G. Dewey Oxner Jr. may have left this earth, but his legacy continues on.
Described by friends, family and colleagues as a “gentle giant,” “most beloved lawyer in the state” and a man who “loved barbecue,” Oxner was a nationally acclaimed trial lawyer specializing in medical malpractice and product liability cases.
He grew up in Greenville and graduated from Greenville High School in 1952, where he was a fullback on the football team. Oxner then went on to major in history and play football at Washington and Lee University.
Alas, football just wasn’t in his future, although friends say that Oxner always did wonder what would have happened if he had pursued the sport professionally. Instead, he followed in the footsteps of his father, a former South Carolina Supreme Court justice.
Oxner received his law degree from the University of South Carolina in 1959 and began practicing at what is now Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd P.A. (HSB). He spent more than 50 years with the firm and did stints as a managing partner and shareholder emeritus.
Bob Wells, executive director of the South Carolina Bar, remembers when Oxner first started out as a lawyer.
“For fun, we did an in-house video, allegedly showing Dewey the ropes. One of the scenes was Dewey walking over to the refrigerator, opening it and looking at all of the sodas. He looked back into the camera and said ‘sweet’ with a huge grin.”
The anecdote was pure Oxner, Wells said. “Dewey was just a joyful person. He was gracious and incredibly bright.”
“It was in the 1990s and the Ku Klux Klan was trying to reactivate and do marches in South Carolina. Dewey and I represented the cities of Clinton and Laurens, and we technically lost the case but we were able to get so many restrictions placed that it was a peaceful march.”
Oxner always carried a little black book in his pocket “that must have contained the secrets of life,” Mabry recalled. Any time Oxner was asked a question, he would say, “Let me check,” pull the book out, thumb through the pages and come back with an answer.
Frankie Marion, another longtime colleague at HSB, says that Dewey had quite a reputation at the firm regarding his desk. “He had an incredible mind to bring order to chaos, and his desk was a great example of this.”
Oxner’s desk was literally a mound of paperwork, but he knew right where everything was. At one point, while Oxner was away on vacation, one of the senior partners had secretaries come in and organize everything. It was less than one day after Oxner returned that the desk was back with papers stacked up “to the way it was.”
Oxner was deeply involved in the local law community. He was co-chairman of the S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Commission on Professionalism, a permanent member of the Fourth Circuit Judicial Conference and former president of the South Carolina Bar.
Oxner was so committed to professionalism that he approached Chief Justice Jean Toal about forming a commission that would address the topic in the law community. Toal loved the idea and worked with Oxner to set that up. It is now a highly regarded statewide program.
Oxner also formulated an oath that all South Carolina lawyers must now take. The American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA), of which Oxner was a member, has already persuaded 13 states to adopt the oath and hopes to extend the practice nationwide.
“If there is a legacy that is going to live long after Dewey, it’s that oath,” said Mabry.
Always willing to share his knowledge, Oxner created a mentor program for new lawyers at HSB. Mabry remembers that Oxner would let young lawyers assist on the case and do the closing remarks – except he never told them when to stop. It was a little stressful but “that was just Dewey’s nature,” he said.
Oxner’s sense of humor was well known. John Kittredge, a State Supreme Court Justice from Greenville, said he had an “an infectious laugh. He loved to tell stories and had a kind and gentle, unassuming nature.”
Oxner’s pervasive sense of humor, professionalism and commitment to legal ethics is what set him apart and ensures that, in Marion’s words, “He will definitely be missed.”