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When the System Works

posted: Mon, Sep 10, 2012

Those looking for a dramatic rags-to-riches narrative or turnaround story should look somewhere besides the next few pages. For Michael Appleman, there’s no broken home. No valiant overcoming of a childhood disability. No self-destructive tendencies or personal demons to overcome that we can tell, not in the least. He’s highly successful, fully engaged in his community, witty, affable, and easy going.

But while the arc of this Fort Worth estate lawyer’s life story thus far wouldn’t make a compelling movie of the week, there is a profoundly important message in it nonetheless. And the message is this:

The system works.

This is how the system is supposed to work — how you’re supposed to create a successful human being: Take a loving and supportive couple, each half of which  is smart and successful in his and her own right (and preferably Texas Exes Life Members, and while you’re at it, make the father a one-time president of the Texas Exes and a Distinguished Alumnus). Have a baby and put him through good schools; if you play your cards right, you really only need two: one for k-12 and one for his bachelor’s and law degrees. Instill in him a huge dose of community service ethos. And last but not least, indoctrinate him in Longhorn sports fanaticism from the time he’s in diapers. Bake for 25 years, let congeal for another 15, and the product you get is Michael Appleman, Life Member, Outstanding Young Texas Ex (and a darned good human being).

That the Appleman didn’t fall far from the tree is a horrible pun but one too apt to pass on. In fact, Applemans have been falling in this vicinity — both geographically and professionally — for some time. Like Appleman, Michael’s grandfather, Frank, was a Fort Worth estate and probate lawyer, and Michael’s father, Gordon, still is, now working across the street from Michael at Thompson & Knight.

But it wasn’t a given that he would follow so closely in their footsteps. “There are some pictures of me as a kid carrying the laundry basket around,” says Michael. “I wanted to be a garbage man because I thought it would be cool to ride on the side of a truck.”

The eminent question naturally was raised to the youngster, though. He says, “My answer was always, ‘I don’t know. I’m 8!’”

But if the choice of profession wasn’t a given, the choice of college was all but written in his DNA. When Bill Shelton, Appleman’s high school history teacher, is asked if he was surprised Appleman opted for UT after having attended a high school with a graduating class of 60, he laughs at the question. “Michael didn’t have a chance. That orange room in their house would have cracked down the middle if he had gone anywhere else.”

When Appleman won one of four Outstanding Young Texas Exes Awards last May, he was asked on a questionnaire who made the biggest impression on him as a child, to which he wrote in reply, “My father and Earl Campbell.” (Sorry, Mrs. Appleman. Don’t shoot the messenger, but you came third!) Appleman has a quick wit, but given his level of Longhorn fanaticism, you can never be sure if such over-the-top self-evaluations are in jest or not.

His burnt-orange fever was the childhood-onset variety. “I don’t know why there was such an affinity for it. Maybe it was because it was Dad Time, because he was so into it, and I wanted to be like Dad. It just kind of stuck. Mom, I think, is tolerant of it.” (Though a Life Member and a stalwart supporter of her husband’s and son’s UT obsessions, Louise is not a Texas alumna but a Distinguished Alumna of Texas Woman’s University in Denton.)

One nascent memory is that of getting picked up early on a Friday afternoon and heading to Austin in the station wagon, because Gordon would have a Texas Exes meeting. “I can remember this massive expanse of surface area to do whatever we wanted. If there was any sort of an accident, [sister] Anne and I were projectiles!” Once in town, they would stay with Jack and Bebe Boone, or Ernest and Paula Smith, or else at the old Villa Capri motel at Dean Keeton and I-35.

Shelton, who still sees Appleman once a month or so, either over lunch or a board meeting, remembers an excellent high school student who was fun to teach, always popular, and a doer. He played on the basketball and golf teams — “I think I peaked in eighth grade,” Appleman demurs — and was involved in virtually every aspect of the school. “Since then I would say Michael has always been a leader of his class,” Shelton says.

    Following Gordon’s, and Earl’s, footsteps to The University of Texas admissions office, Michael majored in Plan II and assumed the high level of activity and commensurate popularity he had enjoyed at Trinity Valley, the small private school that had been until then the only school he’d ever known.

And it was then that his love and appreciation of the University spread west across San Jacinto Boulevard, from athletics to the rest of the campus. “I just like the place. It has so much to offer so many different people,” he says, then pauses. “I can remember saying that to prospective high school students when I was back in college. I was chosen to go to recruiting, ... outside of academics, you’ve got black students, Hispanic students, Asian students, and you’re going to learn as much or more from them as you will from the outstanding professors you have in the classroom.”

He never lived on campus, but always nearby, moving into Dobie his freshman year, then various West Campus rooms after that. At UT, Appleman was active in the Senate of College Councils, the Student Involvement Committee (now the Texas Exes Student Chapter), the Texas Cowboys, and his fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau.

Whether it was the path of least resistance or something in his DNA, he felt himself being drawn toward law school, and moved into a private house within walking distance. “I kind of feel like I just ended up in law school. There was never a gung-ho, charging in.” During law school he interned at the Texas Treasurer’s Office under then-secretary Kay Bailey Hutchison, BA ’62, LLB ’67.

Appleman is one of few people who truly can claim to have grown up around the University (and its alumni association), become a full-blooded Longhorn student, and then moved directly into active alumni service, seemingly without any prodigal hiatus from his loyalties and sense of responsibility. At 40, he already has served on the Texas Exes Council, the Young Alumni Task Force, the Fort Worth Chapter, and an ad hoc committee convened to help the Texas Exes chart a course for its future. Outside the Association, he’s served on the College of Liberal Arts Foundation Advisory Council, including on its nominating committee.

While impressive, this UT leadership is really just a subset of a much larger portfolio of civic volunteerism, all of which tracks with his professional rise.

On returning to Fort Worth as a law graduate, he took a position at Cantey & Hanger and just seven years out of law school, at age 32, made partner. He specializes in taxation, estates, and business organization, and in 2002, the Fort Worth Business Press named him in its list of “40 under 40.”

The bread and butter of his practice is estate planning probate. Today he’s working on amending a trust. Yesterday afternoon he was drafting wills and powers of attorney. Yesterday morning he accompanied a client to the courthouse to help someone become a successor guardian, giving her power of attorney so that she could help doctors make decisions about her mother’s surgery. Tomorrow it’s back to amending trusts.

Asked if he ever gets down from all the end-of-life issues, he says no. “In some sense I have a short memory,” he says, apparently counting it as a blessing. “Obviously when you’re in the moment with someone who’s lost a loved one, it’s hard not to be affected by that, and you do see some cases that are heart wrenching. But I’ve got to move on with the next one, and it might be as uplifting as the last one was sobering.”

One example of an uplifting case was a client’s daughter who had been involved in an auto accident and was incapacitated. The father needed to become guardian to get her into rehab. “About two years later the two of them showed up in my office, and we went down to the courthouse and had the guardianship removed,” he remembers. “She had regained enough capacity to be able to do a lot of the daily-living sorts of things. Even the judge commented that we don’t get to do these very often, so this one’s kind of nice.”

He can also get a warm fuzzy from things that others might assume are just cold legalism. At some level, it’s like a highly complex version of helping an old lady cross the street, except in this world, the old lady’s husband has just died, and, like many couples from her era, the husband handled all the money. “It’s nice to be able to take that lady’s hand, accompany her down to the courthouse, which can be a big, imposing building, help her get her affairs in order, and to get a heartfelt thank you from her.” Conversely, Appleman has helped many a widower who’s just lost his best friend. In this case, “It’s not so much how to handle finances, it’s just not knowing what to do,” Appleman says. “If you can remove that for somebody, there’s an actual physical effect. It’s gratifying to be able to help people like that.”

Drafting a will is a less tangible benefit, one that forces a longer view. “You put all these documents together and have it notarized, put them in a pretty folder, and send them out the door,” he says. “Then you hope you don’t see them for another 50 years, because you don’t want them walking out the door and getting hit by a bus. ‘Well, it’s a good thing you were just here!’”

Appleman acknowledges the inherent difficulties in getting others excited about his profession. “It’s not terribly exciting to talk about — ‘Hey, I established a trust for somebody today!’ It doesn’t have quite the panache as, say, going to argue before a court.”

But it’s clear from walking through the halls of his building that people like Appleman. And his is the kind of popularity that comes from a lifetime of putting down roots. Out on the street, a car slows and the driver waves. In the downtown lunch club, the maître d’ and later the chef greet him by name, along with about half of the patrons in the dining room. The line from the Cheers theme, “You want to go where everybody knows your name,” applies to Appleman, with the difference being that that somewhere seemingly is everywhere. And it’s not just because he’s a partner in a major law firm or a downtown Fort Worth fixture. It’s because he’s involved.

He’s served as a volunteer leader for the American Heart Association, the AmonCarterMuseum, the Fort Worth Club Junior Activities Committee, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, People to People for Peace, Leadership Fort Worth, the James L. West Presbyterian Special Care Center Foundation, and on the board of directors for Beth-El Congregation. He also has served in numerous volunteer roles for the youth organization Camp FireUSA.

“I’ve basically never heard him turn down anything,” says Shelton, who in addition to being his teacher has served with him on the Alzheimer’s Association board. “When he gave of his legal expertise to that board, that was very important to some of the issues that came before us.”

Bill Thornton, president and CEO of the Fort Worth Chamber, has worked with Appleman for years on the Vision Fort Worth initiative, which tries to integrate young people into the Fort Worth business community. “I can tell you he’s cut out of the same cloth as his mom and dad. He’s been integral to the success in Vision Fort Worth and its 400 members.” Thornton describes Appleman as passionate. “He’s a big-picture guy. As it pertains to this initiative, he gets it. He understands how important this business community is to the success of the larger community. And he was willing to put his time and his effort where his mouth was.”

Appleman’s nature is calm, thoughtful, and mature beyond his years. “I sometimes find it hard to believe that he was once in high school,” Shelton chuckles. “He’s very straightforward, but at the same time thoughtful, compassionate, and willing to serve.”

But all measured responses, cool rationalism, and sense of proportionality are out the window when the subject returns — as it inevitably does — to the Longhorns.

A football season-ticket holder since graduation, Appleman had his most telling episode in 2003, the year the Horns went to the Final Four. “Dad was in Austin, so I flew to San Antonio (where the basketball team was playing). After the game, he picked me up, and we drove back to Austin. Saturday morning was the spring football scrimmage. So we went to that, and then went to a baseball game — all on a day that was cold and drizzly. I was miserable, but, by golly, we were there, sitting in a half-empty Memorial Stadium, watching us play ourselves, not knowing whom to cheer for.” On Sunday morning, they got up and drove back to San Antonio for the next round of the basketball tournament.

It was ever thus. Shelton recalls seeing a teenage Appleman at a TCU vs. Texas basketball game that the Horned Frogs won with a buzzer shot. “I don’t think I have ever seen anyone more crushed.”

Though Appleman lives a stone’s throw from the TCU football stadium, it’s paid off only once. Shortly after he moved there, Texas paid a visit to the Horned Frogs, after which the Southwest Conference immediately broke up. But he still loves the collegiate game day atmosphere and his front-row seat on the tailgating even without the Horns in Cow Town.

Though fit, Appleman does not much claim athleticism for himself. “I have a country club membership. They love me,” he says. “They collect my membership dues every month and they never see me.” These days, biking and running have gained sway, and he’s got a couple of triathlons behind him. He prefers the Tom Landry Triathlon  because it has a pool swim. When he did a triathlon with the swim in LakeJefferson, he says with understated humor, “I swam farther than most of the other competitors.”

The same could be said for how Michael Appleman leads his life out of the water. The difference being that everybody wins from his extra efforts.

 

By: Avrel Seale

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