Former Athens City Attorney Denny Galis Filled Some Big Shoes

Peggy and Denny Galis (left) with Phyllis and Jim Barrow.

Denny Galis died two weeks ago. My father, Judge Jim Barrow, admired Galis as much as any man he’d ever worked with. So, I was not surprised when my sister Ruth discovered a glowing tribute that Dad had paid Galis shortly after they started working together over 50 years ago—a tribute that Galis never knew about until I shared it with him last June.

The year was 1960, and those were busy days for my Dad: At that time, Dad was city attorney for the City of Athens, while also holding down a law practice and serving as an adjunct professor of law at the UGA Law School. Mom and Dad were also heading up the Kennedy campaign in Athens.

Mom and Dad were leaders in a statewide organization that was leading the fight against state laws that threatened to close the University of Georgia—and public education generally—rather than submit to federal court orders to integrate. Dad would soon risk his life personally directing the outmanned city police force in the riot that broke out when the federal courts ordered UGA to admit Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes. In just a few short months, he would be ordering the city police to enforce the constitutional rights of the Freedom Riders—rather than the unconstitutional segregation laws of the state of Georgia—as they passed through Athens. 

He would soon be elected the sole Superior Court Judge for the counties that included Athens, Watkinsville and Monroe. In his first year in that office, he would be the only state official who went to the FBI to offer his help in going after the Klan members who murdered Col. Lemuel Penn. And when other superior court judges were publicly denouncing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (a trigger event for the Penn murder), Dad charged the Walton County grand jury (and, by extension, the whole community) on the importance of complying fully and peacefully with the new federal law that finally outlawed state-sanctioned segregation in places of public accommodation.

Later, Dad would preside over the case that desegregated Clarke County’s public schools (and I would be in the first class to go all the way through Clarke Central). And, among a bunch of other “firsts,” Dad ordered the university to allow the Committee on Gay Education to hold a dance in Memorial Hall—the first judge in the South to hold that gays had a constitutional right to organize and advocate for their rights in a state institution.

In short, Dad was, in the opinion of many, the closest thing to Atticus Finch within a 100-mile radius of Athens. And so, in my opinion, his opinion of anyone carried a lot of weight.

In September of that eventful year of 1960, Dad wrote a letter to my grandmother, Ruth Jenkins. In that letter, Dad wrote to his mother-in-law about a young lawyer who had been practicing law with Daddy for about three months: “As you know, Denny Galis has been with me since the middle of June. He is a grand boy, and I am very, very pleased with him; a VERY good mind, an understanding heart, and I think an excellent character. I want you to get to know him. I think that you will find him attractive and stimulating. I had high hopes for him when he came; and everything that has transpired since has vindicated those hopes.”

I’ve never heard a finer recommendation of a young lawyer.

Later, when Dad was elected judge, his friend Joe Gaines became the city attorney for Athens. When Gaines joined Dad on the Superior Court bench, it was Galis who was appointed city attorney—the same job that Dad had held.

It was Galis’ challenge—and our community’s great good fortune—that Galis was chosen by Mayor Gwen O’Looney and the Athens-Clarke County Commission to be the county attorney for the new government that was formed when the city of Athens merged with Clarke County in 1991, in what was then only the second consolidated local government in Georgia. That would have been a back-breaking job under the best of circumstances. Just to give you some idea, every single ordinance of both former governments had to be re-enacted as part of one code. This meant that every single legislative battle of any consequence that had been fought over the years—especially those that had been fought to different conclusions in the two former governments—had to be refought all over again, and voted on, in one year. (We ended up needing, and getting, another year.) Tough work for any city attorney, the job was made all the tougher because the government was filled with both old and new people who felt very strongly about a lot of those issues.

I was one of those new people, and like my colleagues, I had a lot of ideas about how things needed to be done. Because I was the only lawyer on the commission, I was probably a more difficult client for Galis to deal with than some of the others. But through it all, Galis was as patient and professional with me as he was with all the other commissioners.

Galis’ great good fortune was his wonderful wife of 57 years, the former Peggy Heard of Elberton—the closest thing to royalty in Georgia then and now. That’s another tie between Dad and Galis: Mom and Dad introduced Galis and Heard, and went out with them on their first date together. 

I don’t know if Galis will ever have to represent me again, in some sort of poor man’s version of “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” but if he does, I hope I won’t be as difficult as I was last time. I certainly could not ask for a better lawyer—”a VERY good mind, an understanding heart, and I think an excellent character.”