ATTORNEY & FOUNDER
May 13, 1936 – September 7, 2021
In a professional career that spanned more than 50 years, a chronicle of Walter Umphrey’s achievements could fill a hefty tome to rival the loftiest Larry McMurtry novel. In The New York Times Book Review, writer Nicholas Lemann once commented on the characters in Lonesome Dove saying, “These are real people, and they are still larger than life.” This aptly describes Walter Umphrey as well, “real people” and “larger than life.”
In a long, distinguished career like Umphrey’s, a summary of achievements or listing of awards barely tells the tale. An overview summary leaves no room to tell the thousands upon thousands of stories of the “working men and women” who benefited from Walter Umphrey’s willingness to advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves. His legacy is still felt in the lives of those for whom he served as a champion.
If you asked his former professional peers to describe Umphrey’s legal prowess with a single word, you would likely hear descriptors like relentless, fearless, bold and competitive. All are fitting; however, perhaps the most comprehensive description would be dynamic. To be dynamic is to be “a force that stimulates change or progress.” A dynamic person is “positive in attitude and full of energy and new ideas.” Over the course of a now legendary legal career, Walter Umphrey embodied all of these definitions.
The Struggle to Become Great
Born in Port Arthur, Texas, Walter first attended college at SMU on a football scholarship before ultimately earning his BBA at Baylor University in 1959. After graduating, he spent a brief tenure as an insurance adjustor before enrolling in Baylor Law School where he earned his JD, graduating in 1965. Ironically perhaps, Walter would battle the insurance industry on behalf of his clients throughout his entire career.
During those lean years of law school, Walter and his wife Sheila lived modestly on the small monthly salary she earned from the bank where she worked. As Walter related years later in an article for Baylor’s alumni magazine:
“We were making $245 a month from Sheila’s job at a bank, and we borrowed all the money for tuition. When I got home from law school each day, I’d take a nap for about an hour, pick her up at the bank and then stay up all night studying.”
Walter’s “all-nighter” studies were necessary to keep pace because his days were filled with the rigorous demands of Baylor Law’s highly respected Practice Court curriculum, the central focus of his law study. He confesses to being intimidated at the time by the ongoing challenges and pressures of Practice Court, complete with judge, jury and the critical eye of an audience comprised of his professors and fellow law students. However, by the time he received his JD in 1965, Walter Umphrey knew his way around both the courtroom and the courthouse.
With finely honed skills learned at Baylor Law, Walter was primed and ready for trial. He returned to his hometown area and joined the Jefferson County District Attorney’s office as a Prosecutor. He quickly rose through the ranks to become the Chief Felony Prosecutor before departing the DA’s office in 1969 to found the Provost Umphrey Law Firm with David Provost.
“Once in a generation, a larger than life lawyer comes along that inspires us to not only practice the best law possible for hard working folks but be more passionate about bettering our community. Walter Umphrey is that transformational figure. He stood up for working men and women and unions when it wasn’t popular nor easy in the legal community to do so. He changed up the legal landscape in so many positive arenas for ordinary folks. He taught everyone at Provost Umphrey to speak for those could not speak for themselves; to fight for those that needed a champion. Walter Umphrey is a living hero to me and all that worked with him.”Greg Thompson
Attorney and Former Provost Umphrey Partner
The Dynamic Philanthropist
Beyond the practice of law, Walter has provided unwavering support to many important civic and community causes with a special focus in philanthropic support for both Baylor Law School and Lamar University.
Perhaps his boldest service as a benefactor to date has been the foundational support he and his wife provided to his alma mater, Baylor Law School. In 1998, they provided the lead financial support that resulted in the Sheila and Walter Umphrey Law Center, an impressive state of the art educational facility that runs along the Brazos River and now serves as home for the Baylor Law School. The Umphrey Law Center more than doubled Baylor’s capacity and helped to insure that Baylor Law School remains among the nation’s top law schools for generations to come.
In 2012, the Umphrey’s charity again enhanced the beauty of the Baylor University campus along the Brazos by funding the construction of a stunning pedestrian bridge that connects McLane Stadium to the campus. The Sheila and Walter Umphrey Pedestrian Bridge, which also runs alongside the Umphrey Law Center, expands Baylor’s campus north of the Brazos. Additionally, the Umphreys have also established The Walter Umphrey Endowed Courtroom Fund to provide scholarships for deserving Baylor Law School students.
Back in their hometown of Beaumont, Texas, the Umphrey’s have also provided support to Sheila’s alma mater Lamar University. In 2005, the Umphrey’s stepped up to provide a $5 million gift to construct a new multi-million dollar recreational facility appropriately named the Sheila Umphrey Recreational Sports Center, which opened in 2007 and was nicknamed “The Sheila” by the faculty and students who enter its doors year after year.
“Walter is a star that shines so bright in the pantheon of great lawyers in our state and nation. Throughout his career, he has used his gifts as a lawyer – which are mightily impressive – to serve and help other who might otherwise be marginalized in our justice system. When I think of Walter, these words come to mind: bright, passionate, savvy, caring and giving. He is one of the foremost trial lawyers in our state and in the nation. We have been truly blessed by Walter and the unremitting vigor and dedication that he has brought to bear in his advocacy on behalf of his clients and the cause of justice.”– Bradley J.B. Toben
Dean and M.C. & Mattie Caston Professor of Law, Baylor University School of Law
In 2008, prior to the resumption of Lamar’s long dormant football program, Walter and Sheila partnered with Provost Umphrey Law Firm in a $4 million grant to Lamar University, which then renamed its football facility, Provost Umphrey Stadium. In some ways, the gifts to Lamar University that support its sports programs bring Walter Umphrey’s life full circle, since he started his own college experience on a football scholarship.
“For almost 50 years, Walter has devoted his life to Provost Umphrey and the hard-working people of Southeast Texas. Walter’s legacy remains the guiding force of the firm today. I strongly believe that the firm will continue to flourish under the new leadership.”-Sheila Umphrey,
Walter Umphrey’s wife
While Walter’s financial generosity has reached extraordinary levels, he has also been generous with his time. For years, Walter served on the Southeast Texas – State Bar of Texas Grievance Committee helping resolve disputes between local attorneys and their clients. Walter also served as Director for the National Wildlife Association and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. While serving as a member of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, Walter purchased land at Mesquite Point on Pleasure Island in Port Arthur that he then donated to Jefferson County. The land was used to establish what is now known as Walter Umphrey State Park.
In a lifetime of accomplishment and acclaim, so many people have benefited from Walter Umphrey being on their side that the whole story will likely never be fully known. While any one of his major individual achievements would serve almost anyone proudly, for Walter Umphrey what he is most proud of is very simple.
“What I enjoyed most was building the law firm and helping the people that we have,” Walter says. “We don’t represent the big corporations. We help individual people. That’s what I’m most proud of.”