In Memoriam: Attorney Donald “Don” Kenneth Tisdale Sr.

Stacey, a Black woman with black hair, wears black-rimmed glasses, a white blouse, black jacket and gold jewelry.By Stacey D. Rubain

Retired Attorney Don Tisdale of Winston-Salem passed away peacefully at his home on April 30, 2024, with his devoted wife, Vicki, and son Ken, also an attorney in Winston-Salem, by his side. Don grew up in Saxapahaw, North Carolina, and graduated from Walter Williams High School in Burlington. He earned both his Bachelor of Arts and Juris Doctor from Wake Forest University. Following his law school graduation in 1968, Don worked in private practice in Winston-Salem until 1974, when he was elected the youngest District Attorney in Forsyth County history, at the age of 32. He went on to serve three terms, and during his tenure, helped to establish North Carolina’s Victim Assistance Network (NCVAN). Don ended his career as a founding partner of the law firm of Grace, Tisdale & Clifton, in Winston-Salem. One of his greatest pleasures was when his son, Ken, joined the practice.

I met “Mr. Tisdale” as a third-year law student at Wake Forest University when he was assigned to be my Clinic criminal placement supervising attorney. The highlight of my career was being Don’s associate after I graduated from law school. I had the privilege of eulogizing Don at his Memorial Service in Winston-Salem on May 3, 2024. What follows is an edited excerpt of my remarks about this truly amazing man.  It is my hope that young lawyers find a mentor of Don’s caliber to help guide them and teach them in the way that Don did for me.

Picture this: Winston-Salem, January 1999. I was a 23-year-old 3rd year law student at Wake Forest and was starting Clinic. Well, luck was with me because my criminal placement was with none other than Donald K. Tisdale.

Coming into my criminal placement, I had no idea who Don was. I’m from Maryland, so I knew nothing about the Winston-Salem legal community. I did not know that I’d hit the legal jackpot and been placed with a legend. And little did I know that this chance placement would forever change my life.

What should have only been a six-week placement turned into me spending the entire semester with Don, because as his longtime secretary and my dear friend Zina retells it, Don said that I “just wouldn’t leave.” I loved being in his office. There was nothing better than sitting around talking to Don, Zina, and our dear deceased friend, Bruce Fraser. It was way better than going to class!

Every morning, I’d go to Don’s office, where I would find him and Zina going over his schedule for the day. Then, he and I would set out and tackle the day. I can vividly recall riding with Don in either his black two-seater BMW or his big white Chevy Tahoe to different counties for court appearances or jail visits. These road trips were my favorite times with Don because it was during these car rides that we’d talk about his life and career, and the practice of law. Now many of you may think that Don was a man of few words, but as I recall it, we had long-ranging conversations where Don would recount anecdotal stories from his life and extoll the virtues of the practice of law. In hindsight, it may be that those long-ranging conversations consisted of me running my mouth, and Don quietly listening to me, chiming in with pearls of wisdom here and there. But no matter how those car conversations really went, I truly got to know Don, and he dispensed invaluable wisdom that I have carried with me through my life and career.

Don taught me the importance of relationships and loyalty; the importance of being professional and treating everyone in the court system kindly; he taught me that clerks and court support staff really know what is going on and can get things done quicker than anyone else; he taught me to be a woman of my word; he taught me the importance of carrying myself as and looking the part of a polished lawyer; and he taught me that criminal defense attorneys had to be tough, yet always humble.

Now back in 1999, I was not the honey badger that you see before you today. I was quite naïve. Suffice it to say that I was ill-prepared for the wild and wooly world of criminal defense. But early in my Clinic placement, Don showed me that there was another side to the sophisticated, impeccably dressed, soft-spoken Southern gentleman that I was beginning to get to know. There was one occasion when Don took me with him to the jail to visit one of his clients. This client was a young man who was charged with some very serious offenses. He had been sitting a jail for a little while under a high bond, and expected Don to work a miracle. This client was not happy with Don’s representation and voiced his displeasure by, of all things, cussing Don out. Imagine my surprise to see this young man, who probably was around my age at the time, unleash a verbal assault on the venerable Donald K. Tisdale. Well, I had no idea how Don would handle this, but it was not what I expected . . . Don cussed this young man out and gave him a much worse tongue-lashing!

It was magical. I was transfixed.

But even better, at some point during Don’s verbal tirade, his client came to his senses and had a change of heart. So, when Don was done, the young man began profusely apologizing, explaining to Don how hard it was being locked up, and that he did not know what had gotten into him. And in the fashion of the true gentleman that he was, Don accepted the young man’s apology, told him that he understood that he was going through a tough time, and then moved right along as if nothing had happened.

This is one of my all-time favorite Don stories for two reasons: first, I honestly thought that I was in the presence of a pure-T bad mama jama, and thought how amazing it was that you could have a career where you got to cuss out people and make money; and secondly, I learned the power of respect, dignity, and forgiveness, in one fell swoop. I have never forgotten the ease with which Don accepted his client’s apology, empathized with what he was going through, and did not hold a grudge or let his client’s behavior impact his representation.

After that jail visit, I began to earnestly think for the first time about doing criminal defense work. Up until that point, I had only considered becoming a prosecutor. But even though I was now considering moving in the direction of criminal defense, I had no plans to stay in North Carolina. This Maryland girl was going to get the heck out of dodge after graduation and either go to New York or go back home.

But there again, fate and chance always have a way of changing the best-laid plans. And unbeknownst to me, Don had a plan for me. One day later in the semester on our way back from court, Don and I were talking about something, and mid-conversation, he said to me, and I quote: “You wanna work for me?” Now Don and I had never discussed me coming to work for him, but I guess this was the interview, huh? This was typical Don – he liked what he saw in me and knew it was right. And I must have felt the same way because without hesitation I said, “of course, Mr. Tisdale!” And that was that.

Don’s job offer was way more than that – it was an invitation to become a part of his family. In addition to being a lifelong mentor, Don became my second father. From the moment I met him in law school, he genuinely supported me and was always there for me. What a tremendous gift he gave me. He gave me the gift of friendship and support, as he did to so many in the room today, and like me, I know you are eternally grateful.

I was so proud to work for Don and be part of his law office family, which included Don’s secretary Zina, who became a surrogate big sister to me. To this day, I believe in my heart that Zina is one of the best lawyers in Winston-Salem! Every day I would come into the office and sit down with Zina and go through my files for the day – and Zina would tell me what to do! “Stacey, we need an IE on this; continue this one because they owe us money; or, this client owes us money and is never going to pay the balance so just get rid of this case!” I learned so much from both Don and Zina, not just how to practice law, but about the practicalities of the law business.

Like a good mentor, Don was always patient with me, and he was there to help me learn some lessons.  I quickly learned something very important – Don was always right. He didn’t have the type of personality where he needed to be right, nor did he shove it in your face when he was right.  Rather, Don was simply just always right.  He was a brilliant and practical man who was able to analyze a problem, identify the big picture issues, and discard everything else. Don’s counsel was sought out and trusted by so many of us in the room because of his insightfulness and generosity in sharing it.   From former United States Attorney Walter Holton, to retired Superior Court Judge Ron Spivey, to Superior Court Judge David Hall, to Assistant United States Attorney Cliff Barrett … so many of us owe a debt of gratitude to Don for giving us a job or helping to guide our careers.

As important to me professionally as Don was, he was more important to me personally. He was generous and kind to me. Without ever saying it . . . really, without ever saying much . . . I can unequivocally say that he made me feel loved and special. And I am so lucky to have had that.

As we sit here today, we mourn Don’s loss. But we should celebrate the life that he lived and the wonderful person that we were blessed to know. I will remember Don for his decency, his strength, his kindness, his class and sophistication, his intellect, and his unwavering loyalty. He was a great man and the best bonus father that I could ever hope to have. Donald, I love you and will miss you forever. But you will always be in my heart. Donald, I hope you rest well until we meet again . . .