Remembering Two Great Teachers

One taught us law. The other taught us grace. And those of us blessed to practice law need to learn as much as we can about both topics.

The law professor was Don Paine. His gracious and grace-filled colleague was John Smartt. They were proud, first generation lawyers, colleagues and close friends. And they died within just a
few days of each other last November.

I first met Don Paine 35 years ago when I took the Crossley Bar Review Course. I took the course to help me pass the Bar Exam, and it worked.

But I got a lot more out of the Crossley Bar Review Course than my law license. For the first time, I began to actually learn the law.

Don taught me more law in three weeks in the Bar Review Course than I had learned in three years of law school.

I had somehow managed to obtain a law degree without also obtaining a practical working knowledge of the law. I’ll be the first to admit that this was more of an indictment of me than it was of my law professors. As a first generation law student, torts, civil procedure, Constitutional law and evidence were all foreign subjects to me.

But in Professor Paine’s bar review class, the law suddenly began to make sense to me.

Don’s approach to the law wasn’t esoteric, philosophical or abstract. It was practical. Imminently practical.

And not only was it practical, it was fun. Like all great trial lawyers, Don was a great storyteller, and he illustrated the rules of law with great stories about how they were applied (or not applied!) in Tennessee courtrooms.

My legal education from Don didn’t end with the bar review course. After the course was over and I passed the Bar and hung out my shingle, I kept going back to Don’s classroom.

Don’s classrooms were found all over the state in CLE programs, including the marvelous Tennessee Law Institute.

And perhaps his best “classroom” was found each month on a page or two in the Tennessee Bar Journal in his “Paine on Procedure” column.

But great teachers do not confine their teaching to the classroom. They teach in their friendships with students. Over the years, I was blessed to develop a friendship with Don and have him teach me law not only in lectures or columns, but over many nice beers from local breweries. Don was not only Tennessee’s leading authority on the law of evidence. He was the Volunteer State’s top expert on beer.

And like all good professors, Don was available for student conferences. Like so many Tennessee lawyers, when I had a question of law that needed to be addressed, I would just call Don at his office. He never failed to take my call. Not once. And I never met a Tennessee lawyer who had an unanswered call to Don Paine.

I met John Smartt in 1981, when I attended my very first Tennessee Bar Convention. John was serving as “emcee” of the UT Law School Alumni Breakfast, just as he did each year. John was the perfect host for the event because he was a proud graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Law and a proud lawyer.

A member of the greatest generation, John was one of the many veterans who came to “The Hill” in the late 1940s to attend law school on the GI Bill.

After receiving his law degree in 1948, John was UT Director of Alumni Affairs from 1948 to 1969. And in 1972, John teamed up with his friend Don to create the Tennessee Law Institute, serving as its coordinator and “chief marketer” from 1972 to 1988.

I have met few people who enjoyed life as much as John Smartt did. He was a runner, a swimmer and a biker long before folks ever heard of triathlons.

For more than 30 years, he competed in the Senior Olympics at the district, state and national levels. And he didn’t just compete; he won. In 1995, at the youthful age of 76, he took fifth place in his age group at the Senior Olympic Games in San Antonio. A year later, he was chosen to carry the Olympic torch through the streets of Knoxville as it passed en route to Atlanta for the Summer Games.

And John didn’t just run and swim. He also took the time to walk, leading wildflower hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains.

John loved to sing. In his 90s, he formed a barber shop quartet that performed a capella concerts at senior citizens homes across East Tennessee.

We UT grads like to talk about “the spirit of The Hill.” John Smartt personified that spirit more than any man I ever met. John was a powerful person not because he sought power, but because he transferred power to others. He was a kind, selfless person, who bragged about you and everyone but himself, and in the process, he made us all feel special.

Don and John were quite a team in the Tennessee Law Institute and in their support and friendship for Tennessee lawyers.

From Don, we learned all about Tennessee law. And from John, we learned to love and cherish life in general, and a life in the law in particular.

We were all so blessed to share their lives of law and grace.


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.