Carl P. "Butch" Epps III says growing up in Beaufort was a lot like turning the pages of a famous Southern novel.
"It was 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' but we had water," he said.
Epps was at his Beaufort condominium overlooking Factory Creek last week when he got the news about his own high drama in the courtroom.
He was the lead attorney in a 21-year legal fight against the state of South Carolina for failing to provide an adequate education in its poorest school districts. In Wednesday's landmark ruling, the state Supreme Court sided with the districts in what came to be called South Carolina's "Corridor of Shame."
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Poverty was certainly around when Epps moved to Beaufort when he was in the fourth grade. But shame was not.
"We were blessed to have gotten just a fine public education," he said. "I learned a lot more at Beaufort High School than I did in college."
During the trial, Epps would often look into the gallery and see a familiar face from his "To Kill a Mockingbird" childhood. His old principal Bill Dufford would be sitting there, a silent reminder of the power of a good education.
Epps was in Beaufort when the ruling appeared out of the blue.
"It was a breathtaking moment for me," he said.
"I told (my wife) Diana I had to have some quiet time so I could get through those 59 pages. I locked myself in my office in my villa, and I started answering the telephone and answering things on the computer.
"I talked to my law partners involved in the case who had a chance to read the opinion at the same time I did and said, 'This is what I see.' And they said, 'This is what we got.' And I said, 'Fantastic. I hope I didn't miss something.' "
MOST BORING JOB
Epps is now a 70-year-old grandfather living in Columbia, but he and Diana spend a lot of time in Beaufort.
His mother-in-law, Maxine Greco, and Diana's brother, Victor Greco, still live here.
Everybody knew his father, Carl B. "Bubba" Epps Jr. He was a Marine who ran the Beaufort County Office of Veterans Affairs until he retired to Royal Pines. His mother, Myrtle "Myrt" Epps, grew up on St. Helena Island, one of 11 children on the Godley family farm.
Epps was in the Beaufort High class of 1962, captain of the Tidal Waves football team and a Shrine Bowl selection. Diana was Miss Beaufort County. He spent his boyhood floating with the tides in the Beaufort River, and when he and Diana started dating at 16, they drifted across the sound and thought they had discovered a deserted island. Their first sight was a golf course under construction. It was Hilton Head Island.
Epps earned a football scholarship to the University of South Carolina, where he learned, "I was not very good. Everybody needs to have one significant failure in life," he said. "I think it's good for the soul."
Little suggested he'd end up in the courtroom, except that Myrt Epps was legal secretary to Calhoun Thomas for many years. She eventually went back to school and earned her bachelor's degree at age 55, then taught at Beaufort Technical College.
But she subjected her son to enough attorneys for him to think it was the most boring job in the world.
That notion changed after he and Diana eloped during their senior year in college and he spent a year on the road selling pharmaceuticals.
He remembered the regular hours the attorneys seemed to work, and how they had standing in the community. He began to think that if he became a lawyer he could even squeeze in some afternoon golf during Daylight Saving Time.
Epps said the first case he read as a student at the University of South Carolina School of Law was better than any novel.
Years later, Epps was intrigued by another case. He was asked if he'd talk to a group of school superintendents who said they couldn't get enough money to educate their children, or pay good teachers competitive salaries.
"They had shortages everywhere," Epps said. "The kids were in isolated, rural areas living in what we call 'generational poverty' that could go back more than 200 years.
"I thought, 'Wow, this sounds like a wonderful challenge.' It's an opportunity few lawyers have a chance to undertake, where you can make a difference to many, many people -- particularly children."
He took the case. It turned out to be 40 of the state's then 91 school districts suing the state.
"I told my clients it would take a couple of years, but maybe we could make a difference," Epps said.
The suit was filed Nov. 1, 1993.
Epps took that case and another lawyer working on it with him when he joined the Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough firm based in Columbia in 1997. The firm took it on pro bono, paying attorney time totaling more than $9 million so far, while the poor districts picked up expenses.
He said Wednesday's joy was tempered by the fact that one of the two other lead attorneys for the school districts did not live to see the result. Epps and Laura Callaway Hart now know that the state legislature has not lived up to its constitutional mandate, but their colleague Stephen G. Morrison died last year.
"I'm confident it will make a change," Epps said.
"It's not going to make a change next year. It's not going to make a change the year after, but if we do what we think we can do and should do, by the time this generation of children coming into school now finishes, and we may not be around to see it even, I think there will be a huge change in South Carolina."