If you’ve enjoyed the last decade of Mercer football, you have Walter Homer Drake Jr to thank in large part.
William D. Underwood had only been president of Mercer University for three years when Drake, an alumnus and influential U.S. bankruptcy judge, became chairman of the board of trustees in 2009.
“And that’s when the great conspiracy began,” Underwood recalled. He smiles at the memory. “He thought we should play football, and some of our elders and friends had persuaded me that if we did it right it would make sense.”
This sparked almost two years of listening and planning sessions, and in 2010 the board took up the issue. Judge Drake thought the vote to revive intercollegiate football would be unanimous. Underwood wasn’t so sure. They bet a steak dinner on it.
“It was time for the vote, so Judge Drake asked the question,” Underwood recalled. “And he said, ‘All those in favor say ‘yes.’ “People said ‘yes’ in the room. He said, ‘It’s unanimous. And then he turned to me and said, ‘You owe me a steak dinner.’
Underwood burst out laughing. “He never gave anyone the chance to vote ‘no’.”
With approval to resume football, Judge Drake and his wife, Ruth Drake, made the principal donation to help build the new stadium, and the ground was named in their honor.
In 2013, the Bears played their first football game in 72 years.
Judge Drake, now a life administrator, is pleased with the results of the program restart.
“The return of football to the University has been the main catalyst for the renewed interest in the University among its alumni, leading, I believe, directly to the improvement of many areas of the University,” he said. he recently said from his home in Newnan.
Judge Drake’s legacy doesn’t end – or start – with football.
Double Bear who received his undergraduate degree in 1954 and his law degree in 1956, Judge Drake became a prominent figure in bankruptcy law and was instrumental in passing the Bankruptcy Reform Act. the bankruptcy of 1978, which revolutionized the field.
For more than half a century, he served as a U.S. Bankruptcy Judge for the Northern District of Georgia, retiring in 2021. In addition, he founded the Southeastern Bankruptcy Law Institute, which is dedicated to the continuing education of attorneys in bankruptcy law.
Judge Drake is a strong supporter of Mercer Law School, which established an endowed chair in bankruptcy law in his honor. Beyond law school, Justice Drake also supports the university’s Southern Studies program and Mercer On Mission, among other initiatives.
“Anything I asked Judge Drake to do to help the University, he jumped in and did it,” Underwood said. “I can’t imagine a more loyal or committed supporter of our work than Judge Drake.”
Pioneer of bankruptcy reform
Judge Drake was born in Colquitt in 1932 and moved to Newnan when he was 8 years old. He graduated valedictorian from Newnan High School in 1950. Georgia football fan, Judge Drake initially enrolled at the University of Georgia but soon transferred to Mercer.
“The big university didn’t suit me at the time,” he says. “I liked the little school better.”
He originally planned to study to be a doctor, but started dating pre-law students and decided to pursue law school instead. He was active in the ROTC program at Mercer and upon graduation served in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps.
Three years later, Judge Drake left the JAG Corps to work at a law firm in Atlanta, drafting charters and leases for corporate clients. But the work does not please him and he leaves to open a law firm in Macon.
In 1961, he became a law clerk to U.S. District Judge Lewis R. Morgan, who in 1964 appointed Judge Drake as a U.S. Bankruptcy Judge for the Northern District of Georgia. The position was called a bankruptcy arbitrator at the time and was under the jurisdiction of the district courts.
“At that time the bankruptcy laws were wholly inadequate to be the court in which major commercial and individual matters between debtors and creditors were decided,” said Judge Drake, who as a new arbitrator was surprised by the informal nature of the bankruptcy procedure. Arbitrators did not wear judge’s robes and had no assigned courtrooms to meet in.
In a symbolic gesture, Judge Drake began donning a robe and securing courtroom space for his proceedings. At the same time, he began to work with other arbitrators to improve not only the status of bankruptcy courts, but also the bankruptcy system.
“Several of us decided to do what we could to make the bankruptcy court a separate court within the federal court system, and over the next few years we worked diligently to that end in cooperation with major commercial insolvency attorneys from across the country,” he said. mentioned.
His leadership, which included testimony before a Congressional Bankruptcy Commission and lobbying Congress, led to the passage of the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978, which was signed by the then President. , Jimmy Carter, whose attorney general was Judge Drake’s friend and former student of Mercer Law. , the late Griffin B. Bell. Carter is now a trustee of Mercer Life.
“The Bankruptcy Reform Act is truly the most significant bankruptcy law enacted. It really modernized the whole bankruptcy system,” said Mercer law professor Mike Sabbath, who led the Southeastern Bankruptcy Law Institute/W. Homer Drake Jr. Endowed Chair in Bankruptcy Law.
Not only did the law bring more respectability and dignity to the bankruptcy courts, but it improved the system for debtors and creditors who had to go through it.
“The improvement was important for the United States because bankruptcy is an important part of our legal system and to the extent that you improve it, it benefits our society to have a modern and up-to-date bankruptcy system with well-trained lawyers. said Sabbath.
A nice man
In the midst of his work to reform the bankruptcy system, in 1969 Judge Drake married Ruth Bridges, who received her Bachelor of Education from Mercer in 1959. Although they met at Mercer, they did not really got to know each other until Judge Drake’s father, who was Superintendent of Schools for Coweta County, offered Ruth a job at Newnan.
They had two sons, Walter Homer Drake III and Taylor Bridges Drake, also Mercer Law graduates, and six grandchildren. Harrison Drake’s grandson plays on Mercer’s men’s basketball team. Ruth Drake died in 2015.
Despite his reputation as a decorated bankruptcy judge who has won numerous service and leadership awards, Judge Drake remains humble, said Sabbath, who studied under him when he was an assistant law professor at Emory University.
“He goes out of his way to make those around him feel good,” Sabbath said. “And he never uses his stature in bankruptcy law to belittle, to make anyone feel worse. He just has that way of him.
And while he had “no patience for fools,” if lawyers were prepared when they entered his courtroom, he was a gentleman, he said. Judge Drake “treated everyone with respect, and lawyers loved appearing before him,” Sabbath said. “He may not always come out in favor of them, but he treated people with dignity.”
Sabbath recalled a time when he was at a Mercer football game with Judge Drake. The couple were heading to the President’s box in the Homer and Ruth Drake Field House when they were stopped by a new security guard.
“Excuse me. Where are your passes?” Sabbath recalled saying.
“Well, that’s Judge Drake,” Sabbath replied.
The woman remained firm.
“I don’t care who he is; you have to have a pass,” she told him.
When Sabbath explained that it was the Drake the country house was named for, the woman became embarrassed.
But then “the judge put his hand on her shoulder and said, ‘Young lady, you are doing your job. You did exactly what you were supposed to do. And he praised her for the work she was doing,” Sabbath recalled.
“Judge Drake really made him feel good about himself, and I’m like, ‘What a nice man.'”