"Be young and wild and free
Like Texas in 1880"
For 20 years, my definition of a true Texan has been James Street. Fun with boundless ambition and the ultimate competitor. The kind of guy who lit up a room with positive energy and inspired everyone else around him.
A true leader.
When James suddenly passed away at the age of 65, it was a major story around the globe. Almost all of the ink focused on his success as one of the greatest sports legends in the history of Texas. As quarterback of the University of Texas national championship team and the last baseball pitcher to pitch a perfect game in the Southwest Conference, Street was a true hero.
The stories usually stopped when James was 22 years old. They missed the great story of what James accomplished after sports ended and business life began. He built one of the most successful structured settlement and settlement planning firms in the United States.
The structured settlement industry has an interesting history.
Although structured settlement annuities have been called "one of the greatest financial planning tools ever invented" because of their ability to provide tax free income, offer lifetime payments and be set up in a flexible fashion, the people who invented the concept in the early 1980s were executives in major insurance claims organizations and saw them strictly as a tool for settling claims.
Financial planners were strongly discouraged from being involved in structured settlements. I was lucky that I did not know that. I came out of graduate school at Vanderbilt in 1982 and entered the financial planning business. I got into structured settlements the next year and one the first attorneys to send me business was one of America's greatest trial lawyers, Peter Perlman, from Lexington, Kentucky.
After a decade, without associates or a larger organization, a visionary Californian named Dave Snyder called me. Dave found most of the financial planners in the country active or interested in structured settlements and organized a group.
That is where I met James Street.
Dave had this incredibly mind-numbing idea to give about 10 different life insurance companies one hour each, to explain how they might differentiate themselves in some way from the other nine companies. It was like sitting through 10 consecutive hours of college algebra. You could watch people starting to doze off. A presenter was noting famous people who had been that carrier's clients and said, "What do these historic figures (I think one was the King of Hawaii) have in common?" James yelled out, "They're dead!"
The first levity we had in hours, and I knew right away that Street was a kindred spirit. I introduced myself, wound up having a multi-hour dinner with him and his partner and we all became great friends.
Being a Kentuckian, 11 years younger, I really didn't know who Street was. I heard he had played football, but a lot of people play football. Not many played it like Street did.
The one place I was not going to find out about his football career was through James Street. I learned a lot about the 1969 Texas-Arkansas game in a section of Bill Clinton's autobiography and a terrific book called Hogs, Horns and Nixon Coming: Texas vs. Arkansas in Dixie's Last Stand by Terry Frei.
James went to great lengths to avoid talking about his football days. I think it was beat into his head by his mentor, the great Texas football coach Darrell Royal, that you put the past behind you and think about the future.
It took about 20 years and a lot of direct questions to get much information from him about his glory years. He loosened up a little when his son Huston Street became rookie of the year in major league baseball, but James wanted to focus on where life was headed, not where he had been.
The fact that I did not live in Texas made it easier for him to avoid the topic. It was impossible otherwise. I once flew to Austin to spend the day with him and couldn't find him at the airport. Finally, I saw the mob of people around him getting autographs.
James loved to talk and it was not unusual for him to call me as his car pulled out of Houston and still be in the phone, sitting in his driveway in Austin, four or five hours later.
James tried to downplay his intelligence, but it was impossible for him to downplay his incredible personality.
One of the most charismatic leaders I have ever met, Street was driven by the absolute self confidence that he could achieve anything he set his mind to doing.
He and I were working together on an extremely difficult and large mass tort claim and it looked like we had hit a roadblock. In one of the rare times he referenced his football days, he looked at me and said, "I decided when I was a junior in high school that I would never lose another football game and I never did. We will get past this, too."
We did. I couldn't quite believe that he had never quarterbacked a losing football game. I looked it up. He never did.
He played on great teams, but I suspect James got his team to focus and play to the maximum of their ability.
I know he did that in business.
That extreme self confidence also allowed him to beat back a bigger opponent than football: alcoholism. His obituary in the Austin newspaper referenced that James had been a recovering alcoholic for the past 35 years.
Having spent a lifetime fighting food addictions and developing an affinity for people with their own addictions, I long suspected that he was recovering, but he never mentioned it once. I knew that James did not drink and would do a "drive by" appearance at events where people were drinking heavily. Often he would park in the hallway outside a big reception to hang out and talk.
After awhile, people would drift out of the reception and join the conversation. Eventually the group in the hall would be bigger than the group inside.
James didn't have to go to the party. The party came to him.
We did not stay in the same group too long. Dave Snyder had a terrific idea that spawned some of the best known people in the settlement planning business, like Paul Lesti and Mark Walhstrom, but most were too independent to belong to a larger company and all formed their own groups.
The James Street Group is now one of the largest structured settlement firms in the country. I wrote a book called Life Lessons from the Lottery about why people like lottery winners and professional athletes run through their money in a short period of time.
It stunned me that so many pro athletes went broke. They have agents and decades of discipline and focus.
I guess I was expecting them all to be like James Street. His took the leadership skills and confidence and used them the rest of his life. He knew how to find good people and was generous in sharing money and glory. I had a lot of business deals with him and all were on a handshake or a phone call.
Several documentaries studied why athletes go broke. They may want to go back and study James Street on what to do right.
James and I shared a common vision of where we thought the structured settlement business would go and in the late 1990s, several of us concluded that the National Structured Settlement Trade Association needed someone who worked with plaintiffs and plaintiff attorney on its Board of Directors.
Street was the obvious person to run, but convinced me to run instead. He was instrumental in helping me get elected. Each year, more likeminded people stepped forward and within a few years, the entire industry had accepted the concept that plaintiff and defense structured settlement consultants were full and equal players. It's not even an issue now.
James tended to avoid industry organizations, and over the past several years, I had done the same. That changed when the Society of Settlement Planners invited me to speak to their convention in Las Vegas last May. It was like déjà vu all over again as I saw how the concept of settlement planning is at the same stage that plaintiff's structured settlements firms were 20 years ago. All that is needed is for the gospel to be spread to a larger audience.
I wound up joining the group and they elected me to their Board of Directors. I'd been meaning to call James and talk about the Society of Settlement Planners ever since. If you go the James Street Group website, "Comprehensive Settlement Planning" are the first words you see. If he was going to get active in a group again, this group was a natural.
I suspect that one of the reasons that James stayed away from industry politics, and politics in general, was that he understood how valuable his "brand" was. James was as comfortable having dinner with Texas Democrat Governor Anne Richards as he was with her successor, George W. Bush.
The one time he did weigh politically was when it came time to craft legislation to deal with companies that advertise on television to buy up structured settlements. The first state to pass legislation was my home state of Kentucky and I spent a couple of years helping other structured settlement people as their legislative battles came up.
As the Texas legislature was dealing with the issue, some kind of surprise hearing came up, launched by people opposing the bill. Street raced over to the capitol to testify and the legislative experts and lawyers from Washington came flying in to help.
One of the lawyers told me that when they got to the legislature, a security person stopped them. He asked, "Are you with James Street or with the other side?" They said they were with Street. The guard said, "Those other boys are going to take a whooping today." (Which they did.)
As my friends walked forward towards the hearing, the security guard called to them.
"You know, he is an All-American."
Yes he was. In more than just sports.