When Dallas trial lawyer Gary D. Elliston was a senior at Howard Payne, he needed a little confidence - and nudging.
“I wouldn’t get this,” Elliston remembers telling himself when the secretary at the Douglas MacArthur Academy of Freedom handed him the prestigious Hatton W. Sumners Foundation scholarship application for law school.
“But she was persistent,” he said. “Day after day, she would ask if I had turned in my scholarship application. Finally, right before the deadline, she told me that if I would just sit down and give her the information, she would type it up and turn it in. She had no idea how life-changing that was for me. You just never know how your life will be changed or how you may change a life through a simple act of kindness.”
Not only did Elliston receive the scholarship but he also graduated in the top 10 percent of his class at Southern Methodist University Law School. Today, he is the senior founding partner of DeHay & Elliston, L.L.P., with offices in Dallas, Houston and Baltimore. He is respected throughout the nation for his extensive 28-year legal career with a special emphasis on toxic tort, commercial, professional liability, product liability and medical malpractice litigation.
And Saturday, Elliston was awarded an honorary doctorate from his alma mater during commencement ceremonies.
Elliston said Howard Payne University was the “right place” for him. Since his 1975 cum laude graduation he has stayed involved with the university, serving from 2000 to 2002 as Chairman of HPU’s Board of Trustees.
Elliston is a significant contributor to the university and recently established an endowment for HPU’s moot court program, a public-speaking initiative known for building confidence in students, particularly those studying pre-law. His gift provides operational support for the program and opens the door for students to attend prestigious competitions where they may sharpen their professional skills. Elliston said the program was “a natural place” for him to invest.
“I have been amazed at the number of accomplished people who are uncomfortable speaking in front of groups,” the seasoned attorney said. “I really believe the ability to express yourself persuasively is an invaluable talent regardless of your chosen field.”
His investment is already making a difference. This year’s team claimed two of the top-10 speaker awards at the recent Texas Undergraduate Moot Court Association competition where the HPU team competed against schools such as Stephen F. Austin University, Texas A&M University, University of North Texas and University of Texas.
HPU also had two students win fourth place at the National Moot Court Competition in Virginia Beach, Va.
“I have full faith that I will be able to handle whatever competition I come across because of the skills I have learned in moot court,” said senior and national finalist Andrea Huffman. “We learn how to carry ourselves during public presentations and how to remain calm while speaking although our hearts are beating rapidly. We have learned not only to use legal reasoning to compare and contrast different Supreme Court cases, but also how to think on our feet when we are asked questions in the midst of arguments.”
In recognition of Elliston’s generosity and his exemplary contributions to the legal profession, HPU has renamed its program the “Gary D. Elliston Moot Court Program at Howard Payne University.”
“We are deeply grateful for Mr. Elliston’s generous endowment for the Howard Payne University moot court program and his significant support for this university throughout the years,” said HPU President Dr. Lanny Hall. “Gary D. Elliston is an outstanding alumnus, a remarkable trial lawyer and a man who is committed to his family and faith. Our students will do well to emulate his example.”
Elliston says he learned about the importance of giving back and investing in others from his family and three mentors — the Rev. J D Everett, his grandfather, James V. “Jim” Elliston, his father, and legendary trial lawyer J. Carlisle DeHay.
“Each of them taught me by example,” said Elliston. “I can envision each of them repeating Paul’s words, and my favorite scripture, as death took them: The time has come for my departure. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”
“My grandfather was a Baptist preacher at small rural churches in Central Texas,” he continued. “I never met a man more at peace with his place in God’s kingdom as well as this world. He had few material comforts, but he possessed an infectious laugh, an unflagging passion for the Gospel, and that peace that ‘passes all understanding.’”
“My dad was as solid as a rock,” said Elliston. “He worked a blue-collar job and there wasn’t much money for college, but he always found a way to provide for our family.”
Elliston said his father also gave “what few men provide their children - the example of his own exemplary life.” Elliston noted that his father’s word was his “bond” and “a firm handshake was his contract.”
“His honesty was above reproach,” Elliston said of his father.
His other mentor, J. Carlisle DeHay, was continually mentioned when Elliston was interviewing for his first job as a lawyer.
“I would ask each interviewer who the top five trial lawyers were,” recalled Elliston. “I was struck by how often Carlisle DeHay was mentioned.”
When the opportunity came to begin his practice with the legend at Gardere, Porter & DeHay in 1978, Elliston could not pass it up. Elliston was befriended and mentored by DeHay until Mr. DeHay’s sudden death in 1991.
“He was a great statesman, a warm Christian man, an exceptional trial lawyer and by just being around him I was tutored in professionalism, integrity, as well as legal tactics,” he said.
“Yet, my real hero and greatest blessing is my wife Molli,” he added. “She provides the emotional, spiritual, and loving support for me and our kids. She makes the sacrifices while we accept the public accolades. She is the true philanthropist in our family.”
Elliston says he believes most of his success has been the result of being “surrounded” by people who have lived “life lessons” in front of him.
“I am little more than a product of supportive, exemplary people God put in my path,” said Elliston. “Regardless what I give, I will never repay my debts for the gifts given to me.”
“My advice to students is threefold,” he added. “First, seek out the people that have been a success in life and their chosen field. Identify people of character and integrity and follow their example. Second, never be afraid to fail. Defeats avoided because you feared the challenge will be your greatest regret — not the humiliating defeats. Third, take every opportunity to say ‘Thank You.’ None of us made it to where we are without the help of others, but none of us say thanks often enough.”
Elliston is licensed to practice before the United States Supreme Court, Texas Supreme Court, U.S. District Courts for the Northern, Southern, Western, and Eastern Districts of Texas, and the U.S. Court of Appeals Fifth Circuit. He has served as a member of numerous professional, community and charitable organizations including the State Bar of Texas, Bar Association Fifth Circuit, Dallas Bar Association, Texas Association of Defense Counsel, where he served as Trial Academy Director and on the Board of Directors. Furthermore, Elliston has served with the Defense Research Institute, Dallas Association of Defense Counsel, and American Board of Trail Advocates. He is a Life Fellow with the Texas Bar Foundation. He was a member of Howard Payne University’s Board of Trustees from 1993 to 2002 and a member of HPU’s Academy of Freedom board of directors from 1996 to 2002. Presently he serves as a member of the Baylor University Board of Regents and Baylor Oral Health Foundation board of trustees. He is also a deacon at Park Cities Baptist Church where he has been a long time Sunday School teacher in the youth department.
Elliston grew up in Robinson, and is married to Molli Cassle Elliston. Together they have two sons and a daughter.
“If I’m going to make a lasting difference,” said Elliston, “it will not be in a court of law, but rather in the lives of people who will be here long after I’m gone. I am keenly aware that when I look back over my life, material possessions are not the things that matter most. I can put the money in a bank account, or I can support young people whose hard work and experiences will make a difference after I am in the grave. That seems to be an easy choice.”