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Front Page - Friday, August 14, 2009

Plundering local history: one on one with lawyer Sam Elliott

Chattanooga attorney Sam Elliott has represented a variety of clients throughout his 27 years with Gearhiser, Peters, Lockaby, Cavett & Elliott. As a litigation attorney, he’s tried jury cases involving product liability, personal injury and employment discrimination.
He’s also represented the municipal governments of Soddy Daisy, Collegedale and Lakesite for a number of years, giving him experience in matters ranging from land use regulation to civil rights litigation. And he’s advised clients on issues of employment law, commercial disputes and professional liability.
Out of all of those people, however, none can make the same claim as Alexander P. Stewart. Elliott was so impressed with Stewart when they met face to face, he decided to write a book about him.
“I was walking past the statue of Stewart in front of the courthouse, and it struck me that no one had written a book about him,” Elliott says. He was unable to interview Stewart for his biography, however, as the one-time lieutenant general in the Civil War had been dead for 87 years.
Elliott was well prepared for the task, though. Raised in Soddy Daisy, he attended Sewanee: The University of the South in the ‘70s, majoring in history with an eye on going to law school.
“I’d always enjoyed history, so I naturally gravitated toward that subject,” he says, looking at a portrait of Abraham Lincoln the Chattanooga Bar Association gave him out of gratitude for his year of service as president in 2001.
What’s more, since graduating from the UT Knoxville College of Law in 1981, Elliott has remained a life-long student of history. He’s currently chair of the Tennessee Historical Commission. Elliott is also on the board of the Tennessee Civil War Preservation Association, which raises money to preserve Tennessee’s battlefields.
In addition, he served on the board of the Friends of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park for a number of years and was president of the organization for two terms. And Elliott is a member of the Society of Civil War Historians and the Historians of the Western Theater.
If anyone doubts Elliott’s zeal for history, once glimpse inside his office will clear up any skepticism. On the wall to the left of his desk hangs a depiction of the Battle of Chickamauga that first appeared in Harper’s Weekly during the Civil War.
“My mother-in-law saw that and had it framed for me. It’s an idealized version of what happened there,” he says.
Additional pictures of battlefields and an authentic weapon from the era grace his other walls.
“I’ve always had an interest in the Civil War, even as a child,” Elliott says. “I used to be more focused on Robert E. Lee and what happened in Virginia, but when I got back in town after law school, I began reading more about what went on around Chattanooga.”
Elliott credits former GPS headmaster Nat Hughes with mentoring him through the publication of the Stewart biography, “Soldier of Tennessee,” in 1999.
From there, he edited the memoir and Civil War diary of Todd Quintard, published in 2003. Next from Elliott is “Isham G. Harris of Tennessee: Confederate Governor and United States Senator,” which Louisiana State University Press will publish in January 2010 as part of its Southern Biography Series.
“In 2005, while I was in West Tennessee for a state bar meeting, I had some time to kill, so I drove down to the battlefield at Shiloh,” says Elliott. “Harris, who was governor at the time, placed a marker at the spot where Confederate commander Albert Sidney Johnston died. That was where I decided to write another book.”
Elliott doesn’t plan on writing again until after his upcoming term as president of the Tennessee Bar Association, which will begin in June 2010. At the encouragement of Charles Gearhiser, his senior partner, he ran for vice president in 2007 and won. Elliott is currently serving as president elect.
“I’m honored by my election and the opportunity to make a difference for Tennessee lawyers and the people of Tennessee,” he says.
During his time with the state bar, Elliott has done his part to help the organization be the voice of Tennessee’s lawyers, lending his hand to the bar’s effort to encourage the state Supreme Court to adopt the voluntary reporting of pro bono hours and contributing to the association’s fight to ward off an attack on how judges in Tennessee are selected.
Elliott says his experiences with the state bar, which has also included time on the board of governors, have been positive, and he encourages all Tennessee lawyers to become members.
“Bar associations are good for attorneys,” he says. “We’re often locked in mortal combat with each other over the interests of our clients, but the hallmark of a good attorney is his ability to fight a colleague to death in the courtroom and still be friends after it’s over. I believe bar associations foster this kind of camaraderie.
“They also present a well-considered viewpoint as to what lawyers are trying to do to serve their clients and the public.”
Elliott calls his decision to enter the field of law “a good choice.” He began his career in 1981 with a year of clerking for then-U.S. Magistrate Roger Dickson. Elliott then joined Gearhiser in 1982 and has been with the firm ever since.
“I like research, analysis and discussion, which are natural aspects of our profession,” Elliott says. “Going to court is a lot like going to battle; it requires preparation and quick thinking on your feet, so it seemed like something in which I’d be interested. And I’ve enjoyed the profession.”
Elliott also takes pleasure in spending time with his wife of 24 years, Kate, who’s known throughout Chattanooga as the host of “Southern Accents” on WTCI. Her job, which takes her to nearby fun spots, dovetails nicely with Elliott’s love of hiking and going to new places.
His other interests include following the UT Vols and spending time with his two daughters.
Like most lawyers who have a family and are active in their community, Elliott has a lot of things clamoring for his attention. But that won’t keep him from hearing the call of history when it’s time to write another book. Until then, he’d better steer clear of statues.