that this day and time. First thing they’d want to know is how much and so the state pays you for that now and they used to do it for nothing.

I was appointed one time to defend a man for rape. He was a Marine. Took over a week to try. I’m going to tell you what this man told me. He said, “Mr. Burney, I ain’t got any money. One of these days, if I’m found not guilty, I’m going to send you some money. I got $25 for defending this man for a week’s work. That’s how much the court awarded me.

Eight years later I got a letter. He said I hit it big in a crap game in Korea. I’m sending you a money order for $500 for what you did for me. Now there’s a man who appreciated what was done and after all this time, I had forgotten all about it. He sent me this money. And I represented another man one time named Bill Northrup. Now Bill was a character. He sold Venus flytraps on the side of the road which was illegal and Bill drank a lot of liquor.

I represented Bill one time and I thought Bill was a good man and he told me he’d pay me. Bill didn't pay me. About four years later, Bill walked into the office one day and he said, “Mr. Burney, I realize I owe you this money so I figured out how much I owe you with 6% interest and I want to get this for you”. I said, that’s a good man to wait that long.

I went to Pender County to set the docket. The first name I pulled out was Bill Northrup for driving drunk (laughter). I was getting ready to prosecute him and he come down here and paid me the money he owed me from four years ago thinking by paying me, it was going to help him (laughter). Poor Bill’s dead and gone, but that was the way Bill thought and that was alright, but I convicted him (laughter).

I wish I would have kept a diary. Really I do because I’ve had an interesting time in my life.

Hayes: Well it seems like you’ve worked all so many aspects of the law, I wonder if today lawyers are forced to become very narrow in specialties.

Burney: The reason we were like we are, when we started out, you had to do everything to make a living. You had to search files, you had to do this, and I mean I’ve tried everything from chicken stealing to antitrust.

One of the greatest cases I ever tried I enjoyed was defending Cape Fear Towing Company down here near on river. They brought an antitrust law suit that completely broke them. I offered them $100,000 to settle the case cause it worried me. They said, “Oh no. We want a half a million dollars plus attorney fees”. I said, “Well we’re going to let the jury decide.”

I learned of a lawyer in Chicago named Gene ________ and I got Gene to come down here to help me. They used one of the great professors at the University of North Carolina to testify against us. Gene ______ had been in the antitrust division in Washington, D.C. He was in the Justice Department. He started cross-examining the young University of North Carolina professor. When he got through with him, you’d think he had never been to school. The jury came back in 10 minutes and found in our favor. And to me, that’s the greatest victory I ever had in my life, to save the Cape Fear Towing Company. When we had offered them money, they wanted to steal it and get it all.

Hayes: Who was filing the charge?

Burney: A man named Buddy _______, he had a group of tugboats down on the river and what happened was the UCB Bank where I bank was financing and Buddy owed a bunch of money and they went and hired them a great big lawyer from Winston-Salem in one of those 300 man law firms to come down here _____ the name Joe Tracy, good lawyer.

They were so sure, they rented a café across from the courthouse. I think it is called the Petersen Restaurant today. They rented the whole upstairs to hold their victory party in it. (Laughter) Well they didn't have a victory party. Of all the cases I tried, to me that’s the greatest victory I ever had in my life, to save that man’s business cause he had been my client since I had been practicing law. Not only was he a client, but he was a friend.

We all went over there to…across the river, it’s still over there. He said “I want you to all come eat barbecue.” We all went over there. He would not allow liquor on his premises. Now he drank, but he said there’s not going to be any drinking around my business. Gene said please let’s have a drink to celebrate.

He said, “Alright Gene, I’m going to let you have a drink, but John you can’t have any”. He said, “You’re from Chicago, John’s from here. That’s the only drink of liquor that’s going to be taken on these premises that I know of. Gene and I are still friends today. We talk on the phone two to three times.

Hayes: Well I think, I’m a little surprised as an outsider listening in at how often you would bring in another outside expert lawyer. Is that a common practice?

Burney: Cause I had never tried a complicated antitrust law suit on predator pricing.

Hayes: But it sounds like it didn't matter, if you felt like a lawyer was going to help your case, you went out and got somebody.

Burney: If they knew more than you did. Don’t be so damn smart that you never ask for help. I used to go to Mr. Bill Campbell’s here who was the city attorney when I was starting out and I know I went to his father Mr. Lewis. I had to draw up a sailor’s bond one time. I knew you had to have one, but I didn't know what one looked like. I went to Mr. _______ and said I need a sailor’s bond. He sat there and dictated. That old lawyer knew how to dictate and a lawyer should ask for help.

I find most doctors in malpractice cases are doing things they’ve never been trained to do. I imagine it’s to get that extra dollar. But if I didn't know, I always said I don’t know, but give me a chance to go find out.

Hayes: That’s good.

Burney: And I knew we needed help in this antitrust lawsuit. I used James Garzecky in a sweet potato case when all the sweet potato dealers were setting prices and they were taking all our people before the Grand Jury and I needed some advice on that and I learned about it and he and I became great friends. What a good lawyer he is. Lawyers are always associating together.

If you don’t know, good lawyers will ask for help because there are so many things that come up that you don’t know anything about. Don’t say you know when you don’t know, that’s where you get sued for malpractice. I used to tell the jury, when I was examining the jury, I said, “I’m going to ask you a lot of questions you don’t ask”.

I said, “People got so they’ll sue lawyers at the drop of a hat.” I said, “I’m asking you this so I won’t get sued” and that’s the way I’d get by asking a lot of questions, but there was a lot of truth in it because they would sue you for not being competent and not asking the proper questions.

That’s another thing that has changed in the practice of law. Doctors get sued, lawyers get sued, everybody gets sued. That’s one thing I hate about the practice of law is the advertising. I think that’s the worst thing. We’re like the people selling stuff on T.V. You pick up the newspaper, this and that. And I’ve tried cases against these advertisers and don’t even know what in the world they do. They’re a whole lot better on T.V. than they are in a courtroom (laughter).

Hayes: That’s a fairly recent phenomena and I’m sure a lot of people don’t like that.

Burney: That is the worst thing that has happened in the practice of law. We’re supposed to be a profession. My daddy always said about ethics, “If you’re honest, you don’t have to go around telling people. They’ll know it”. That’s the reason I’ll get ____a lawyer. If you’re a good lawyer, people know it. You don’t need to get on the T.V. I never advertised once in my lifetime. Frank Jones is my law partner, he never advertised and he’s got the biggest criminal practice there is.

Let me tell you what’s going on this day and time. Robert Morgan, a former United States senator and former attorney in North Carolina, is a close personal friend of mine. We went to Wake Forest together and politicked together. My wife has a barbecue every New Years’ Day for her bridge club and we’ve always invited the Morgan’s to come to it.

Well his wife was coming from one way and he was coming and she got a speeding ticket so she gave me the ticket. She said, “Now I don’t Robert to know about this. Can you handle this thing and save my driver’s license without Robert finding out?” “Sure I can”. She got 15 lawyers trying to represent her in that speeding case. Finally Robert wanted to know why all those letters were coming to her from lawyers. Well she had to tell him that she had a speeding ticket. That’s just an example of what’s happening this day and time. You get a speeding ticket or you get hurt in a wreck, you go and get 15 to 20 letters from lawyers wanting to represent you. Now that’s wrong. They can’t make a living and I wished I was a judge. What they do, they write these people and tell them, if you let me handle your case for X number of dollars, I can waive your appearance and you don’t have to come to court.

I wish I was a judge, the first thing I’d say is where is your client? Put the case off until you’re with your client next week. I’d break up some of that. That’s what is happening to the practice of law and it’s ruining it. You get a speeding ticket? How many letters did you get?

Hayes: I know, I know. We just have a couple minutes left. I wondered if you, even though you’ve criticized some things that are happening, if we said to you, if one of your grandchildren wanted to go into the law, would you encourage them?

Burney: By all means. You know, if you can go to law school and never practice, the main thing about law school is they teach you how to think. I didn't know how to think until I went to law school, but they taught me how to think and if they never practice a day in their life, I’d want them to go. But I’d want them to become good lawyers and I wouldn't them to advertise (laughter). I do despise that, I can’t help it, it’s just the way I feel.

It’s an honorable profession. I mean you do so good to help people. I mean it makes you feel so good to go to court and help somebody that’s really down and out. I’ve gone to court with many a man that couldn't pay a nickel, and they’d say, “John, I don’t have no money, but I want you to go with me” and I’d go. If they just told me they were broke and didn't have any money, I’d go with them, but if they told me they were going to pay me next week, I don’t go cause they’re lying to me.

When I first started practicing law, I told my daddy, “Well I made $5.00 today”. That’s how much you got for drawing a deed when I started. He said, “Did you get your money”. I said, “No, he said he was going to pay me Saturday”. Daddy said, “Did he say which Saturday” (laughter). I haven’t gotten that $5.00 yet. (Laughter) And I learned a lot from my daddy. My daddy could have been a script writer for Bob Hope.

For an example, he was on me about my grades one time. I said, “Daddy, I’m average”. He said, “Yeah, you’re just as close to the bottom as you are to the top”. When I went into the Army, you had register for the draft. If you were ready to go, they sent you a 1A card and boy I got my card and I was so proud of that thing. Daddy came out and I said, “Look Daddy, I got my 1A card today”. He said “I’m damn glad you make A’s on something” (laughter).

Hayes: Well, I wish your daddy was here, we could tell him you’ve done pretty well.

Burney: He could talk to you for a month. He knew more fun stories and tales, he never forgot anything. He had a perfect photographic memory.

Hayes: Listen, we want to thank you today for a wonderful interview, appreciate it very much.

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