Son of the Sage of the South
In Charleston, the name Gedney M. Howe is legendary two times over.
“I ain’t the real Gedney Howe,” Gedney Howe III says with a laugh, paraphrasing what a friend of his father’s once told him. Despite Howe III’s accomplishments in the courtroom, including successful results for his clients in many high-profile cases, one of which remains South Carolina’s largest-ever personal injury verdict, he doesn’t consider the comment an insult. When your name is Gedney Howe, that talk simply comes with the territory.
The “real” Gedney Howe—or “Big Gedney” as he was called after his son was born—was known across South Carolina for his searing intellect and generous spirit. His father had been a civil engineer, but the second Gedney Howe took up law. Throughout a 60-year legal career, including 10 years as solicitor of the 9th Judicial Circuit, Gedney Howe Jr. was as formidable a trial lawyer as he was a compassionate and engaged citizen. A consummate storyteller with a distinctive Charleston brogue, Big Gedney was revered as the “Sage of the South,” and a bronze bust was built to memorialize him in the courtyard entryway of Charleston’s Judicial Center after his death in 1981. He looked out for the little guy, championed equal justice, and mentored many young lawyers—including one Gedney Howe III.
The younger Howe has never tried to escape his father’s shadow; rather, he embraces it, credits his dad for leading him toward law and acknowledges the leg-up the Howe name has given him.
“My daddy loved being a lawyer. He was having such a good time doing it that it created this gravitational pull for me,” Howe says. “People were always coming up and thanking him for helping them, giving him such positive reinforcement that it seemed to me to be a pretty good way to spend your day. I could see that my daddy had a life well-spent, and that was what really drew me and my brothers and sister toward practicing law.” Indeed, all four Howe offspring followed in Big Gedney’s footsteps, although “Little Gedney,” the second child and oldest son, was the only to go into practice with his father, which he did in 1973. “I was so fortunate that I got to work with my daddy for seven years. It gave me a jump-start; I got to do big cases right away. Not because of me, but because of him,” he says.
Howe earned his J.D. from the University of South Carolina School of Law in 1973; his legal education began much earlier. The Howe children grew up listening to “Howe’s Little Home Lectures,” as they dubbed their father’s dinner-table chats. Conversations that began typically with “How was your day?” segued into case recap, then morphed into eloquent musings on principles of law.
Long before he was a lawyer, Howe was a “doctor,” thanks to his mother. “She was a very substantial person in her own right,” he says. “My mother had a clear sense of right and wrong. When it came to how to treat other people, there was no gray area.” Marybelle Howe devoted her adult life to civil rights causes, including outreach to the farmworkers on the rural sea islands outside downtown Charleston, where the Howe family lived and the kids attended public school. “I fought in the war on poverty—I was a draftee,” Howe quips about his volunteering, recalling how at age 14 he dispensed the worm shots (“I was the ‘doctor,’” he says) when his mother organized a health clinic for the migrant farmers in the early 1960s. “Things were so prejudiced back then that the hospitals wouldn’t even send a medical resident out there.”
Whether he was supporting his mother’s outreach or selling peanuts at Rivers High School wrestling matches (“Ten cents a bag!” he’d cry. “Won’t make you, won’t break you!”), Howe demonstrated a strong work ethic early on and hasn’t let up. As a former sheet metal worker, then a bricklayer and plaster craftsman-in-training during law school—experience that he says comes in handy in construction litigation cases—Howe knows how to roll up his sleeves, put in sweat and muscle, and pay attention to detail.
“Gedney is always at the office before anyone else, and stays later than everyone,” says fellow Charleston lawyer Dawes Cooke of Barnwell Whaley Patterson & Helms, who has both served as co-counsel with Howe and argued cases against him. “He doesn’t believe in emails. If Gedney’s got something important to discuss, he picks up the phone or pays a visit. He never takes anything for granted, and always puts in that extra effort.”
That personal touch characterizes the way Howe and his two associates at The Law Offices of Gedney M. Howe, III—Alvin Hammer and Caroline West—handle the firm’s general litigation practice. The Howe name draws referrals from across the state, but Howe is highly selective in accepting cases. “We’ve not only maintained the form of a small firm, we’ve maintained the substance of what my father’s small firm did, which is delivering highly personalized, individualized service,” Howe says. “We return phone calls, know our clients on a personal basis, remember birthdays. We have a strong sense that we work for the client, that they are the employer and we are the employee.”
When representing the families of three boys who drowned in 1997 after their boat, Morning Dew, struck a jetty in the Charleston Harbor, Howe was up against the U.S. Department of Justice’s top three experts in admiralty law—a legal field he was not terribly familiar with. “We had this great learning curve to catch up with them. We caught up because we worked harder than they did, and we won it because we should have won it, because we were right,” says Howe, who successfully argued that the U.S. Coast Guard was “wanton and reckless” in failing to launch an effective search in response to the boys’ mayday call. The $19 million award to the boys’ families was upheld on appeal.
“The Morning Dew case demonstrates Gedney’s diligence and creativity,” says Cooke. “Most lawyers would have looked at that case and thought it was impossible to win, that it would be seen as simply an unfortunate boating accident. But Gedney persisted until he developed a convincing theory of recovery, ultimately persuading the district judge that the Coast Guard was negligent.”
The case also demonstrates how a good fight excites the 65-year-old Howe. “As I get older, I get harder cases. And you know why they’re harder?” he asks, pausing for effect. “Because they’re harder! They’re more complex.
“I love having an opponent,” he adds. “[Litigation] is a battle, and the cases I’m involved in have really good lawyers on the other side. You’ve got to stay on top of your game every day just to stay even.”
Of course, staying even isn’t Howe’s goal.
“My clients don’t want a fair shake. They want to win,” he says. “We don’t have files that sit. Our job is to initiate the next move, to always be moving the case forward. We’re making every single effort to win from the very beginning. It’s like when the Celtics play the Lakers; there are going to be a lot of points scored, but what most people don’t understand is that those free throws in the first quarter are what control the game.
“We want every point we can gain, even in the first quarter. We stay attuned to every opportunity to better position our case.”
While most of Howe’s litigation stays under the radar due to confidentiality agreements, his more high-profile cases include representing the South Carolina State Senate twice in complex reapportionment litigation; defending the state treasurer (who also happened to be the son of one of the state’s most prominent political figures) in U.S. v. Thomas Ravenel; and prevailing in a personal injury suit on behalf of a longshoreman, who was crushed when a shipping container fell on his car (according to media reports, the settlement of $13.2 million for the longshoreman, client Michael Clarkin, remains the largest of its kind in state history). When a group of young “gentlemen pot smugglers” were arrested in Operation Jackpot, as the federal drug investigation was called, Howe represented Bob “The Boss” Byers. Byers pleaded guilty to nine counts, including one under the “kingpin” statute, before busting out of county jail where he was being held on contempt charges after refusing to turn over assets. “It was pretty wild to have a client who escaped from jail,” says Howe. “That was a tough case; we were under tremendous pressure—you had brothers testifying against brothers. They were all people you liked, cute as they could be, and the government was out to get them and had the ammunition to do so.” In the end, Byers was one of 100 smugglers convicted.
One of Howe’s most publicized trials involved a 1990 FBI sting known as Operation Lost Trust, in which South Carolina legislators and lobbyists, 28 in all, were indicted for corruption and charged under the Hobbs Act for selling their votes for cash. All but one of those charged, Rep. Tim Wilkes, were convicted. Howe represented Wilkes.
As one of the largest legislative corruption cases in U.S. history, Lost Trust garnered huge media attention, but to Howe, it was no more important than any other case. “It was professionally significant because of all the publicity, but it was just a criminal case,” says Howe. “I had my game face on, I was ready, but it was hard work that got me ready. I look back on Wilkes as confirmation that hard work pays off, singleness of purpose pays off.”
“Gedney epitomizes what we mean by being an ‘advocate,’” says Cooke. “He’s good at persuading people by understanding how they think. He figures out what makes people tick.”
Trenholm Walker, a defense and plaintiff’s litigator with Pratt-Thomas Walker, agrees: “No lawyer is Gedney’s equal in simplifying a complex case, synthesizing the facts and law into a story and electrifying a courtroom,” Walker says. “He’s in a league of his own. And, he’s the most entertaining person I know.”
This last point is apparent when listening to Howe’s animated storytelling. His eyes light up. He has a flair for drama and showmanship. “Being a trial lawyer is a lot like being a director of a play,” Howe says.
Set director, too, as evidenced by the massive, gilt-framed oil paintings, marble busts and lavish furnishings that decorate his office on the quaint and cobblestoned Chalmers Street. The office building is a historic fire house that Howe meticulously restored, doing much of the work himself, with most of the furnishings coming from his other major undertaking—the Calhoun Mansion, a 24,000 square-foot, formerly condemned property dating from 1876. Howe lovingly and painstakingly transformed it, one room at a time, from a decaying monstrosity to what journalist Charles Kuralt in his book Charles Kuralt’s America called “one of the most magnificent houses in America.” The project took him years—Howe would leave his law office in the evening and go home to strip wood and restore fine moldings. He loved working with his hands and using his craftsman skills and seeing the project’s real, if slow, progress. “No architect, no engineer; it was just me, a contractor who worked with me, and occasionally a client or two that I’d gotten off on a charge,” he says. “My mother called it the last penal colony in America.” The end result was an ornate and impressive showpiece, drawing hundreds of tourists daily.
Howe eventually sold the Calhoun Mansion when his children—daughter Sydney, now 21, Gedney, 18, and Charles, 13—were young; he worried that such an ostentatious home could be an “impediment” to raising grounded kids with good, solid values—the same ones he learned from his parents, which continue to fuel his passion for his profession.
“When someone entrusts you with the biggest problem in their life, you take that pretty damn seriously,” says Howe. “There are a lot of facets to practicing law, all of which are very rewarding, but to have the ability to help make a big difference in someone’s life—it’s pretty good stuff.”