Life is a Gift: A Tribute to Zane Daniel

By Ralphine Major

Following is my tribute to legendary criminal defense attorney, the late William Zane Daniel, which was first published in The Knoxville Focus on 9-5-2006 shortly after his death.  It was my first feature ever published in the Focus. 

It was a pink bag with black and white polka dot trim, but it was not the color that caught my attention.  It was the words printed on it: “Life is a gift, and so are those around us.”   Three days later those words seemed more poignant than ever when I heard Zane Daniel had passed away.

It started the summer of 1973.  I was a college student working in the late Congressman John Duncan’s office.  A visitor walked in and I asked, “May I help you?”  He extended his hand to shake mine and replied, “Hello, I’m Jim Duncan, Mr. Duncan’s son.”  I remember thinking I should have recognized him since he so strongly resembled his father.

The next time I spoke to Jim Duncan was during Christmas break just after my 19th birthday.  He was starting law practice with Zane Daniel and called to ask if I would work for them.  I remembered Jimmy; but I had never heard of Zane.  In eager anticipation, I wondered what it would be like—maybe small talk about classical music?  At least I knew some after years of piano from Mrs. Atkins, step-mother of Chet.

Monday morning, armed with my strong work ethic and a willingness to learn, I marched into the law firm of Daniel & Duncan.  No sooner had I set foot inside when my preconceived notions vanished.  Zane’s infectious smile erased my image of lawyers, and the interview seemed more like a fireside chat.  I felt like I had known these lawyers all my life.  That is attributed to what I most admired in both of them—their “down-to-earth” personality.  My classical music theory went out the window!  Daniel & Duncan were bluegrass and country music fans!  Zane even went to college with “The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA,” Donna Fargo.

I was the only office employee, and Zane took me “under his wing.”  He used a tape recorder resembling a cell phone (hi-tech for ’73) to give me mini lessons in law about such things as depositions, court reporters, and statute of limitations.  Zane took it home one night to record; I took it home the next night to listen.  He gave me names of secretaries I could contact if a problem came up while they were away.  This popular criminal defense attorney thought of everything.

One morning Zane had no sooner left than he returned from a deposition.  His clients had not shown, and I knew why.  So did Zane.  He gave a glancing grin and in his good-natured chuckle mumbled they probably had not been called.  Zane could have lashed out but never said another word, choosing to overlook my youth and inexperience while juggling classes at UT.

Zane added spice to ordinary days.  He often called to say he would be there soon.   As I hung up the phone, Zane strolled in wearing that infectious smile.  He loved seeing the surprised look on my face.  There were no cell phones–he had called from the elevator phone!  Zane loved having fun.  He once told me I needed to be writing more receipts and seeing the puzzled look on my face, let a boyish grin slip out.  I was beginning to learn this was typical Zane.

Bob Ritchie and Zane were once on their way to Nashville to hold a trial lawyer’s seminar.  Realizing they did not have the handouts, Zane called and asked me to pick up the copies and meet them.  In my haste I missed the exit, but somehow managed to find them–finally.  Zane met me with a smile and casually asked, “Have any trouble?”

Zane tossed the keys to his Cadillac on the desk and asked me to pick up some medical reports.  I just looked at him.  Now Zane had the puzzled look.  “It has a full tank of gas,” he said.  But Zane did not understand, the gas tank was not my concern.  I was worried that I might have an accident.  Zane just laughed.  “I’ve got insurance,” he said.

One of Zane’s buddies always called him “Zorro.”  Maybe it was because of the letter “Z” or because of Zane’s black suit.  Nevertheless, the name stuck with my family and others.

Zane loved watching his boys raid the candy dish.  Todd would sit in my lap while stuffing his pockets with candy, and I helped him.

It is amazing how time changes our perspective.  When I started working for Daniel & Duncan, Jimmy was 26 and Zane 33.  I thought they were both old!  Last fall at Chris Morgan’s wedding, he looked so young!  My math tells me Chris must be in his very early thirties–about Zane’s age when I worked for him.  Zane was really young!  And he entrusted all of my nineteen years with much more than anyone ever had before or has since.  Zane and Jimmy both made me feel like I “hung the moon,” and all the while I felt like they did.  It still amazes me that these two attorneys hired this teenager from Corryton!  They believed in me like no one else.  I thought the world of Jimmy and Zane and named our German Shepherd pups Daniel & Duncan.  They often told that I thought they had gone to the dogs!

It is so hard to believe those little boys who once raided the candy bowl are now practicing attorneys just like their father, and they have children of their own.  I now tell everyone that Congressman Jimmy Duncan is East Tennessee’s best friend in Washington, and he is still just as down to earth as he was that day, I met him in his father’s office.  After all these years, I can still see Zane flash that infectious smile; I can still remember his charm; I can still see him dashing into the office looking dapper in that black suit; and I can still hear the kindness in his good-natured laugh.  I will always remember and appreciate the respect Zane showed me and the trust he placed in me.  Zane endeared himself to so many people; and as one lady said so simply: “Zane never talked above us, and he will be missed.”

I will always cherish the last time I talked to Zane just days before he left for Seattle.  I told him he was on Wallace Memorial’s prayer lists as well as my family’s.  We truly believed in a miracle for Zane, but God did not answer our prayers the way we thought He would.  Knowing that was a possibility is why I penned a lengthy letter to Zane, and I am so glad I did.

As for the bag, I just had to have it—whimsical looking though it was.  Its words bear repeating:  Life is a gift, and so are those around us.  One of “those around us” is now gone, and those of us who knew him have lost a precious gift.  But I can still see that infectious smile . . . smiling down from heaven.

Words of Faith:  The inspiring words from Micah 6:8 shared by John J. Duncan, Jr., at Zane’s memorial service:  “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”  To learn more about William Zane Daniel, visit www.forevermissed.com/william-zane-daniel.

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