Michael Douglas “Mike” Atkins didn’t know what he would do before he was called on as a Permian High School senior to write a term paper about his career plans.
“I put it off till the 11th hour,” Atkins said. “I was going to college to meet girls and thought there would be a lot of material on something like a lawyer.”
But in the process of qualifying to graduate in 1966, Atkins discovered an interest that eventually led to co-founding one of Odessa’s most law prominent firms.
His father Herb worked for Wonder Bread in Oklahoma City, owned a downtown Odessa Gulf service station, sold billboard advertising and real estate, broadcast high school football games and was “The Voice of the West Texas Relays” before owning KBZB Radio with TV weatherman George Green, who always signed off by saying, “That’s the weather, by George.”
Running the 880-yard dash, Atkins went to the University of Houston on a track scholarship, took a bachelor’s of business administration degree and was in the South Texas College of Law when his dad died of a heart attack at age 44. “I had intended to stay in Houston, but when Dad passed I thought I should come back and help Mom,” he said.
“She was a housewife, and she had to pick up the ball at the radio station and raise my two younger brothers. It was hard because it was completely unexpected.”
Having worked his way through college and law school as a record store clerk, Red Ball Motor Freight dock worker and Boutique Wig Co. salesman, soliciting beauty salons around the country by phone, Atkins returned as an assistant to Ector County Attorney Bill McCoy, who became a district judge. He was elected county attorney twice and joined a law firm owned by Bayard McMahon, Bill Deaderick and others.
A graduate of the Reserve Officers Training Corps, Atkins was a lieutenant in the Army Reserves for six years. He is a native of Oklahoma City who came to Odessa with his family in 1950.
“I had some friends, Mayor Lorraine Perryman, Frank Deaderick, Ted Roden and Bill Elms, ask if I would consider running for mayor in 1996,” he said. “I said, ‘Are you out of your mind? There is no way.’ Then Ted called and said, ‘I know it takes a lot of time, so I will understand if you don’t want to do it. But if you could, I think it would be a good thing for the community.’”
Atkins ran, won and served two two-year terms. He and his wife Barbara, a Houston native who taught second grade at Dowling and Milam elementary schools, have two children and a granddaughter. He has three brothers and a sister.
“The big thing we passed was the economic development sales tax in 1998,” he said. “We passed the bylaws and got it up and running with the Odessa Development Corp.”
Atkins declined comment on recent controversies with the city and city council, citing his work with Atkins, Hollmann, Jones, Peacock, Lewis & Lyon. “As lawyers, we may be called on to represent this governmental entity or that, so it’s best to keep your thoughts to yourself,” he said.
“We advise and help any way we can. I hope things settle out because it’s important not to have the ongoing gridlock. We’ve seen troubling issues at every entity in town over the years.”
Atkins and Jimmy Peacock left McMahon, Deaderick in 2001 to organize their own office, where Atkins specializes in corporate law and litigation, negotiates contracts and buys and sells businesses.
He has counseled Ector County Independent School District since the mid-1980s, and he expressed confidence that its problems with standardized test scores, overcrowding and funding will be successfully handled. “I hope and expect they will meet the demands put on them by this unprecedented growth,” said Atkins, 70.
“I have never seen a board of trustees member who didn’t run for the right reasons. They run because they like kids, and their views are heartfelt. There’s a special place in Heaven for school board members. They’ve got to have a particularly thick skin. They will work through this. They always do.”
He said the school districts in Houston, San Antonio, Waco and Dallas are facing similar pressures from the powerful Texas Education Agency, adding, “As I once heard an old superintendent say, ‘We will still have school tomorrow.’”
Atkins was a key player in the federal school desegregation case filed against ECISD in 1970, and he and one of his partners, Tryon Lewis, worked with the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. District Judge Robert Junell of Midland and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund to settle it in 2010. “By the time I got involved, the hard-fought litigation had already taken place,” he said.
“The court would enter an order and require an annual report on how people were complying. Judge Junell ordered a status conference and sent it to mediation and we hammered out the final agreement. The end phase lasted about a year. The DOJ lawyers never took issue with anything. MALDEF sometimes wanted things that were either too expensive or too burdensome, so most of the litigation was with them.”
Atkins said the case had previously been supervised by Judges Royal Furgeson, Lucius Bunton and others. “Public school education has gotten more complex,” he said.
“The Texas Education Code didn’t exist when I got out of law school. The legislature tells you how to discipline kids.”
Asked how his parents inspired him, he said, “They raised all of us to do the best you can and mainly to enjoy what you do.
“I try to approach everything in a positive manner and be realistic about it. I love practicing law. If a client comes to us with a contract to buy a business, you have to learn that business. You’re always learning something new about other professions, engineering, medicine or whatever.
“It’s never dull, and oftentimes you help people. Nobody ever calls a lawyer and says everything is going great, but I have times when I feel good about my profession because of what I’m able to do for somebody.”
Judge Denn Whalen and Frank Deaderick say you don’t know Atkins until you see his sense of humor. “Mike is one of the funniest guys I have ever met,” said Whalen, judge of the 70th Judicial District.
“He is an outstanding lawyer with a quick wit. He is pretty much an office practitioner, but he would have made a great trial lawyer because of his innate ability to read people.”
Noting he was one of Atkins’ partners at the McMahon firm, Whalen said Atkins, Hollmann “is a group of outstanding lawyers with diverse practices.
“They were all successful before they formed that firm,” he said. “Mike is one of the best school lawyers around. He’s represented the district for over 30 years, and it needs a lawyer every day. He is an awesome person who has a great family.”
Deaderick, a former city councilman who retired as president of the Standard Sales beer distribution company, said Atkins “is one of the best mayors the city has had.
“Mike has been involved in many civic, social and charitable organizations and has emceed many events,” said Deaderick, who was one of Atkins’ PHS classmates. “On a personal note, he might have missed his calling as a standup comedian. He loves to play jokes and doesn’t mind people doing the same to him.”