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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, March 10, 2017

Laughter, tears mark emotional memorial service




The family of the Hon. Robert Cooper, who died July 10, attended a March 3 event to memorialize Hamilton County attorneys and judges who died in 2016. Cooper was remembered as a man who valued church, country and family. - Photograph by David Laprad

For 90 minutes on March 3, members of the Chattanooga Bar Association set aside the practice of law to commemorate the judges and attorneys who died last year.

Sixteen members of the bar passed away in 2016, making it a year of many difficult blows for the legal community in Hamilton County.

“It was a bittersweet moment as I signed the resolutions this morning and remembered all of the lawyers and judges we lost,” said Bill Colvin, president of the CBA, during his opening remarks. “I tried cases in front of many of the judges we will honor today, practiced with many of the attorneys and even saw the name of a college fraternity brother I counted as a great friend.”

The bar’s annual memorial service took place in the County Commission room of the Hamilton County Courthouse. The surviving practitioners were not alone in their moment of remembrance, for many family members and friends of the deceased were also present – wives, sons and daughters who had made their own sacrifices over the years and other people who had offered their support to the barristers.

All but two of Hamilton County’s judges were also present to honor the departed. Some of them took the seats normally occupied by county commissioners, forming a half-circle of robed eulogists along the far wall; others sat just below them on the platform.

Katherine Higgason Lentz was the first to step up to the podium and deliver a resolution. As she paid tribute to her father, John Higgason, Jr., who died Jan. 21, 2016, she fought to hold back her tears.

“It’s difficult to encapsulate everything my dad endured and meant to us. He certainly wouldn’t want to be remembered solely for his struggle with kidney disease and other physical ailments.

“He loved rock and roll, fast cars, fishing, friends and his family – hopefully, not in that order. I hope it will be my father’s unwavering positive attitude, strength and kindness that will be remembered. He was a scrappy fighter and a kind and thoughtful soul.”

As Graham Swafford approached the podium to honor his father, Howard Swafford, he looked back at Katherine as she sat down and said, “That looked hard.”

As Katherine regained her composure, she wished him luck.

Graham also swallowed tears as he began to read his resolution for his father, who died Feb. 4, 2016. But after forcefully clearing his throat, he effortlessly told a simple story that illustrated the kind of person Howard was.

“My father left his home at the age of 16 with all of his possessions in a brown paper sack and $75 in his hand, walked to the edge of South Pittsburg, Tennessee, and hitchhiked to the University of Tennessee.

“After paying tuition, Howard had $50 to support himself for the entire year. One afternoon, he showed up unannounced at the office of Gen. Robert Neyland and told him he was ready to play football.

“When the coach asked him about how much experience he had, Howard said none, but he had heard that football players get three square meals a day.

“With that, Gen. Neyland told him to talk with the wrestling coach. The guy put Howard on the team, and before it was over, Howard wrestled for four years and became the team captain.”

The room then erupted in laughter as Graham shared an anecdote about the kind of lawsuits his father was willing to file.

“We’ve all heard about frivolous lawsuits and how horrible they are,” Graham said before pausing for effect. “Howard was not afraid to file a frivolous lawsuit.”

As Graham closed, he praised the profession for how it had provided for his father and his family, saying, “God bless America and God bless the practice of law.”

Graham yielded the podium to his sister, Claudia Swafford Haltom, who presented the resolution for Claude Swafford, Howard’s wife. Claude proceeded her husband in death on March 25, 2016. The two had been married for nearly 70 years.

Haltom called her mother, who was among the first 100 woman attorneys in Tennessee, a “true pioneer” and spoke highly of her involvement in politics and education.

“She opened doors not just for herself but for all of the women who followed her,” Haltom said. “While she enjoyed being a lawyer, her real passion was improving public education. She believed every child deserved an education as fine as the one she provided for her children.”

As Harold Pinkley prepared to deliver his resolution for the Hon. Theodore Milburn, who died on April 1, 2016, he looked at the many judges seated before him and admitted to feeling a modicum of stage fright.

“I’ve been a lawyer for 33 years,” he said. “If I seem nervous, it’s because I’ve never appeared before this many judges.”

In a lengthy and detailed resolution, Pinkley worked his way from Milburn’s college days, when he demonstrated a passion for directing church choirs, to his years as a judge for the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Judge Milburn said being a judge is a wonderful and fantastic experience. He called it a sacred trust, and said if one simply looks to see that justice is done to the best of his or her ability, it’s a great calling and a wonderful way to serve and make a difference.”

The resolution for Ward Crutchfield, who died on April 3, 2016, demonstrated how difficult it is to condense a human lifetime into a few words.

Reading the resolution prepared by Tom Crutchfield, Ward’s nephew, Rheubin Taylor said Ward’s political accomplishments could fill several pages. Taylor also spoke of Ward’s willingness to help people with legal issues for little or no fee, shared stories about his gregarious nature and love for food and fine cigars, and praised his character.

“He never spoke an evil word to anyone he encountered in either the legal or political realms and never ended a conversation without asking, “Can I do anything for you?’”

Pamela O’Dwyer offered a unique resolution for her mother, Selma Cash Paty, who died May 1, 2016.

O’Dwyer began by using her mother’s nickname, Sunny, to describe the kind of person she was. “She brought that kilowatt smile to us every day. Even toward the end, she didn’t complain about her limitations,” O’Dwyer said.

After expressing admiration for her mother’s collegiality, high ethics, accommodating spirit, perseverance and strong work ethic, O’Dwyer spoke about the final case in Paty’s storied career.

“Everyone thought she was amazing. My brother would wheel her in, she would rise out of her wheelchair and tear the witness apart and then they would take her back to her wheelchair to rest while she waited for the next witness,” O’Dwyer said.

“I believe she crawled out of that little leather chair [the night she died] with a law book in her hands and went happily because she had just had a great victory.”

In a poignant moment, O’Dwyer then sang two verses of “The Parting Glass,” a traditional Irish song, including:

And all I’ve done for want of wit

To memory now I can’t recall

So fill to me the parting glass

Good night and joy be with you all

Glenn Copeland, who died May 22, 2016, was remembered as “a kind and generous man.”

Mitchell Meeks read a resolution prepared by Mark Whittenburg, saying, “The world will never know how many pro bono hours Glenn put in. He would often take cases that were not economically feasible to handle, saying, ‘If I help this person with this small case and do my best, I’ll have a client for life.’

“Because of Glenn’s commitment to the law, his devotion to every client, his collegial relationship with every attorney he knew and his winsome and gracious spirit, it’s only fitting that we honor him today.”

Robert Cooper, Jr., had no easy task summarizing the life of his father, the Hon. Robert Cooper, who died July 10, 2016. But he did a commendable job with an elegantly written resolution that mixed intimate stories with biographical details.

From discussing his father’s time as an assistant district attorney to covering his involvement in landmark decisions as a judge, Robert, Jr., stopped at many points of interest along the way.

Ultimately, the late judge’s son painted a picture of a man of great passion for the law whose greatest loves were his church, community and family.

“When [my three sisters and I] were small, our father would sing gospel hymns to us. One hymn has stayed with me for 55 years – ‘The Old Rugged Cross.’ That hymn is a celebration of a life lived in devotion to others. Maybe that is what drew my father to it.

“He was a man of amazing talents, but what truly distinguished him was his fierce devotion and unshakable dedication to what he held dear – his church, community and family.”

Phil Whitaker, Jr., prepared and presented the resolution for his father, Phil Whitaker, who died July 20, 2016.

The two Whitakers were more than father and son; they were also law partners for more than 40 years.

Phil, Jr., began by applauding his father’s patriotism, which he expressed by serving in the U.S. Air Force. “My father believed everyone should serve their country in some way,” he said.

Although Phil, Sr., piloted the F-86 Sabre jet while in the Air Force, his son said he was a down-to-earth man who desired to serve others, had a friendly and likable character and possessed a brilliant legal mind.

“His character was above reproach. Sometimes, you’ll come across a lawyer and wonder if he’s being straight with you. My father was never one of those guys. You could trust him,” his son said.

In 2016, Art Grisham wrote and prepared the resolution for Bruce Guthrie II. This year, Grisham prepared the resolution for Guthrie’s father, Billy Bruce Guthrie, who died July 30, 2016. Nora McCarthy, chair of the CBA’s memorial committee, presented the decree.

“He lived a full life, practicing his profession with honor and dedicated to representing those less fortunate than he,” McCarthy read. “Typically, these memorials contain a statement that the honoree practiced law from year X until his retirement in year Y. But I can’t do that because Billy Bruce Guthrie never retired; he practiced law from 1958 until he drew his last breath less than one year ago.”

In a resolution prepared and presented by Gary Napolitan, the Hon. Thomas Stinnett, who died Aug. 23, 2016, was remembered as a “loving and respected man with a great sense of humor, great ability and a wonderful temperament.”

“He also had a great deal of common sense, which we all know is not that common,” Napolitan said.

After detailing Stinnett’s considerable service to his church, community, family and profession, Napolitan wrapped up his resolution by saying, “Everyone who knew Tom knew he was fun to be with. He was gregarious, his love of cooking and good food knew no equal, and he was a tremendous human being. No one who knew Tom will forget him, and everyone who knew him was better for it.”

As William Thomas Bible, Jr., presented his resolution of Charles Boyd Coleman, Jr., who died Aug. 29, 2016, he created a portrait of a natural problem solver, a man of faith, a loyal friend and zealous advocate and someone who didn’t know the meaning of the word “quit.”

Coleman was also highly mechanically minded, which Bible compared to his ability to take apart and solve legal problems.

“Boyd could do almost anything. From the internal combustion engine to statutory construction, he liked to understand the precise details of the things he encountered.

“While most of us have an idea of how the engine in our car works, Boyd knew exactly how the entire mechanical system of a vehicle worked, and could disassemble and reassemble it.

“Boyd wanted to absorb and understand the law in the same way. He spent much time pouring over case law, law review articles and outside reference materials he would collect from estate sales, library sales, book stores and other attorneys.”

Yet as much as Coleman enjoyed having his nose in an engine or a book, he favored his interactions with people above all else.

“When issues arose with his friends or family, he was always available to talk with them, brainstorm, intercede, cajole and do whatever it took, for as long as it took to resolve the issues,” Bible said. “He treated his clients the same way.”

The Hon. Bernard John O’Brien, who died Sept. 6, 2016, was fortunate to have three careers: soldier, lawyer and judge, said Judge Richard Gordon, who wrote and prepared the resolution for his best friend.

Gordon shared a story about a young O’Brien who disliked following the rules at West Point. This led to a dilemma for the young cadet, who was going to miss graduating with his class due to the amount of punishment he had to undergo for his misdeeds.

“Bernie learned a visiting dignitary could grant him amnesty. The captain of cadets submitted his name for consideration to two dignitaries – a famous actress and an unnamed head of state, both of whom would be at the graduation banquet,” said Gordon.

When the actress was unable to attend the banquet, O’Brien located the head of state and saw a man bedecked in medals and military insignia. Distraught, he was certain a man of that stature would not consent to his request.

“To Bernie’s surprise and great relief, Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, granted him amnesty,” Gordon said. “From that day forward, he always followed the rules.”

Gordon then traced O’Brien’s career through the military, to the private practice of law and finally to his years as a U.S. administrative law judge before wrapping up his resolution with a statement about his qualities as a human being.

“Judge O’Brien’s judicial career mirrors John Adams’ belief that judges should have exemplary morals, invincible patience, unruffled calmness and be subservient to none.

“As a judge, he was firm but fair. He led by example. He taught us many things about life and the legal profession. He readily offered his vast wisdom and experience. He taught us to respect the rule of law. Those who appeared before him noted his gentlemanly manner, keen wit and unflinching optimism.

“Judge O’Brien also delighted in bringing people together in friendship, faith and fellowship. Although we miss him, he will always be a bright presence in our lives and an exceptional, decent, quiet giant.”

Ardena Garth presented a short resolution about the life of James Alfred Anderson, Jr., who died on Sept. 26, 2016.

Garth quickly summarized Anderson’s career as an attorney and judge, his service with the Hamilton County Election Commission and his myriad of other achievements, including being the first regional coordinator of the Human Rights Commission of Chattanooga.

“The last time I saw James was during the Tennessee Law Institute seminar here in December 2015,” Garth said. “He was always ready to talk about the issues of the day, zealously represent his clients and ensure equal treatment according to the law. He will be missed.”

In an even briefer resolution for James Andrew Shannon Wilson, who died Nov. 4, 2016, McCarthy offered only a few particulars about the man who practiced law for 47 years.

“He was a devoted father who was deeply involved in the lives of his children, he served his country admirably in the U.S. Air Force and he loved photography.”

Of Richard Korsakov , who died Dec. 2, 2016, James Paris notably said, “He will be greatly missed by all who knew him.”

Following the presentation of the resolutions, Chancellor Pam Fleenor, who presided over the service, thanked the speakers for providing captivating snapshots of the lives of the deceased members of the bar.

“Your resolutions were touching, moving and have challenged us to make a positive difference in this community,” she said.