In the Tulsa-area legal community, the Honorable Carlos J. Chappelle stood out as someone special. But it wasn’t just his reputation as a provident and fair jurist that distinguished Chappelle. Descriptors like mentor — especially to at-risk youth — leader and dear friend capture just a few of the qualities that left a lasting impression on those fortunate to have known him. His life ended too soon in 2015 following a battle with cancer, but a new endowed scholarship championed by his nephew Danny C. Williams Sr. (JD ’91) and friend Shena Burgess (JD ’00) ensures Chappelle’s legacy will inspire the next generation of legal practitioners.
A family tradition
Williams, Chappelle’s nephew, remembers his uncle as filling the role of big brother. “My mother passed away when I was 11, so I was very close to my maternal grandparents and to Carlos, who was my mother’s youngest brother” said Williams. He recounts how Chappelle followed a couple of different career paths before deciding to attend law school at The University of Tulsa at age 28. “He practiced law for 14 years, but I think he was looking for something that would fulfill his passion,” said Williams. “When he became a judge, he found his calling. I know for a fact that he loved being a judge.”
When the time came for Williams to choose his own career, he followed in Chappelle’s footsteps, beginning with the decision to attend TU’s College of Law. “Carlos had an effect on every major decision that I made in my life,” said Williams. Though he couldn’t practice in Chappelle’s courtroom due to their familial relationship, Williams often watched his uncle preside over cases. “I’d tell him, ‘You handled that really well,’ and he would say, ‘You get more with honey than you do with vinegar.’ He always treated people with kindness and respect.”
Fair, honorable and just
In October 2009, Chappelle was appointed as a district judge; he held this position until his retirement in May 2015. Chappelle was elected as a presiding judge in 2014, and the first African American to hold the position in Tulsa County.
Shena Burgess practiced criminal law for the public defender’s office when she met Chappelle; she was assigned to his rotation for preliminary hearings when he served as a special judge and again after he was appointed as district judge. “As his assigned public defender, I got to spend a lot of time with him. He was always so kind when I had law student interns to take the time to visit with them and to answer their questions. When they were licensed interns, he allowed them to practice in front of him with my supervision.”
Burgess said that she never heard him raise his voice in court because he didn’t have to. “He was always professional and always treated our clients with respect.” She was struck by his ability to think outside the box when contemplating a sentencing. “It didn’t matter what kind of crazy plan I came up with for my client. If I could show it would work, he would do it. I don’t think any of those clients ever failed him.”
The two formed a friendship that lasted long after Burgess left the public defender’s office. Chappelle even facilitated her career move. Burgess recounts that, “He introduced me to Mark Smiling and told him, ‘I have good news and bad news: The bad news is I’m hiring your partner as my special judge, but the good news is I have your replacement.’ That’s how I transitioned from criminal law to civil law.”
Preserving a legacy
Both Burgess and Williams say that the news of Chappelle’s cancer diagnosis came as a shock to all who knew him. “It happened quickly, and when he passed away, there was an outpouring from practitioners around the legal community — we all needed to do something,” said Williams.
Soon after, TU College of Law Dean Lyn Entzeroth received a letter from a young lady who had attended a high school program at the university. She had so many questions for Chappelle that he handed her his card and invited her to visit his chambers. She kept in touch with him over the years, sending postcards from her many travels. When she learned that Chappelle had passed away and was going to receive an award at the 2016 Law Gala, she wrote Entzeroth to express how meeting him had impacted her life. “The dean shared that letter with me, and it touched my soul,” said Burgess. “That was the catalyst for starting a scholarship.”
TU College of Law hosts the Judge Chappelle Minority Law Awareness Day each year, a program inspired by Judge Chappelle to encourage minority high school students to pursue careers in law by meeting with TU law students and professors, learning more about the college application process, watching a mock trial and interacting with members of the Tulsa law community.
Though Burgess had never taken on such an endeavor, she started by calling contacts in her network to ask for donations. One of her friends, an attorney and standup comedian, suggested hosting a comedy show with proceeds benefiting the scholarship fund. A huge success, the show is now an annual event. Burgess’ efforts to raise money continued for more than two years, and then Williams stepped in to help with a final fundraising push to establish the Judge Carlos C. Chappelle Memorial Endowment Fund.
Burgess emphasizes the volume of donations made to the fund, representing Chappelle’s widespread influence. “Donations poured in from judges and lawyers, and people from all walks of life,” she said. “It wasn’t just defense attorneys or prosecutors; every area of the law that he touched made donations.”
Chappelle had a soft spot for high school students, and always made time to visit and answer questions in hopes of inspiring them to enter the legal profession. Williams says having a scholarship that supports young people starting their career in law is exactly what his uncle would want. “Carlos would be shocked that the university was doing this,” he continued. “He didn’t look at his job or being a judge as anything other than being a representative of the people. This is a real honor for our family, and a testament to Carlos’ career. I believe he would be tickled pink by it.”
Burgess hopes the scholarship fund will preserve Chappelle’s legacy, giving recipients the opportunity to learn about his life and career and perhaps follow in his footsteps. “By giving out a scholarship every year, we can tell a whole new generation a story about the type of person he was.”
Vice President for Diversity and Engagement Jacqueline Caldwell said, “We are so grateful to Danny, Shena and all who contributed for honoring Judge Chappelle in this meaningful way. Establishing this fund has paved the way for deserving students to follow in the footsteps of Judge Chappelle and pursue their dreams of a legal education.”