Rice Tilley Jr.: June 21, 1936-Oct. 28, 2020

Rice Tilley archive photo

Longtime Fort Worth lawyer and leader Rice Tilley died Wednesday morning, reportedly of complications of COVID-19. He was a political, legal and civic force in Fort Worth for his entire life. He was 84.

Friends and associates recalled his humor and good nature even when arguing passionately for a client or a cause. And he had plenty of both.

“Rice was a fixture in the legal and political communities in Fort Worth for many, many years. He was a large personality, actively engaged, and a big supporter of Fort Worth,” said Dee Kelly Jr. of Kelly Hart and Hallman.

“I worked with and against Rice many times as a lawyer and he was professional and respectful in all of my experiences. He was a leader in Republican politics well before the shift in our state and county from Democratic leadership. He will be missed. My deepest sympathies to his family,” Kelly said.

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Mr. Tilley practiced law with two of Fort Worth’s premier law firms – Law, Snakard & Gambill and later with Haynes and Boone. The Fort Worth Business Press honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2014 Power Attorney event.

“We don’t hear the term ‘attorney and counselor’ used as often today as it once was, but Rice was a ‘counselor’ in the best sense of the term. His clients and his friends relied on his counsel not only about legal matters but also about business and civic and political affairs, and he worked tirelessly to make Fort Worth a better place,” said Brian Barnard, who was managing partner at the Haynes and Boone Fort Worth office during Mr. Tilley’s time with the firm.

“Fort Worth lost a true trailblazer and selfless leader in Rice Tilley,” said Mayor Betsy Price. “More than a highly respected and accomplished attorney, Rice will be remembered for his witty personality and love for Fort Worth. Rice was a dear friend and I know his legacy will continue on in our community.”

Mr. Tilley and the late Tom Law Sr. were instrumental in the development of Leadership Fort Worth. Mr. Law headed the steering committee from its founding in 1972 until 1989. Mr. Tilley followed him and led Leadership Fort Worth until it became a legal nonprofit in 1998 and the chairmanship began to rotate.

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“Rice has been the heart and muscle of Leadership Fort Worth. I am particularly grateful that he convinced me to take on the role of Executive Director, and he was always my mentor and the greatest supporter of LFW,” said Harriet Harral, who recently retired as executive director of the organization.

“He chaired the Steering Committee for 10 years through the 1990s, led the organization through the process to become a 501c3 nonprofit, and has been our Chair Emeritus ever since,” Harral said. “Rice was always on the lookout for new opportunities for LFW to tackle. For instance, he made the first contact for LFW to work with the Mayor’s Office to create Steer Fort Worth. He didn’t just place new opportunities in our path; he was always available to open doors, to make connections, to guide through challenges, and to cheer our progress. I will miss him personally, and Leadership Fort Worth has lost a guiding light.”

Mr. Tilley was named a Forum Fellow by Leadership Fort Worth in 1988 and received the Distinguished Leadership Award in 1997 from the National Association of Community Leadership.

Mr. Tilley’s legal focus was in taxation, estate planning, tax-exempt organizations, and asset protection planning. He was board certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in both taxation and estate planning and probate law, and was elected by his peers to the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel.He graduated from Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and completed undergraduate work at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, in 1958, and from the SMU School of Law in 1961.

He earned a master of laws in taxation degree from New York University in 1962, followed by a two-year stint in the Army where he achieved the rank of captain.

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Mr. Tilley served as chairman of the Real Estate, Probate and Trust Law Section of the State Bar of Texas and as editor of that section’s newsletter. He also served as a member of the Tax Lawyers-Internal Revenue Service Liaison Committee for the Southwest Region.

He was named in “The Best Lawyers in America” (Woodward/White) as one of the nation’s top lawyers in the field of estate planning. He was selected by Texas Monthly magazine several times as one of Texas’ “Super Lawyers” and was named as one of Fort Worth’s “Attorneys of Excellence” for 2003-2005 by the Business Press.

Mr. Tilley joined the law firm of Stone, Parker, Snakard, Friedman & Brown in 1964. In 1969, it merged with the firm that Tilley’s father had co-founded, Tilley, Hyder & Law.

Tilley was the Fort Worth representative for Texans for Lawsuit Reform, one of several groups formed in the 1980s to counter-balance efforts of plaintiff’s lawyers seeking huge settlements for their clients. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorial board was vehemently opposed to that effort.

“I remember when Rice called and said we were wrong to oppose tort reform on personal injury,” said Wes Turner, a former publisher of the newspaper. “We were worried that if it passed that plaintiffs would find it hard to find attorneys to take their case.

“He claimed it would dramatically lower the cost of business’s legal expenses. Well, I do know that after it passed, the personal injury attorneys did suffer a loss of fees associated with lawsuits and the cost of defending those claims dropped dramatically. I know that from personal board experience. He often called when he disagreed with an editorial but was always pleasant and informed. He had a remarkable sense of humor and wit.”

In a January 2005 feature in the Business Press, David S. Irvin’s People, Mr. Tilley said that if he weren’t a lawyer, he would be boring.

But that wasn’t true.

Mr. Tilley went on to list his favorite restaurants: Del Frisco’s, La Piazza, Wendy’s or McDonalds, and Ritzy’s in Grapevine; and the people he would most like to share a meal with: Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler.

And, he said, he’d want his tombstone to say: “He never quit.”

In addition to Leadership Fort Worth, Mr. Tilley was chairman of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce and president of the Exchange Club of Fort Worth, the Lena Pope Home and the Fort Worth Opera Association. He served on the boards of the Fort Worth Symphony Association, the Van Cliburn Foundation, Casa Mañana Musicals, Texas Wesleyan University and the University of North Texas.

He was appointed by then Texas Gov. George W. Bush to the Governor’s Business Council. Sen. Phil Gramm appointed him to the judicial review committee for the purpose of interviewing candidates for federal judgeships in the state of Texas, and Gov. Rick Perry appointed Tilley to the Board of Regents of the University of North Texas System.

John Roach, former chairman of Tandy Corporation (RadioShack), became acquainted with Mr. Tilley through the business community, and his wife grew up as a neighbor of the Tilleys.

“Rice is a dapper dresser, a high-energy type with a big flair for politics,” Roach said in a 2003 Business Press story. “I guess he believes strongly in his political convictions beyond the point of being pragmatic at times. Rice as a supporter of Republican causes goes back to an era when very few people in Fort Worth with the exception of Eddie Chiles supported Republican causes.”

“Rice has always been very focused on his ideological principles and he and I had wonderful heated discussions when I would suggest that the people in office that could be most helpful to Fort Worth were those that were actually in office,” Roach said. “Therefore, he might ought to consider supporting some Democrats. He thought I didn’t have any principles whatsoever, that you ought to stand on principle rather than be pragmatic and try to be sure that the Democrats that were elected would be helpful to our community.”

Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder said Mr. Tilley was a real force in the early days of the Republican Party’s ascendancy in Tarrant County.

“Rice chaired our GOP Recruitment Committee and I served with him on those efforts to put good, qualified candidates on the Republican primary ballot back in the late ’70s and ’80s, Wilder said. “Rice was a high-profile attorney with Law Snakard who was not afraid to proclaim himself to be a Republican long before we became the majority party in Tarrant County, when it wasn’t cool or even respectable to be a Republican here.

“The major coup that he was the driving force behind was switching eight conservative Democrat judges and District Attorney Tim Curry to the Republican side in 1988. Gov. Bill Clements came in for the ceremony and that gave us a huge jump in credibility.”

Mr. Tilley remained politically active throughout his life, and Wilder said that they just recently discussed candidates for the letter of recommendation that Mr. Tilley put out for years to clients and legal professionals about those on the ballot.

“I am very sorry to see him pass as he was a good friend and a stalwart Republican,” Wilder said.

Rice Tilley was a great public speaker and in demand as a master of ceremonies across Fort Worth, said Len Roberts, former CEO of RadioShack. Roberts often asked Mr. Tilley to speak at events where he was being honored.

He was Fort Worth’s Paul Harvey, Roberts said. And he was a great conversationalist.

“Rice was one that you were going to get in a conversation with and you were going to join the conversation because he was going to ask questions,” Roberts said. “And that’s what I’ll miss more than anything else. Now, you wouldn’t want to be on the opposite side of the politics. To his credit, he stood up for what he believes in.”

Survivors include his wife, Sandra Cooper Tilley; four children: Marisa Hammond, Angela Crates, Lisa Anderson, and Matt Tilley; two stepchildren: Kelli Dent York and Andrew Dent; and 17 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Includes material from Fort Worth Business Press archives