Three years ago, Michael Wilcoxson hit rock bottom after his arrest for cocaine possession.
On Friday, judges and prosecutors stood and applauded him for the way he has turned around his life since.
Wilcoxson was presented with the 2009 Liberty Bell award, given to non-lawyers who have made a contribution to the local courts system, during the annual Law Day luncheon of the Northeastern Judicial Circuit.
"Mike has seen the oppression and imprisonment of substance abuse, and he fights every day to help liberate those who are struggling with the bonds of addiction," Hall County Superior Court Judge Jason Deal said.
Deal oversees the felony drug court, where Wilcoxson was a participant, then a graduate, and finally a volunteer and mentor.
Wilcoxson, after putting behind him what he called a "four-year binge," opened his own business, the DUI and Defensive Driving School of Midtown, and serves as a board chair for Friends of Recovery, a nonprofit agency that provides assistance to treatment and accountability court participants.
The man known in drug court as "Smiling Mike" wore a stunned expression Friday after the surprise honor.
"Drug court gave me the tools necessary to change my life," he said. "And it progressed to where I could help somebody else out. That’s been the major thing for me, is giving back. In order to keep what I’ve got, I’ve got to give it away."
Friday’s winner of the Judge A.R. Kenyon Award, the highest local honor for a lawyer in the Northeastern Circuit, was Doug Stewart, a longtime Gainesville attorney and member of the firm of Stewart, Melvin and Frost since 1968.
Stewart, a past president of the State Bar of Georgia, called the Northeastern Judicial Circuit Bar Association "the best in the state of Georgia, and I’ve seen a lot them."
"All of you can accept this award with me, because when you associate with people of the caliber that this bar has, you do rise above each occasion," Stewart said.
State Rep. Doug Collins delivered the day’s keynote address, reflecting on his time serving as a military chaplain in Iraq and becoming a new member of the bar at age 42.
"Now is the time for the legal community to rise up, and boldly hold the flag of justice," Collins said. "It is our calling to be standard-bearers for the rule of law, and the unshakable belief that all people deserve equal treatment under the law.
"We should boldly go forward, helping people understand that our access to our court system and the freedom we have based on the constitution are not to be taken for granted, but are to be proudly proclaimed for all the world to see."
"You stand in the gap for those who need help," he said.