Editor’s note: Port Aransas Profiles are stories about folks who are longtime residents or are otherwise noteworthy. This profile was based on a series of South Jetty interviews with Jim Atwill over the past few weeks.
The best two decisions that Jim Atwill ever made, he said, were to become a lawyer and move to Port Aransas, where he has lived and practiced law for nearly half a century.
“Once I started practicing law over here, I felt I had a better balance in my life in that I constructed my practice to include just the things I could do here, without staff, without paralegals, without secretaries,” he said on a recent day while seated in his office, located in a simple cottage that has stood in Old Town at least since the mid-1960s.
“It was pretty much the standard over here that if you came in with a coat and tie, you were ignored, and I adapted to that right away, just wearing shorts and sandals,” said Atwill, who indeed did wear a pair of shorts to his office on this particular afternoon.
“It didn’t become just a job,” he said. “It didn’t become just one focus. It was the great balance of being by the sea, going to the beach, getting on the boat, going out in Lydia Ann Channel and swimming and listening to all the sounds of the beach, the gulls.”
Atwill was born on May 4, 1936, in Pasadena, California.
His father was E.R. “Bob” Atwill III, a geologist who worked in the oil business. His mother was Estelle Atwill, a homemaker.
He had two older brothers: E.R. “Bob” Atwill IV, who died in 2009; and Doug Atwill, who today is an 88-year-old artist who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The Atwill family moved from California to Midland in 1950.
Atwill graduated from high school in 1954. Four years later, he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Texas.
He served in the Texas Air National Guard Reserve from 1959 to 1965.
He became a landman for Union Oil in Corpus Christi in 1959. Later transferring to Houston, he worked in the company’s lease records division, then moved on in 1961 to do company work out of New Orleans.
He was enjoying himself.
“I’m a young man, I have a company car, a company expense account,” he said. “It was a good life for a young man.”
But it wasn’t long before he changed course. He made the decision during a visit with a few other company landmen who were having a few drinks at a hotel in Mississippi.
“One night, we all met in Jackson and started thinking about our future with the company, and the three of us decided to quit, including myself,” he said.
Becoming a lawyer
As a landman, Atwill had worked alongside lawyers and became interested in the occupation.
“They seemed to have a good life. They had nice suits on,” Atwill said, laughing. “I wasn’t trying to save the world. It was just another step. And the best step I ever made.”
He earned a bachelor of laws at the University of Texas in 1966.
Right out of law school, he took a job with the law firm of Sorrell, Anderson, Porter and Stone in Corpus Christi.
He left the firm in 1972 and formed Bonniwell, Atwill and Kendrick in Corpus Christi.
A Corpus Christi resident, Atwill served on the city’s Planning and Zoning Committee for several years. He chaired the organization for two years.
In 1974, he was president of the Nueces County Bar Association, now called the Corpus Christi Bar Association.
Atwill’s first visit to Port Aransas took place in 1957, when he was a UT student. He had been visiting Corpus Christi for a social event and decided to go with a group of friends to Mustang Island.
They had a meal at a restaurant at the Seahorse Inn, off 11th Street. It’s Belles Sea Inn now.
“It was … surrounded by beautiful, grassy dunes,” Atwill said. “And there it was, the Gulf. You saw the Gulf out there, and it was just mind blowing. That really set the hook for me. … I wanted to be by the beach.”
Coming to Port Aransas
He continued visiting Port Aransas from time to time over the years until deciding to move to town in 1977.
Coming here to live “was the fulfillment of my enduring desire to be on an island and close to the sea,” he said. “Now, each day, I hear the roar of the surf, feel the strong winds (and) smell the microclimate weather caused by the differences of land and sea temperatures, which only we on the island can experience.”
If becoming a lawyer and moving to Port Aransas were the best two decisions he has made in his life, buying the Tarpon Inn in Port Aransas was a close third, he said.
In 1977, Atwill and Gordon Wise bought the historic inn and the restaurant behind it from Bill Kirmse. Wise was a lawyer living in Port Aransas at the time.
“I just absolutely fell in love with it,” Atwill said of the old, wood-frame hotel. “Huge nostalgia. It’s iconic and just seemed like a wonderful place to live and run a business.”
Atwill lived in a part of the inn that had been established as the owner’s quarters.
He said he approached the Texas Historical Commission about getting the Tarpon Inn put on the National Register of Historic Places. The inn – first built in 1886 and then rebuilt in the 1920s after falling victim to a fire and a hurricane – received that designation in 1979. A plaque in front of the building attests to it.
Creating a touchstone
One of Atwill’s favorite memories of owning the Tarpon Inn has to do with creating the tiles on the sidewalk in front of the inn.
The tile project happened in 1986. That year, Atwill was 50, the Tarpon Inn was 100, and Texas was 150 years old.
“I thought: Well, that has a symmetry that has to be responded to,” he recalled.
At the time, the city was building a sidewalk in front of the inn. Atwill decided that putting tiles in the sidewalk would be a good idea. Locals could press their handprints and write their names in the tiles.
As Atwill saw it, the sidewalk could become a sort touchstone, like the hundreds of tarpon scales that have been tacked by anglers on the wall of the inn’s lobby.
He got the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce to help organize and underwrite the project. (Atwill served as chair of the chamber’s board of directors two terms over the years.)
Many dozens of community members paid $10 per tile to have their names and handprints put in the tiles.
“It was just fantastic, and it got incredible response,” he said.
Atwill had the tile forms built by a lumber yard and, with help from friends, he spent a few hours every weekend for nine weeks creating the tiles by hand.
That meant mixing the cement there on the Tarpon Inn property and injecting pigments in the mix so that the tiles had a reddish color.
Melvin M. Littleton of Island Construction installed them, free.
More than 500 tiles remain in the sidewalk in front of the inn today.
At the time Atwill purchased the Tarpon Inn, the Tarpon Inn Restaurant operated out of a long, narrow building out back.
Atwill built a new building just east of the restaurant building and called it the Silver King Bar and Grille building. It opened in 1981.
“It was quickly apparent that it was too small, so I decided that it would be a jazz bar, and I moved my Japanese-built Yamaha upright piano down from my apartment above the lobby,” he said. “That spring, I went to all the jazz venues in Austin and convinced the musicians to come down for gigs during the summer. I had a place for them to stay, including their family, albeit I only paid $75 per night.”
He said he lost money on all of the gigs “but have vivid memories hearing great jazz and seeing the joy of those that came to hear.”
A restaurant, Roosevelt’s, operates in the building today.
Owning and operating the Tarpon Inn and the restaurant was a wonderful experience, Atwill said.
“The first years were great, because the oil business was good,” he said. “During the winter, the oil companies would come down and rent the whole inn and take over the restaurant and then they’d go fishing on the Wharf Cat or Scat Cat, and they just loved it. I loved it.”
Atwill recalled a group from a sash-and-door company that brought their vendors in for a big dinner at the Tarpon Inn restaurant. Atwill was there that night, greeting folks and watching over things.
Atwill recalls a conversation he had with the company owner at the end of the evening.
“When time came to pay the bill, the owner came up, and he says, ‘No, no.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, no?’ He said, ‘It’s not enough. You need to put more on (the bill). And I want $200 for the waiters.’ ”
So, Atwill increased the bill by one-third, and the man paid it, along with the $200 each for the two waiters.
“That was a wonderful day,” he said.
The Tarpon Inn has had a number of owners over the years.
Atwill said he and Wise ended their Tarpon Inn partnership in 1980. Atwill brought in his brother, Doug, as a silent partner.
The Atwill brothers sold the Tarpon Inn to Priscilla Conoly in 1991. Today, it’s owned by Leroy Hoskins.
Atwill said he sold the Tarpon Inn and the Silver King Bar and Grille because business had slowed, and yet his life had gotten busy, with work as a private attorney and as a justice of the peace taking up much of his time. He also had to tend to apartments he owned in Corpus Christi.
“I was driving myself … nuts,” he said. “Something had to give.”
Becoming a judge
Nueces County commissioners appointed Atwill justice of the peace in Port Aransas in 1980, after incumbent Tommy Fisher died while in office.
Atwill said it was a good opportunity. It didn’t require an 8-to-5 work schedule. And he could walk from the Tarpon Inn to the JP’s office. It was in a county-owned building in the 400 block of North Alister Street, only about two blocks away. (The building later housed the Port Aransas Computer Center and was demolished after Hurricane Harvey hit.)
After serving out the remainder of Fisher’s term, Atwill went on to be elected to the position three times.
He first ran in 1982 against Duncan Neblett and Ben Cash. All three were in the Democratic primary.
The May 6, 1982 edition of the South Jetty reported that Neblett got 278 votes, Atwill got 150 and Cash received 129.
That sent Neblett and Atwill into a runoff.
Atwill won the runoff, garnering 386 votes to Neblett’s 370, a difference of just 16 votes, according to a South Jetty story about the election.
Atwill went on to win re-election two more times.
As JP, he ruled on cases involving offenses such as public intoxication, traffic offenses, fishing violations, truancy and evictions.
He also found himself meeting in his court office with people who came to discuss personal problems.
“Many times, I realized I didn’t have the jurisdiction to help them, but I did have persuasion as judge,” he said. “I would call an appropriate local social agency, speak directly to the supervisor and get him or her to set a specific time, date and place for the aggrieved people to meet. Instead of another bureaucratic dead-end, I felt their cause was advanced.”
During his third term in office, Atwill’s then-wife, Jane, was doing so much job-related travel to Corpus Christi, the couple decided to move there. That meant Atwill had to resign as the Port Aransas JP, and so he did.
But he ended up moving back within a year or so.
“I realized I had huge roots here in Port Aransas,” he said.
After Atwill resigned as JP, Neblett was appointed to serve out the rest of his term, and Neblett has been elected and re-elected back to the office ever since.
Atwill served from 1979 to 1984 on the Nueces County Water Control and Improvement District No. 4 board of directors. The water district provides running water and sewer service to Port Aransas.
During Atwill’s tenure, he said, the board created the capital impact fee, which is charged to people when they develop land and get a new water or sewer connection. This has kept the WCID funded and prevented it from instituting a tax over the years.
Atwill has been married and divorced twice: To Patty Witt and then to Jane Hickman. He has no children.
Near the intersection of 11th Street and Avenue C, amidst a cluster of naturally vegetated sand dunes, Atwill lives alone in a small-but-charming house full of books and original artworks.
On the same property, he grows vegetables including carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, green onions, carrots, kale, collard greens and celery; and herbs such as chervil, dill, basil, parsley, spearmint and cilantro.
It’s a joy, he said, “seeing how you plant a small seed and a huge plant comes out of it. You nurture it all through its life.”
One of the highlights of his time living in Port Aransas has been his ownership of a boat called the Beulah Mae.
It was a 15-foot wooden Chesapeake Bay crabbing skiff that was custom-built for him on Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, in 1981. He eventually gave the vessel to Farley Boat Works, but he sure enjoyed it while he had it.
“This boat allowed me to get … up the Lydia Ann Channel, anchor and go swimming … just experiencing the wonderful Lydia Ann waters,” he said.
The boat was named after Beulah Williams, who worked as a housekeeper at the Tarpon Inn for more than 40 years. After Atwill sold the inn and restaurant, the restaurant’s new owner renamed it Beulah’s.
“There can’t be enough naming for her to recognize her loyalty, her attention to detail, her quiet strength that took her through each day,” Atwill said. “Her words still ring in my ears:
‘Only the strong survive on the island.’ All too true.”
Here and now
Atwill now is 85 years old and has been an attorney for 56 years.
Earlier in his career, he did a lot of trial work on both sides of the aisle. His general practice has handled matters including business transactions, divorce and bankruptcy cases.
Today, his practice is involved in real estate contracts and work involving wills and trusts. He also assists in the creation of business entities such as LLCs and LPs. He has practiced in state and federal district courts.
He said he has enjoyed his career in law.
“I’m not burned out,” he said. “I have seen so many fellow lawyers burn out because they’re in trial work or in a law firm that is having problems. I’ve been a sole practitioner since I moved here in ’77. It keeps me active – my mind and my connection to people. And I enjoy meeting new people. I have a facility for making clients comfortable and at ease. And I do things that have a short beginning, middle and end. They don’t go on forever. I like that. I’m not just tied up with something over a lot period of time. I’ve never had the dreaded thing of procrastination. I like getting things done as soon as possible. Not even as soon as possible. Get it done now. And that makes my life so much simpler, because I’ve gotten things done … and have advanced my clients’ cause.”
Atwill said he has no plans to retire.
“As long as I’m healthy enough and have the mind to do it, I will continue,” he said. “It’s a great life. It has a great flow to it, and (the work) keeps me occupied.”
Living in Port Aransas since the late 1970s, he has seen a lot of changes in town. Despite how much development has taken place, he still enjoys living here.
“I still love it because I still feel connected, not only to the place but to the people here,” he said. “Where else would I live that I could have this type of life? Nowhere I know of.”
He said he’ll never move away.
“I shall be here until I die, where I live and work and eat and drink.”