Judge Vic Fleming, Little Rock District Court Judge, has been busy during his 19 years on the bench. During his long career, he’s filled a variety of roles including adjunct professor, musician, writer, and crossword puzzle creator. He shares his story below.
Q: Did you always want to be a judge?
A: When I was in law school, Professor Ken Gould, in a 3rd year course called “Client Counseling” carved out a 15 minute period at the end of one class to jot down your ideal legal career. 14 minutes later I was still looking at a blank sheet of paper. So I jotted down “1/3 trial practice, 1/3 judge, 1/3 professor.” I kept that sheet with me and looked at it every year for 15 years, asking myself the question, “Are you going to be true to this?” Along the way, I was a trial lawyer. The truth of the matter is, 90% of my work was real estate related and litigation so I was the least likely person in the world to become a traffic judge. In the 16th or 17th year of my practice, I perceived that this position was going to become open and I had concluded that if I was going to become a judge, I was going to have to run for election. I didn’t really want to run for election but through some prayerful consideration and consultation with my family, I decided I would run for this position and I was lucky enough to get elected.
Q: How did you get to where you are today? Where did you go to school?
A: I went to Davidson College, outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, for my undergrad. I majored in English. When I was a kid, my mother always told me, “You need to be a lawyer because you love to argue.” I wanted to be a teacher and a writer. In fact, after undergrad school, I applied to and was accepted into a Master’s Program in English at the University of North Carolina. I had a friend who was finishing up his PhD in English, which was the route that I wanted to take, and he couldn’t find a job. So I investigated the job market and thought, “This is horrible,” and I withdrew from that English program before it started. I called my mother and said, “Okay, I’m going to apply to law school.” She was nice enough not to gloat. During the next year I took the LSAT and applied to law school at the Bowen School of Law.
Q: What would you be doing if you weren’t a judge?
A: I would probably still be practicing law. I might have found a way to make the jump to academia. Roughly 5 years after becoming a judge, I signed up to audit a course at the law school called “Law and Literature.” I got a call from the academic dean and he said, “The professor has had a medical problem and is not going to be able to teach this semester and I want you to teach it instead.” So I said I’d do it under one condition – that we get the other guy back next year -- and he said, “Done.” Well, the other guy took early retirement and I’ve been teaching it every year since 2003.
Q: When you’re not at work, what do you like to do?
A: I like to play golf, play the guitar and write music, and I write crossword puzzles. I’ve become a grandfather in the past two years so when I get a chance, I like to go visit my grandkids, as well as visiting with other extended family.
Q: How did you start creating crossword puzzles?
A: My mother got me started working them when I was probably in junior high. She worked them from time to time and because she did them, I did them. Even before then, I liked to draw mazes as well as doing work quizzes and word play so maybe crossword puzzles were my destiny. Then, in law school, I started occasionally making a puzzle and it would take me three or four hours to make a puzzle that broke all the rules. I realized that was going to be way too time consuming so I said, “I’m going to put this on hold while I have a legal career.” So, 25 years later, in the year 2003, I asked myself, “When are you going to get back to these things that you said you were going to do?” And one of them was crossword puzzles. So I hunkered down at the computer one night, reviewed all the rules of crossword puzzles, figured out how to print something off so I could draw my own grid, and I made a puzzle that week and submitted it to the New York Times. I did the same thing the next week and the next week and the next week. After a month, I got an email telling me that all my puzzles had been rejected. The same thing happened the next month. Finally I got a note from Will Shortz telling me that I was real close but I was never going to get there if I didn’t get a mentor. Once I got into it, [my mentor] showed me how making a crossword puzzle is a lot more like writing a term paper than it is drawing a picture on a piece of paper. Basically the year 2004, I hunkered down at my computer every night -- about 3 hours a night for several months -- teaching myself and letting others teach me everything that I needed to know if I really wanted to publish crossword puzzles. By the time my first one was published, I had 10 or 15 more accepted. I had created a monster that now needed to be fed.
Q: What’s the most interesting thing that’s ever happened to you while writing puzzles?
A: I decided I would go to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament for the first time in March 2005. I knew that there would be a talent show and I applied to be one of the 12 acts in the talent show. After being accepted, I wrote a song about crossword puzzles called “If You Don’t Come Across, I’m Gonna Be Down.” It turns out, that was the year they were shooting the movie Wordplay, a documentary. The filmmakers kept my song in the movie, licensed the rights, and used the song in the closing credits.
Q: Where are your puzzles published?
A: I have one a month in the Rotarian Magazine and one a week in the Little Rock Daily Record. The Daily Record has a sister newspaper, the Hamilton County Herald and the publisher of those two syndicated the puzzles to two other papers, the Memphis Daily News and the Nashville Ledger. So every week my puzzle is in four court and commercial papers. That’s 64 puzzles a year that I’m under contract to create.
Q: What advice do you have for those interested in crossword puzzle creation?
A: Get a mentor. I was never going to get there if I hadn’t gotten a mentor. I believe in mentorship on a lot of different levels.