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Seventy-seven-year-old had passion for justice

Editor's note: This article was started before Chuck Driebe's death earlier this week. He was interviewed for it, and was looking forward to it. Unfortunately, he died before it was published. He died March 1, at Emory Hospital. This is, however, not an obituary, but a reflection on his long, productive and impactful life. For many, it will be a remembrance of a remarkable man.

Years of experience could be seen through Charles "Chuck" Driebe, Sr.'s gaze, as he leaned back on his leather chair, behind his desk, while casually puffing on a cigarette.

His voice could be compared to the that of actor Michael Douglas –– cool and smooth, with a raspy touch to it.

Driebe said he has been practicing law for about 50 years and would continue for as long as he was able. He was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.

During an interview on Feb. 9, when asked when he would consider retirement, Driebe responded, "When they carry me out in a box. People still hire me."

He said his law practice, Driebe and Driebe P.C., has been located at 6 Courthouse Way, Jonesboro, since about 1965.

"I've closed over $100 million worth of loans in the last decade," said the long-time lawyer, with a smile.

• Early Life

Driebe said he was born on Nov. 11, 1933, in Scranton, Pa. His parents moved to rural Stroudsburg, Pa., when he was an infant. He said he excelled in academics and skipped fifth grade. When he attended Stroudsburg High School, he was a lineman for its football team, he said.

"I was 16 when I started my senior year in high school ... I was looking for ways to prove myself athletically ... cause everybody else was older than me," he said.

Driebe said he graduated from high school in 1950, and received a football scholarship. He enrolled at Temple University, in Philadelphia, Pa., where he studied dentistry. "I didn't want to be a dentist, so I transferred to Penn State, in 1953, and majored in engineering and journalism," he said.

While at Penn State, he worked for the school newspaper, The Daily Collegiate. Driebe said that, due to his change in majors, he knew he would never graduate on time, and so he volunteered to be drafted into the U.S. Army, in 1954, and ended up at Fort McPherson, Ga. "Well I majored in pre-dental, engineering, journalism," he said. "And it would take at least two years-and-a-half [more] to graduate, so I said, ‘What the hell, I'll join the army,'" he said.

It was at the fort that he met his first wife, Norma, he said.

• Law Career

Driebe said he yearned to complete his higher education and enrolled in the School of Law at the University of Georgia, in Athens, in 1955. During this time, while still in law school, he had two children with his first wife: Charles J. Driebe, Jr., and Mitchell Driebe. Later, the couple had two daughters, Anne Vari and Elizabeth Driebe.

Sitting in his office recently, the long-time attorney pointed to a large picture of his current wife, Gail Driebe, and said with a smile, "That's my wife."

"He was absolutely devoted to [the] law practice, not as a business, but as a servant," Gail Driebe said Wednesday, following her husband's death.

According to Driebe, he passed the bar exam in 1957, graduated from the School of Law, in 1958, and was first in his class with magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa honors.

Other accomplishments, he said, include being editor-in-chief of the Georgia Law Review, becoming the first, and youngest, president of the Young Lawyers Division (YLD), founding the YLD Newsletter, being a founding member of the State Bar of Georgia, and his service on the first Board of Georgia Governors, where he continues to represent the Clayton Judicial Circuit.

Furthermore, he added that he represented the State Bar in the first case that upheld its constitutionality. He said that, after graduation, he was part of the School of Law's faculty for a year, and then moved on to practice law in Rome for a couple of years.

"I handled all kinds of cases," he said.

He said he became a law clerk for the Court of Appeals of the State of Georgia, in Atlanta, in 1961, making a $10,000 annual salary. "They [law clerks] are getting paid $75,000 now," he explained.

Driebe said, as a law clerk, he wrote opinions and conducted legal research for judges, on cases they handled. He loved being a law clerk, he added, but knew he needed to move on. "I wanted a job," he said. "I didn't want to stay being a law clerk. I wanted to be a real lawyer, and do things."

He said he eventually became a part of a general practice with lawyers Albert and Howard Wallace, in Jonesboro. While working there, Driebe said he handled one of his first big cases in 1968, where a man shot his brother-in-law 31 times in self-defense. He said the man was found not guilty reason of insanity, and was sent to the Central State Hospital of the Georgia Department of Human Resources, in Milledgeville, Ga.

"Then, about six months after he went to [mental hospital], I get this call saying he's out," said Driebe with a worried tone. "That made me kind of nervous."

Driebe said he wanted his own practice and bought the building where his practice is currently housed.

• Ted Kennedy

While talking about his life, Driebe stopped and pointed at an autographed picture of Edward "Ted" Kennedy, hanging from his wall. "I saw him [Ted Kennedy] naked," he said with a loud laugh. Driebe said, in 1964, he was the president, on the state level, of the Young Democrats of America. He said the partisan political organization invited Ted Kennedy to speak in Atlanta.

"He was supposed to come right after JFK [John F. Kennedy] got shot, so we put it off to the spring of the next year," Driebe said. Ted Kennedy spoke to the Georgia General Assembly of the legislature, at the Dinkler Plaza Hotel, in Downtown Atlanta, he said. During the event, Kennedy invited him up to his hotel room to discuss the schedule of the event.

"He said, ‘Hey Chuck, come on in here,' and there he was naked in the bath tub," Driebe chuckled. Driebe said he is a strong Democrat and attended every Democratic National Convention, from 1968, to 2008.

• Role model

The veteran attorney's son, Charles Driebe, Jr., an entertainment lawyer and band manager, said his father chose Clayton County in the 1960s, because he wanted to work in the courthouse. "In those days, if you went to work in a big Atlanta law firm, you wouldn't be going in court for years," said Driebe, Jr. "You would research, but he [Chuck Driebe] wanted to go to court and do a lot of litigation."

Driebe, Jr., said it was unusual for a lawyer to work in Jonesboro at that time, since it wasn't part of metro Atlanta. "It was its own county," he chuckled.

His father wanted to get into a court room and experience helping individuals, said Driebe, Jr. "When you asked him what type of law he practiced, he would say, ‘People's law.'"

As time went on and law became specialized, he said, his father focused on law related to real estate, rezoning and development. But, he said, his father was also very involved with civil rights. "The first dead person I ever saw [as a child] was Martin Luther King, Jr.," he said.

According to him, his father took him to see King, who was lying in-state inside an open casket, at Morehouse College, in Atlanta, for public viewing. To Charles Driebe, Jr., his father was always ahead of his time, when it came to politics.

It was his father, he said, who got him interested in law. "I went to practice law with him beginning in 1985, in Clayton County," said Driebe, Jr. "When I started, it was still a dry county. We didn't have chains of any kind."

• Mentor

Steven Frey, a lawyer specializing in criminal defense in Jonesboro, said he has known Chuck Driebe for 35 years. He met Chuck Driebe as a 14-year-old, through his father, who was a trial lawyer in Clayton County. "One of my first divorce cases [in 1993], I worked opposite of Chuck [Driebe]," said Frey with a laugh. "He had the wife, and I had the husband."

He said Chuck Driebe aggressively defended his client, while providing him with courtesy and professionalism. Frey said his fondest memories of Chuck Driebe is the advice and counsel he offered him.

Keith Martin, another veteran lawyer specializing in criminal defense and local government, said he has known Chuck Driebe since July 1971.

"I've learned an immense amount of things from Chuck," said Martin. "Chuck has a very pragmatic approach to life and law, and he very much reduces things to a very simple common denominator. He did his best to teach me that."