Genesee County Circuit Judge Duncan M. Beagle's uplifting story of courage and determination to overcome his physical disability.
Genesee County Circuit Judge Duncan M. Beagle will retire at the end of his current term. This is a riveting conversation about the illness that caused him to be unable to use his legs at the age of 43. It is an uplifting story of courage and determination to overcome his physical disability to become one of the most well-liked Judges in Genesee County.
The Beagle family has practiced law in Genesee County for over 120 years! Charles Beagle was the Genesee County Prosecuting Attorney in 1929 during one of the most spectacular Bank crashes in America during the Great Depression. The Industrial Bank was looted in 1929 by its executives, who speculated in the stock market with depositors' funds. Then Prosecutor Beagle charged and convicted 13 of the banks' executives and managers and sent them to Jackson Prison for their crimes. The Flint bank's collapse caused angry depositors to surround the downtown bank, burning and overturning cars and breaking the windows out of the Bank.
John Beagle, Judge Beagle's father, practiced law in Flint for over 50 years. He was at one time an Assistant Prosecutor and an Assistant Attorney General. He was an accomplished trial attorney who handled many high-profile cases.
Judge Duncan Beagle and his grandfather Charles Beagle served as Presidents of the Genesee County Bar Association.
The music in this podcast was written and produced by Joe Ryan III. The co-star of this performance is Joe's 90-year-old grandmother, Odessa Houston! The song, Flint, Michigan is about the Flint water crisis. Joe Ryan is a Flint native, a recording artist, and a producer for several well-known recording artists. Joe also is involved in producing and recording songs for television and movies. Visit Joe Ryan III's website to see videos, listen to music, and learn more about Joe. The song is played here with his permission.
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00:00:00 Arthur A. Busch
You were fortunate to have done one of the jobs by somebody else. During most of your ten years, another judge was the chief judge.
Your court had two great chief judges, Robert Ransom and Richard B. Yuille, who did what I thought was a fabulous job. Somehow along the way, you got the idea that it was your turn.
A Circuit Judge has lots to do. They don't have much spare time during their workday, so taking on the job of a chief judge means you get to referee arguments between many personalities. That is both in the courthouse and, to some extent, even in the community.
00:00:49 Judge Duncan M. Beagle
Well, as you mentioned, our previous chief judge was Rick Yuille. And he and I knew each other very well. We went to high school together. We played on the same high school basketball team, and you could count on weekends we were the only two that would be foolish enough to go down to the courthouse and catch up on our work.
So, I often listened to him on the issues he was so frustrated with or hoped to make some progress. So, when he retired, I said, well, you know it would be a nice way to end my career as the chief judge. So, I recognize I'm coming down to the home stretch in my career; to say the least, it's been challenging.
I took over on January 1, 2020. I went to Chief Judge, School, and three or four days later, I got called to a meeting at the county board in the middle of March last year (2021). At the end of that meeting, they said we're shutting all the County buildings down. And I said you got to be kidding me. They don't even shut the buildings down when there are 14 inches of snow.
I said this COVID thing must be pretty serious.
Well, needless to say, we've just been to meeting after meeting over the last year, trying to keep our docket going to try some criminal cases. For almost 13 months, we tried two criminal cases. You can only imagine what that does to your backlog of cases.
It's a pending case, so I shouldn't say too much about it. Due to the one-person grand jury, we've had a lot to do with the water cases. So that's taken a lot of time and energy, so it wasn't quite what I had expected. It's been interesting and challenging. But tough issues are going on, especially with COVID and the docket.
00:02:32 Arthur A. Busch
Tell us what a chief judge does in general, just briefly.
00:02:36 Judge Duncan M. Beagle
As my court administrator would say, judges should do what they do best: judge and leave the administration to the court administrators. However, the chief judge has to be the spokesperson for the court. They work hand in hand with the court administrator to implement policies and procedures and deal with everyday problems.
Since you're the elected official and the court's voice, you become the spokesperson on many issues. So, it has been challenging to say the least, especially right now. That is because we've got so many people in the county jail awaiting trial.
It looked like things would be able to get back to business in March. But then the numbers spiked up again. Good grief, I'm not sure when we will get back to it. The bottom line is it's been very challenging and very interesting. But then again, I must remember I got a docket to move forward.
00:03:30 Arthur A. Busch
Let's switch gears for just a second. For many years, you were in private practice, and you held several positions in the legal community. You were a court administrator at one time in your life. You were a Circuit Court referee before you became a judge. You lived a busy life between all that stuff and had a big (law) practice. And then you were officiating games.
You had a busy life, and something happened to bring everything to a halt for a few minutes.
00:04:03 Judge Duncan M. Beagle
Yeah, I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was just walking down the street from the Flint Police Department. I was in private practice, and my office was in the Mott foundation building.
It happened to be the very day that one of our judges, Nate Perry, would be sworn in that afternoon. About halfway down the street, I had numbness across both legs. It was a little unusual. It wasn't painful. It was like, uh, numbness where your arm or leg will fall asleep when you're sitting in a chair or something.
And so, I don't know, and I didn't know what to do. I called my family doctor, whom I was a close friend. He told me to lie down and call him in an hour because he was busy within that hour. When I attempted to get up, I couldn't even stand.
Long story short, I was in and out of hospitals for about four months. They thought it was Guillain Barre syndrome, to begin with. But then I went down to the University of Michigan. They said it was transverse myelitis, which they felt was a virus that got into my spinal cord.
Whatever it was, it certainly changed my life. I was very blessed with two things. Number one, there was an opening in the Circuit Court at the University of Michigan. I applied and was very fortunate to be appointed by Governor Engler.
Probably the most important thing was I got married that year. I got engaged about ten days before I came down with this ailment. I began to think, my gosh, is getting engaged what happened here? But my wife Dana is my rock. She stayed with me that entire time. We got married about eight months after I came down with this.
So, at the end of the year, I came down with an incredible illness that kept me in a wheelchair. Still, I was fortunate enough to become a judge and marry a great strong lady. That was 30 years ago, yeah, 1991.
00:05:50 Arthur A. Busch
You get around town. One of your close friends told me that you got around the city better than him the other day. And he's 91 years old, and I believe it's true.
You know, one of the things I've noticed, and it's remarkable, I've always wanted to ask you this. Given that you were the guy that told me to keep my weight down, patting my belly, it was built up by too many ice creams. You were the guy in impeccable shape and could run with those young kids on a basketball court.
To see this happen to you, I just couldn't make sense of it. I have never seen you complain, take this as an excuse or use it as a way to minimize things you wanted to do. Where does that come from? What is it that gives you this tremendous will?
00:07:03 Judge Duncan M. Beagle
Well, I'll tell you what I think if anybody comes down with something like this health-wise, there's going to be a period where you're going to feel sorry for yourself, woe is me. Why is this happening to me?
I was no different from anyone else, frustrated, not knowing what would happen with my life, not knowing if I'd be able to work again. There are a variety of thoughts. I think one thing you've got to have is a tremendous support system, which I was very blessed to have. But I think one story was at the University of Michigan. They put me on a floor with a number of people with spinal cord injuries. I remember a guy coming through in an electric wheelchair bumping into my bed. It shook it up, and I gave him a funny look.
And now I don't know; for some reason, that night, his bed was next to mine. We got talking, and he said, I've been watching you the last few days. He said you're older than me. He said I just want you to know you're going to be able to do 90% of what you did in life before, and I'm paralyzed from the neck down, and I've got three kids at home.
You can do things I'll never be able to, he said. If you watch, I can't feed myself. I can't go to the restroom on my own, he said. I can't change the channel on the TV. He said that you're blessed that your disability will not keep you from doing what you want to do to a significant extent.
Well, he changed my attitude that night. We talked for about two or three hours about it. That changed it.
And then, you know, after a while, I don't want to say it's simple, but there comes the point in your life when you gotta look in the mirror and say, well, you know something. You got two choices. You can sit around, feel sorry for yourself, and have everybody else feel sorry for you. Or you can pick up the pieces and go forward; if you do, don't complain about it. Don't complain about it. Just move forward.
So really, after you have that talk with yourself, that's kind of what I decided to do. It's time to move forward. You can joke and have a little fun with your disability and try to make the most of it.
You know, I look at the young man I mentioned before. William McQueen lost his legs when he was seven years old. Well, I enjoyed many physical activities until I was in my early 40s. So, I realize many people are out there much worse than I am.
Besides the tremendous support of my wife and family and other friends like you, I was able to move ahead. With my life.
00:09:23 Arthur A. Busch
You have an amazing history in Flint. Let's talk about your family and your mom and dad. I heard of a Beagle family in Flint when my mother told me that Mrs. Beale was her teacher at Flint Central.
Yep, it was that. So let's talk about your grandma.
00:09:47 Judge Duncan M. Beagle
Maude Beagle and my grandfather met in Minneapolis, MN. She was a schoolteacher. One of her students was Edward R. Morrow, the Walter Cronkite of our time.
She was undoubtedly a well-recognized person. She came to Flint and always wanted to be involved in drama, public speaking, and things like that. So, she's set up at Flint Central High School for about 30 years and had play after play. She educated and motivated many people who went on to become practicing attorneys.
Sorry, I was only seven or eight when she passed away. But just knowing her for that brief time and reading about her, she was a go-getter. She was a woman liber before they even invented the term. When she was alive, she was a hard-working lady. It was a real inspiration to many people who wanted to get into drama and speech.
00:10:39 Arthur A. Busch
Often in our house, believe it or not, when those games between Central and Northern came along, my mother would never forget this teacher, Mrs. Beagle. I'm sure you've had a lot of people in your life say, "your mom was my teacher," right?
00:10:54 Judge Duncan M. Beagle
Oh, no question about it, you know? Most people have passed away. She was a kind woman.
00:11:02 Arthur A. Busch
Your father, let's start with him. He also was a lawyer.
00:11:09 Judge Duncan M. Beagle
And, well, be honest with you, I had no desire to want to be a lawyer.
He was kind of got it worked 60 to 80 hours a week. The only time I would sometimes see him was when he got into the bathtub and soaked there for hours on Saturday or Sunday. And that'd be my time to chit-chat with him, so I didn't want any part of that profession.
Uh, but as years went by, I realized what a great lawyer he was. He was bright, but he also had a certain amount of charisma. He was good in the courtroom.
The best way to describe him was that he worked hard and played hard because he's one of those World War 2 veterans. When I went out with him socially in my 20s and 30s, I couldn't keep up with him, and he was well into his 70s until he retired.
He'd still be working 10/12-hour days. That's just the way he was built. That's how he developed his practice and did that until he retired. That was his motto. If you're going to go up against John Beagle. You better be prepared 'cause he will outwork you.
00:12:13 Arthur A. Busch
He was a Flintstone.
00:12:15 Judge Duncan M. Beagle
He was a Flintstone. There's no doubt about that.
00:12:18 Arthur A. Busch
Now he had quite a distinguished career. He liked politics.
00:12:24 Judge Duncan M. Beagle
He got involved at a young age with what was called back then. I think it was the McKeigan, Barnhart, McKay organization. He was very active in the Republican Party way back in those days, I think the 30s and 40s, and he was the young up-and-coming guy.
And as you probably know, many people know about Bill Mckeegan, who I think was the youngest mayor in Flint. Real flamboyant outgoing guy. My dad was able to be part of that organization, so he learned about the great game of politics at a young age and stayed with it for many, many years. I've heard him tell stories about the State conventions and all the crazy things they used to do.
Yeah, it was fun listening to those stories.
Duncan M. Beagle:
Before his, I believe he was in private practice, and he became an assistant prosecutor. He was an assistant prosecutor and an assistant attorney general for a while. He practiced law until he enlisted in the war. I think back in 42-43.
00:13:24 Arthur A. Busch
Did he practice law for how long in Flint?
00:13:27 Judge Duncan M. Beagle
My grandfather practiced for over 50 years, and my dad did. I think he practiced for 53 or 54 years.
00:13:35 Arthur A. Busch
Did they ever overlap and practice law together? Were they ever in sync?
00:13:37 Judge Duncan M. Beagle
Yeah, yeah, it wasn't a long time.
00:13:41 Judge Duncan M. Beagle
But it was Beagle and Beagle for several years, probably 10-15 years, yeah?
00:13:46 Arthur A. Busch
Your dad's (law) practice was in domestic relations or divorce near the end of his life.
00:13:54 Judge Duncan M. Beagle
He did a lot of criminal defense and represented many defendants in high-profile cases. He specialized and got out of the criminal defense and then did strictly domestic work, for the most part, for the last 20 years.
00:14:08 Arthur A. Busch
Was he the president of the bar at any time?
00:14:10 Judge Duncan M. Beagle
He never was. I think he got involved in so many other different activities. He never was real, active in the Bar Association. My grandfather was, at one time, president of the Genesee County Bar Association. I but my dad was not.
00:14:28 Arthur A. Busch
Let's talk about your grandpa. Charlie Beagle, as some of your family referred to him. I think his first name is properly Charles. Let's talk about him and tell us about his career.
00:14:44 Judge Duncan M. Beagle
He and my grandmother met in Minnesota, and he went out West of the State of Washington. I think he was the prosecutor out there for a while. Then he came to Genesee County, and I think he became the prosecutor. I think it was 1928.
And that's when he gained a lot of notoriety. This goes back to the days when they didn't have a staff of 20-30 lawyers. He had maybe one assistant, but he tried an ungodly number of criminal cases. I think he won about 20 in a row at one point, and of course, he took on the one that got a lot of national publicity involving the Industrial Bank.
00:15:24 Arthur A. Busch
Now the Industrial Bank was an infamous case. They've written a book about it.
00:15:30 Judge Duncan M. Beagle
Well, he got a lot of notoriety. That was because that's when the stock market crashed. There was a book written, "The Day the Bubble Burst." I think the guy went into four different communities around the country: Flint and Genesee County. Several bankers out of the Industrial Bank took some money and invested it in the stock market.
I don't think they intended to defraud anybody. The bankers thought it might be a nice way to make money. When the stock market crashed, they caught up in the middle. Then the bank lost a lot of money, and my grandfather had to make some decisions.
There were 15 or 16 people charged due to that, many of whom later went on to prison.
So it gained a lot of national attention simply because there were a lot of high executives within the bank that got caught.
00:16:25 Arthur A. Busch
And probably because it caused a bank to crash. There were lines and all that sort of stuff in front of the bank in downtown Flint.
That episode with him prosecuting that case was a blessing and a curse in his hometown.
00:16:40 Judge Duncan M. Beagle
Yeah, I don't know what happened. At the next election in 1930, I just knew my grandfather got defeated. I don't know whether some people felt he was too aggressive in charging people or what. His case got a lot of attention. I think. Looking back, he must have done an admirable job because justice was done.
But the voters decided it was time. A different approach, I guess.
Arthur A. Busch
And who replaceD him?
00:17:08 Judge Duncan M. Beagle
You know if you asked me that 20 years ago. I could have told you, but I can't remember right now.
Actually, no, I think it was…. It was Ralph Freeman when he was on the Flint School Board. I think Freeman Elementary is named after him. He became a very successful and respected federal judge, Ralph Freeman. And I think I think he was the guy that succeeded.
00:17:31 Arthur A. Busch
Yes, and then Andrew Jackson Transue took the helm somewhere in there.
00:17:35 Judge Duncan M. Beagle
That's true. Right, that's exactly right.
00:17:38 Arthur A. Busch
And I don't remember how many terms he served. I thought he served a couple terms, and then he's a legend too. We ought to do a podcast on him. One day, Andrew became the congressman elected during the Roosevelt landslide of 1932.
00:17:46 Judge Duncan M. Beagle
Arthur A. Busch:
And he was elected as a Democrat of All Things. He got the vote on the New Deal.
I can remember 'cause he was on the same floor as my grandfather.
Remember one time he said yes? He said I was a congressman for one year. The voters of Genesee County have decided they would prefer I go back and practice law.
00:18:15 Arthur A. Busch
Andrew was a walking history book. If you had time, you could learn a lot from Andrew.
So, you are a third-generation lawyer. Your father and your grandfather had distinguished careers as you have. You're also looking at it as a representative of a major institution in the community. Our justice system, our civil justice system, and the legal system.
What's the state of that system?
People look at Flint, saying, well, we don't seem to be able to stand up a government that can provide clean (drinking) water. We have several other social problems that you know can be traced back to bad decision-making.
Flint's a lot more than its governments don't always work well. We have great institutions, excellent hospitals, and good banks. The justice system is one of those pillars that keep society running well.
How do you view its role in Flint? How has it performed?
00:19:17 Judge Duncan M. Beagle
Well, it's a good question, especially with what's happening in the country today. I think I've taken on a much better appreciation for our legal system.
Specific rules and laws, statutes, and court rules govern us.
I know every day I'm in the courtroom. If somebody goes too far in their advocacy, they say inappropriate things. Things that we so often hear in discussions with policy issues. Nowadays, the judge has a means by which to take control.
You know, we certainly have different forms of mediation to try and settle disputes. Can our system be improved?
It certainly can, and there have been many discussions to improve our criminal justice system over the last several years. But overall, we're very fortunate to have the system we do.
We still depend upon our jury system, and if you ask most people, they hate it. When they get their letter to come to jury duty, but if they've had the opportunity to serve and all of them look back and say it was a great experience, I'm glad I took part in it. I understand why we have it.
And so I think we're…. I think it's still rock in our community.
You know, with everything going on in Washington right now. Even with some of the frustration with the City of Flint government and state government, much of it goes back to our legal system's foundation. That is to be respectful to your opponent.
You're an officer of the court that depends upon you and bringing things truthful in front of the court.
And so I think we must continue to work on it as lawyers and judges. Still, I think the system itself overall. At the same time, it needs improvement, is tested the time, and it's shown we can make a significant difference and care every day I take that bench.
I've got a responsibility to be courteous, respectful, and listen. As a lawyer, you come into court, you've got a duty and obligation to bring your case forward with hopefully credible facts that you presented on behalf of your client.
So, as frustrated as we are with our situation in Washington and state government and local governments, I’m pretty proud of our profession. To be perfectly honest with you.
00:21:41 Arthur A. Busch
Looking to close up our conversation, I wanted to ask you, as a lifelong resident of the Flint community and
somebody who has contributed a fair share, more than your fair share.
What do you see about the future of Flint? Does Flint have a future, and if so, what do you think gives it that future?
What gives you hope when you look at the city of Flint? What is it that gives you hope that Flint will have more sunrises than sunsets?
00:22:15 Judge Duncan M. Beagle
No, I'll tell you what; that's an excellent question.
Let's be honest. Many more people are relocating out of Midwestern states to move elsewhere.
We know what grew Michigan first grew in Flint. Much of it was in 1900 with the automobile industry. So many people were coming here, to begin with, but I think we're now at the crossroads.
Where we got to make some decisions. You know, for years, while the automobile industry was going along and doing well and people were employed, we all did our own thing. We appreciated how lucky we were.
We didn't have the almost 80,000 hourly worker jobs in the late 70s. We have to roll up our sleeves, look in the mirror and say what kind of a community we want. And it's, I tell you, it's been an adjustment, but I think many citizens recognize that you have to learn to partner with your next-door neighbor. You have to know the guy down the street. You have to work with people in other parts of the city and see if you can't find some common ground.
These are tough times because there's so much unemployment and poverty. I think that's one of the frustrations you see at some of our Flint City Council meetings and so forth.
But you know, it goes back to the basics that you still have to be respectful, courteous, and get to know your fellow neighbor.
You, the fellow person you're serving on the Council with, and see if you can't find common ground, which has been a lost art. Despite our differences, we can find it to see if we can't agree on some things. We can move forward to the point that, as I've said, five years now, people will tell you to want to know how to rebuild an industrial and urban community. Go to Flint, MI.
That's up to all of us. That's up to our block clubs, our schools, and the different professions to decide. Do we want to complain about it and point the finger at somebody? Or do we want to roll up our sleeves? And by golly, I'll tell you what I'm. I'm not ashamed that I'm from Flint, but I want to rebuild this community and say I'm proud. I'm from Flint and Genesee County.
So as I said before, in my own personal situation, you have two paths you can go. I think the community's citizens got to decide which way they want.
00:24:30 Arthur A. Busch
If I'm from another city and I meet you someplace on the street, and I ask you to give me one or two words that describe the city of Flint, I don't know anything about the city. How would you describe it?
00:24:45 Judge Duncan M. Beagle
One tough city that we will outwork you when the chips are down. We will be. Respectful to you. But nobody. Nobody will work harder than the people of Flint City and Genesee County.
00:25:00 Arthur A. Busch
Duncan, McLaren Beagle. It's been an honor to have you as my guest on radio free Flint.
Duncan M. Beagle
It's good to see you again, my friend. I want to give you credit for the show you're doing.
You've got me to be a regular now. I will pass this along to many of my other friends so you can increase your listening base.
00:25:19 Arthur A. Busch
There we go. Thank you, Duncan.
00:25:20 Arthur A. Busch
00:25:22 Judge Duncan M. Beagle
OK, thanks, Art
00:25:23 Arthur A. Busch