Remembering My Two Favorite Courthouse Square Lawyers

My friend Paul Summers is fond of saying, “There really are only two types of lawyers in Tennessee: Tall building lawyers and courthouse square lawyers.”

I’m a tall building lawyer. My office is on the 29th floor of a Memphis skyscraper. But my heart is with the courthouse square lawyers. I admire the small-town and country lawyers who counsel and help folks every day in their offices in the courthouse square.

I recently lost my two favorite courthouse square lawyers. They were Howard and Claude Swafford of Jasper, Tennessee.

Howard passed away on February 5 at the age of 96, and Claude joined him in heaven on Good Friday, March 25, at the age of 90.

Howard and Claude were my father-in-law and mother-in-law. And they were literally a father-in-law and a mother-in-law.

Howard and Claude loved each other, their children, their grandchildren, and great grandchildren. And they loved the law. In fact, a love of the law was at the heart of their love for one another as they met in law school and were both oh-so-proud to be lawyers.

Howard’s road to the law was a country highway from Jasper, Tennessee to Knoxville that he traversed as a 17-year-old hitchhiker on a September day in 1937. His destination was the University of Tennessee. He carried his clothes in a paper bag along with $75 in cash. They were all his worldly goods.

When he arrived on the campus of the University of Tennessee, he paid $25 for that quarter’s tuition. He had $50 to sustain him through the rest of the quarter. Obviously, he had no money for a dorm room or meals in the student cafeteria.

But he had a plan. He would find a boarding house where he could work for his room and board. After a diligent search, he found the room, but not the board. A lady in the campus area offered him a room about the size of a closet if he would stoke the furnace each morning and do other chores around her house. But she did not offer him any meals.

At this point, he had to come up with a new plan to get, in his words, his “three squares a day.” He went to the office of Coach Robert Neyland, the legendary coach of the Tennessee football Volunteers. He asked the Coach’s secretary if he could meet with him. The secretary was trying to gently evict Howard from the premises when Coach Neyland came walking in.

Howard immediately stuck out his hand and said, “Hey Coach. I’m Howard Swafford. I’m here to play football for the Vols.”

Neyland looked at the young stranger and asked, “Where did you play high school football?”

“I didn’t play football in high school,” candidly responded Howard.

An impatient Coach Neyland then said, “Well, we have a few walk-ons every year, but if you’ve never even played a down of high school football, what makes you think you would walk on for the Vols?”

Howard then honestly responded, “Coach, I have $50 to last me for the rest of the quarter. I found a room where I can sleep by doing chores for the landlady. But she doesn’t have a boarding house table, and I need to get my three squares a day. I understand the football team has a training table, and if I play for the Vols, I will work for my three meals every day!”

Coach Neyland was impressed. He looked at Howard and asked, “Do you wrestle?”

An enthusiastic Howard replied, “Yes, sir! I’m a great wrestler!”

Howard did not volunteer, so to speak, that while he had spent most of his life wrestling, he had never done it for a formal team.

Coach Neyland then took a pen and notepad out of his pocket and quickly scribbled a note, folded it, and handed it to Howard. “Take this note down to Coach Smith at the end of the hallway,” ordered Coach Neyland.

“Yes, sir!” barked Howard, thinking the note was to an assistant football coach.

When Howard got to the office of the coach at the end of the hallway, he noticed a sign on the office door that read “Wrestling.”

The coach looked up from his desk and asked, “Can I help you?”

“Yes, sir,” said Howard. “Coach Neyland asked me to give this note to you!”

The wrestling coach read the note, and after a brief pause, said, “Well, son, welcome to the wrestling team! Our first practice is this afternoon in the gym.”

“Do you have a training table?” asked a hungry Howard.

“Yes we do,” said the wrestling coach.

That afternoon, Howard went to wrestling practice, and that night he ate at the training table with his new best friends, his fellow UT wrestlers.

Howard then wrestled his way through UT for the next four years.

After graduation, he entered the United States Navy, became a Navy pilot, and flew combat missions off the deck of the aircraft carrier the USS South Dakota during WWII. After he and his fellow members of the Greatest Generation saved civilization, he returned home to the University of Tennessee where he entered law school on the GI bill.

And there he met a beautiful law student from Greenville named Claude.

She was one of only two women in what would become the UT Law School Class of 1949. During her first week of law school, the Dean tried to run her off. He asked for a meeting with her, and demanded to know what she was doing in the law school.

“Well, you admitted me, and I want to be a lawyer,” calmly replied Claude.

“Well we shouldn’t have admitted you,” said an angry Dean. “You’re just here to find a husband!”

Ever the steel magnolia, Claude said, “Well I may find a husband along the way, but I’m really here because I want to be a lawyer.”

Howard and Claude were married after their graduation from law school, and years later Claude would laugh, “I guess the Dean thought he was right about why I went to law school in the first place.”

For nearly 70 years, Howard and Claude enjoyed their lives together in the law. Howard had an office on the courthouse square. Like Sandra Day O’Connor, Claude’s first job was as a legal secretary, but she eventually had an office of her own.

They tried cases, served as leaders in the community, and both ran for office several times, sometimes winning and sometimes losing. Howard served in the State legislature, and Claude served as Chair of the County School Board.

They raised two kids, both of whom would grow up to be lawyers.

And they never missed an annual meeting of the Tennessee Bar Association. They loved the Tennessee Bar Association because they loved being lawyers and thought that every lawyer should be a member of the Bar Association.

Their granddaughter Shelton became a lawyer, and their granddaughter Margaret Grace, now in her second year at the University of Virginia, hopes to go to law school as well.

How wonderful to be a third generation lawyer on your mother’s side!

When she left her grandmother’s funeral, Margaret Grace carried something with her back to Charlottesville. It was a framed copy of her grandmother’s law license.

And I am honored to have on the wall of my study in my home in Memphis Howard’s letter as Captain of the 1941 UT Wrestling Team.

No doubt about it, Claude and Howard were the two best courthouse square lawyers I ever knew.
 


Bill Haltom

BILL HALTOM is a shareholder with the firm of Lewis Thomason. He is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and a past president of the Memphis Bar Association. Read his blog at www.billhaltom.com.

Read Claude Swafford’s obituary.

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