“Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.”Sue Monk Kidd
He pushed play on the recorder. The speaker on the old cassette player revealed the voice of my father, Bob Pryor, in his early 30s, hosting a roast of the great Ray H. Jenkins. The laughter, the voices and stories of the old lawyers, the great storytellers, rose into the air. It was the early ’70s.
Early in his career, my father put himself in the path of the great lawyers of his time—not just locally, but on a national level. He listened. Listening is a very important trait. He learned the skills of telling stories. My father’s monthly articles in this publication are nothing but a masterful retelling of stories from his limitless bin.
For 50-plus years I have sometimes been the subject of, sometimes a bystander in, or a witness to many of these delicious items he keeps in his story repertoire. I have also been a dedicated and enthusiastic connoisseur. I collect his relics in my own bin. That is my duty. Bob Pryor has made friends and acquired admirers telling stories. He has made a living telling stories.
Though there are a great many writers of stories, and some who do it rather well, there are very few people who know how to tell a story. Telling one effectively takes confidence, an engaging manner, a knowledge of one’s audience and the most important element of all—magic. You can listen and acquire all the skill you want, but the last element is God-given.
When one’s father is a man of substance, his children discover that only by observation. A man of substance doesn’t tell his children that he is one. My father didn’t have to tell me. I simply watched others’ reactions to him. Even at a very young age, people would approach me to tell me things like “Your father is a great trial lawyer.” Words like “best” and “greatest” were often offered.
I didn’t know what that meant exactly. I didn’t know what made him good, perhaps better than another. I remember my mom getting a call from him about a verdict or settlement. This was only important to me because my mother, as I understood it, could buy us shoes when this call came. She wasn’t good at hiding financial stress. So, as children, my two younger siblings and I equated a verdict with relief of my mother’s burden.
However, as a boy comes to manhood he notices a great many things, including when an audience is captivated by his father. Whether passing a table in a restaurant, or strolling along the street, he would make a point of offering a funny story to anyone he recognized. He always hit the mark. Then I saw him try a case before a jury, and I understood the importance of story and its power when told the right way.
The best trial lawyers are trusted by their audience, the jury. They not only must believe him/her, but they must also be engaged to the point they are unanimously aligned in support of the movant. This is no easy task. Many people think that if they are hurt by someone’s negligence it is an open-and-shut case. A client needs the best communicator, the best advocate for their case. They need a storyteller. The better my father got at telling their stories, the less financial burden was on my mother and he began to emerge into who he has become.
He is now 77 years old. He has all the awards — the Lifetime Achievement from the Tennessee Trial Lawyers, the Governors Award from the Knoxville Bar Association and several Cityview Golden Gavels, recognizing his leadership in a given area of expertise. He has shared his skill and methods with countless lawyers while teaching seminars and a class at the University of Tennessee College of Law. All of it goes back to storytelling.
No matter how many times I’ve heard the story, or even if I realize his audience has heard it, I never stop or interrupt him from the telling a story. This is because I love to see the joy he receives in the telling. He has felt ill before, been injured or preoccupied. Yet, given the chance, the smile comes to his face, the one I see more and more in the mirror, and the story flows along with laughter from both my father and his audience.
The older stories get better with age. The newer ones still somehow carry the weight of nostalgia in the telling. He tells stories of and about the great lawyers of our town—Ray H. Jenkins, Zane Daniel, Joe Yancey, to name a few. Through those stories these men and their lives live on. Their stories sure do. In a eulogy for Joe Yancey, my father said that the stories the man told now belonged to him, and he would tell them as if they were his. This gets to the heart of what Sue Monk Kidd wrote about the power and importance of story.
He still comes to the office. He works hard and enjoys the game. I have practiced with him for 26 years and have had an office next to his for 15. Naturally, if your father is Mickey Mantle, you want to play baseball. As his hearing fades a bit, his voice is louder, and I can hear the stories being told on the phone and in the halls. This job has its benefits.
I have always been the fortunate one, the child of a magician, and working with him has been one of the great honors of my life. I will never tire of his stories or his voice. Unlike so many who take one story in, I am his continuous audience, starting with the first stories he told me as a child. On nights he’d get home from work, and my mother was spent from mothering, he would come in and pick up my stuffed animals and go to work—it was the Woody Woodpecker show and imaginary vaudevillian escapades of my stuffed rabbit, Bunny Scratchit.
I’ll always hear his voice. I have been taught the sorcery and given the spells, but I’m perfectly comfortable and happy to declare him the best there ever was or will be.