Remembering Judge Frank Crawford: A Life of Law and Grace

Every lawyer needs a mentor. I had a fabulous one. He was Judge William Frank Crawford, better known to his many friends and admirers as "Judge Billy Frank."

Judge Billy Frank wasn't just my mentor. He was a mentor for lawyers and judges all across the state of Tennessee. For more than 30 years, Judge Billy Frank was a trial lawyer. And he was the best trial lawyer I ever saw. For the first four years of my law practice, I was his associate. I carried his brief case, sat in his office with him as he counseled clients, and also served as his chauffeur. Everyone who ever served as an associate or law clerk to Judge Billy Frank knew that one of your primary jobs was to be his chauffeur. Remember "Driving Miss Daisy?" Well, this was Driving Judge Billy Frank. I drove him to hearings and trials and depositions throughout rural west Tennessee, that almost always ended with a trip to a place called Mason so that we could eat fried chicken at a place called Maggie's.

But the greatest experience I had during my four years as his associate was serving as his co-counsel at trial. I wasn't really his co-counsel. It was like I was the caddy and he was Tiger Woods. I sat beside him in the courtroom during jury trials, watched him cross-examine witnesses and make incredible closing arguments that always ended with a recitation by Billy Frank of Rudyard Kipling's classic poem "If." It didn't matter what kind of case we were trying. Car wreck, medical malpractice, premises liability, alienation of affection. No matter the case, and no matter whether we were representing the plaintiff or defendant, Billy Frank would end his closing argument by reciting from memory every line of that classic poem.

At the conclusion of one trial, I asked him, "What in the world did the poem 'If' have to do with that case?" Billy Frank looked at me with disgust and said, "Son, that's the greatest poem ever written, and it applies to every aspect of life!"

And I'll tell you this: the jurors loved it. But they didn't love Rudyard Kipling. They loved Billy Frank Crawford.

The four years I spent as Judge Billy Frank's associate were among the happiest and most rewarding of my life. But then it all came to an end in 1982, and I have two people to blame for this: Lucy Crawford and Lamar Alexander. Lucy was Judge Billy Frank's wife, and it was her idea that he should become a judge. Lucy, who was always the Chief Justice of the Crawford household, announced her decision at 2:00 in the morning when she found the love of her life, Billy Frank, pacing around the family den worrying about an upcoming jury trial. According to my source (Judge Billy Frank), she told him, "This has got to stop! You've got to become a judge!" And thanks to the combined wisdom of the Judicial Selection Commission and Gov. Alexander, Chief Justice Lucy's decree was enforced. I lost my mentor as a trial lawyer, but the people of Tennessee gained a great judge.

I will never forget the day that Judge Billy Frank got the word from Gov. Alexander that he was being appointed to the bench. And here's the interesting part. Judge Billy Frank did not believe he was going to get the job. He thought the governor was going to appoint another man, a man by the name of Drofwarc Knarf. The name "Drofwarc Knarf" is Frank Crawford spelled backwards. Judge Billy Frank was first introduced to Drofwarc Knarf by his good friend Sen. Howard Baker. In 1980, Senator Baker ran for president in the Republican primaries, and Judge Billy Frank, being the good Republican that he was, sent a very generous contribution to the Baker campaign. This was in the early days of computers, and the Baker for President computer got Billy Frank's name backwards. So in 1980, Judge Billy Frank begins to receive a series of very personal letters from his friend Howard Baker addressed to "Drofwarc Knarf, 25th Floor, 100 N. Main Building, Memphis, Tennessee."

This really irritated Judge Billy Frank. He would walk down the halls of our office, with a cup of coffee in one hand and a letter from Howard Baker in the other, and he would say, "Can you believe this? Listen to this. 'Dear Drofwarc: Thank you so much for everything you have meant to my campaign, Drofwarc. Joy and I consider you, Drofwarc, to be one of our closest friends."

In 1982, on the day Gov. Alexander appointed Judge Billy Frank to the Court of Appeals, I received an early morning phone call from a friend of mine at the governor's office. The friend said, "I just want to let you know that your partner is going to get a phone call today from the governor's office asking him to come to Nashville so that Gov. Alexander can offer him a judgeship. You might want to go ahead and give him a heads up that the phone call is coming."

As you can imagine, I was thrilled to be the person to give Judge Billy Frank this news. So I walked down to his office, knocked on his door and greeted him. I said, "Mr. Crawford, I just got a phone call from my friend at the governor's office. I want you to know that the governor is ready to make his appointment, and you are going to get a phone call today about it."

Judge Billy Frank looked at me and said, "Well, son, what's the verdict?"

For some reason, I decided to have a little bit of fun. I said, "Mr. Crawford, I'm sorry to be the one to break the news to you, but the governor is appointing someone else. Apparently, he is appointing some guy named Drofwarc Knarf."

Without hesitation, Judge Billy Frank responded, "Well, I'm not surprised. He is one of Howard Baker's closest friends."

For the past 26 years, Judge Billy Frank continued to profess his love and belief in the law from his position on the bench of the Western Section of the Tennessee Court of Appeals. Not only was he the presiding judge of the Western Section, he also served as the court's official greeter. If you arrived at the Tennessee Supreme Court Building in Jackson for a morning session, you would more often than not first see Judge Billy Frank not on the bench, but in the lobby of the courthouse in his shirt sleeves and tie, holding a cup of coffee in his left hand and extending his right hand to you to welcome you to the courthouse. I once said to him that the Western Section of the Court of Appeals was like Wal-Mart. When you walked in the doors, you were met by a greeter. Without hesitation, Judge Billy Frank said, "Yeah, son, and I am that man!"

Judge Billy Frank passed away on April 17 at the age of 81. His was a life of law and grace. For more than 30 years he practiced law, for 26 years he administered justice, and for 81 years, he practiced grace.

If you want to read more about the life of this great man, just find a collection of the poems of Rudyard Kipling, and read "If." That poem is all about Judge Billy Frank Crawford.


Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association.