Extended family pays tribute to B.T. Cooksey
Byron Thomas Cooksey – veteran, man of faith, volunteer firefighter, last of the surviving founders of the law firm Gould Cooksey Fennell and patriarch of his beloved family – was eulogized last Saturday as his wife Jacquelyn, three children and seven grandchildren looked on from the front pews of Trinity Episcopal Church.
But the family “B.T” nurtured extended way beyond blood ties. Scattered through the overflow crowd of mourners were a dozen younger attorneys whom Cooksey fathered, trained and gently disciplined as much as he did his own offspring.
“He mentored about how to handle a situation more than on what the law says,” said Gould Cooksey Fennell Managing Partner Todd Fennell, son of co-founder Darrell Fennel who passed in 2004.
The attorneys who carry on the beachside institution Cooksey started more than 50 years ago have their own memories of how one charming, intellectually sharp and professionally formidable man taught them everything they never learned in law school.
Life-long Vero Beach resident Christopher Marine joined Gould Cooksey Fennell at its Beachland Boulevard offices in 1983.
“When I started with the firm, I was 25 years old. I had a wife and two babies and no money and I was clueless on how to practice law,” Marine said. “B.T. just took me under his wing and he showed me the ropes. He’s just truly a mentor to me and very meaningful to me and sometimes difficult for me to talk about because we were so close and he was so important in my professional development.”
Marine had a job offer before his third year of law school after a summer clerkship, but he had known the whole Cooksey family since he was a kid, from church. “When I was 12 he looked exactly the way he did the whole time I knew him,” Marine said of Cooksey, who was known to be quick with a joke, but even quicker to offer a hand in navigating complex cases.
“He wanted to help you, but he wanted no recognition. He always had the purest of intentions, he always wanted to be of assistance to you but he wanted no vocal recognition and no pat on the back,” Marine said.
“He would be mad at me for sharing this with you, but B.T.’s help went further than professional help to me. He actually lent me the closing costs so I could buy my first house. He absolutely was a second father to me, especially in the early years.”
In exchange for all that benevolence, Cooksey expected his attorneys to toe the line, to be at their desks already generating billable hours at 8:30 a.m., and to arrive fully prepared and on time to meetings.
“If he said a meeting was at noon, he expected you there at noon and if you showed up at 12:05, he told you, ‘I thought the meeting started at noon.’ He didn’t jump up and down, but he let you know,” Fennell said.
During the memorial service, Cooksey’s son and grandson shared a favorite saying of the man affectionately called “Papa.”
Apparently not a fan of horseplay inside the house, or of goofing around in general when there was work to be done, B.T. Cooksey would say, “If you want to play, go to the park. They have swing sets and teeter-totters there.” Another brand of foolishness Cooksey had no tolerance or time for was power struggles or petty squabbles within the ranks of his law firm.
“B.T. was a peacemaker of the firm. Occasionally we lawyers can get up on our high horse and start championing why we’re entitled to this or that. He could always put that into perspective into what’s best for the firm,” said Eugene O’Neill, who went to work for Cooksey in 1977. “I think that will live on, to put the good of the firm first.”
A veteran of both the U.S. Navy and the Army who served in three wars, he wanted his platoon of attorneys to save their “fight” for the courtroom, or to channel it into representing their clients’ interests.
Always prepared to discuss in detail the case at hand, with key points lifted from documents and noted on his famous yellow legal pads, Cooksey would often close a big deal or settle a major dispute with the subtleties of human intelligence.
“I wouldn’t characterize B.T. as a warrior, he was a skilled negotiator and he had a manner of keeping negotiations from getting extreme in one direction or another,” Marine said. “He had a skilled way of manipulating the proceedings to get people to come to a mutually agreeable resolution of something and not even know they were doing it sometimes.”
O’Neill said B.T. always did his homework. But in remembering a tricky, criminal anti-trust case that Cooksey worked on where he was able to get charges dropped for a client, O’Neill said: “He did it by charm. Like Chris said, not the warrior but the charm.”
Since Cooksey’s passing, Vero’s legal community has been sharing stories of his warmth.
“I ran into five attorneys yesterday and each one had a similar story that when they came to town, B.T. was the first attorney to reach out to welcome them and ask if there was anything he could do,” O’Neill said. “He did it at least by letter or by phone, and in the old days, B.T. had a practice of taking young lawyers, not in the firm, but young lawyers to lunch just to help them get off to a good start.”
Fennell grew up hunting with Cooksey and his own dad out at a camp on Blue Cypress Lake. But that familiarity did not diminish the impact of his first professional moments with Cooksey the day he joined the firm as a tax specialist in 1995 after moving back home to Vero from Tampa.
“So I get here and here’s this kind of legend, this mentor, whatever you want to call him because there’s no doubt what B.T. meant to this firm and to this community, and he’s picking up little pieces of paper and scrubbing the floor where somebody spilled some coffee,” Fennell said. “What an impression that makes.”
“There was nothing above him and nothing below him. He would help anybody, do anything and that’s a weird thing to tell you in some ways, but it also speaks volumes,” Fennell said. “It’s what’s going to carry on at this firm. It’s the way you treat people and the way you handle things.”
That attitude, the attorneys say, is just part of what Cooksey leaves as a legacy. Famous for his short-sleeved dress shirts and his little notebooks full of organized, detailed scribbles of exactly how he spent his time, Cooksey was “very interested in your productivity and in the bottom line” and would often jokingly chide attorneys about making sure they were producing enough billable hours, O’Neill said.
O’Neill remembered Cooksey’s singular focus even showing up in his humor. “Years ago going back to John Gould’s time, where he or somebody would come in and announce that Lou Gehrig or someone had died, B.T. would ask: ‘Did we do his will?”
Just about every partner or associate at Gould Cooksey has their mentor “B.T.” to thank in some way for a significant portion of their client base, as he was adept at bringing in business and putting it in the capable hands of his associates.
When he did this, Fennell said, he would laud the recipient with high praise to give clients great confidence in the younger attorney’s abilities. Fennell described it as the “Godfather effect” when he would pass along his blessing, and his treasured clients.
In the lead-up to his retirement in 2013, Cooksey turned over long-time clients to members of the firm, a somewhat daunting task as those clients had grown accustomed to receiving a call back in less than an hour from their all-purpose family attorney who had the pertinent facts of their legal matters at his fingertips.
During the transition, he would help “smooth things over” with his old clients, but the attorneys say he was no hanger-on. When he retired, he retired. “B.T. was a man who never looked back,” O’Neill said. Estate planning and probate specialist Troy Hafner now occupies Cooksey’s old office.
Who in the firm is most takes after B.T? O’Neill said he’s often accused of recycling Cooksey’s jokes, but Marine said, “I think they broke the mold after they made B.T. He was a very special person.”
“B.T. was one of the last of the old-time general practitioners. Those were attorneys who were skilled in litigation, skilled in wills and probate, and real estate. They could literally do it all and B.T. was of that ilk, he was one of the last,” Marine said. “He was highly proficient in so many areas and that made him really great as a mentor because he could kind-of nudge you in the right direction when you got off track.”
Over the years, Cooksey built a professional network that spanned the whole Southeast, so he could enter a courthouse in Atlanta or Tallahassee and be on a first-name basis with attorneys there. In that vein, he encouraged all the attorneys in the firm to practice in a variety of state and federal jurisdictions and even before the Florida Supreme Court, to broaden their knowledge as much as possible.
“He really encouraged us to be all we could be in terms of a professional organization,” O’Neill said.