County Courthouse icon Tommy Higdon retires

Friday, August 12, 2011
The wry wit and good humor of retiring Chancery Court Clerk and Master Tommy Higdon shines through as he shares a moment with Chancellor J.B. Cox during a retirement party for Higdon in the McKnight Center adjacent to the First United Methodist Church. Tribune Photos by Clint Confehr

An ebb and flow of well-wishers went to the McKnight Center adjacent to First United Methodist Church on Wednesday afternoon providing personal tribute to Tommy Higdon's three decades of public service.

"This is the party he didn't get the first time he won" election as Marshall County Court Clerk, his loving wife, Betty Jo Higdon, said as the two-hour party was coming to an end. That campaign in 1981 took such a toll on Higdon, she said, that after the race was over, he "went home to sleep."

After 10-1/2 years in that elected position serving county commissioners, selling license plates, making and keeping county records, Higdon resigned, having been named clerk and master of the Chancery Court in Marshall County. Chancery Court is a court of equity, balancing law and fairness in civil cases. It's a forum for arguments over interpretations.

Standing for a family picture during Tommy Higdon's retirement party are, from left, Kaye Higdon, Betty Higdon, Austyn Whaley, Blake Aldridge, Jamie Gentry and Kim Gentry.

"Nobody realizes that if you want to learn how to practice law, you don't really learn it in law school; you learn it from the clerks," Barry White, an attorney, former state prosecutor and banker by trade, said while reflecting on "an end of an era."

Those serving as clerk and master in each Tennessee county are selected by the chancellor in the judicial district.

"For me," Chancellor J.B. Cox said, "it's been a true privilege to work with Tommy. He's the consummate professional and a true friend."

And while Chancery Court deals with civil law, Higdon's 30 years in the county courthouse included an episode of strange service to a criminal prosecutor.

Jim Kidd, the district attorney who served before the current prosecutor's predecessor, had a man on trial for robbery one day. The defendant needed to use a restroom, so a deputy escorted him upstairs and stood guard at the lavatory door. The robber went out the window.

Higdon was the county clerk and saw two legs dangling in the air just outside his office window, so he alerted Kidd.

"The rest of the story is that my wife, Cherry, was working at the courthouse for County Judge Carlton Norris and was coming back from lunch, saw the man on the ground, thought he's passed out, so she shook him saying, 'Are you alright?' He'd broken every bone in his body (from the fall) and she probably set his recovery back six months," White said.

Such true tales, stranger than fiction, are part of what District Attorney Chuck Crawford calls courthouse fever. It's the attraction of being in the middle of it all. The facination can also wear down good public servants.

"From where I'm standing, where you're standing looks pretty good," Crawford told Higdon.

The retiring clerk and master of the Chancery Court was gratified by his friends' words.

"And very pleased with the number of people who showed up," Higdon said.

Then, as his next-door neighbor, Mike Haislip, extended a congratulatory handshake, Higdon greeted his friend with a question: "Looking forward to a fishing trip?"

"Let's go," Haislip replied.

Haislip and his wife, Cindy, attended high school with Higdon. She pointed to a photo of Higdon's recreational vehicle. Tommy and Betty Jo go to ball games when their grandchildren play.

"We get along great," Higdon's son-in-law, Jamie Gentry, said. "He's well thought of by everybody."

Sonny Elam who retired as Rutherford County's clerk, knows Higdon from Clerks association affiliations: "He's always been a fine fellow; easy to work with, always trying to do what's right for his office."

Attorney C. Kelley Wilson: "He'll be sorely missed. There's a big pair of shoes to fill."

Higdon's successor has not been announced. It's a closely guarded secret, Assistant District Attorney Eddie Barnard said. The chancellor agreed. Cox did, however, promise to make a well-publicized announcement.

Higdon's "Retirement Celebration" was orchestrated by the Marshall County Bar Association, but it was the wife of the man who provided a more personal tribute.

His life-long affiliation with downtown Lewisburg included his bicycle rides from home at Holly Grove Road to Harold's Reliable Furniture Store during his high school years. He was called to military service, went to Vietnam, was wounded and spent several months in Army hospitals until he could come home.

A close friend suggested he run for county clerk since Frank Hardison was retiring. Higdon won by more than 1,000 votes over after Hardison's long-time deputy.

Higdon has been elected Outstanding Clerk of the Year in Tennessee, served on various committees, and, given his long tenure in the courthouse, he's been the go-to man when building issues are raised.

Now, Betty Jo Higdon concludes, "He has decided to go home and spend time on the farm... get dirty and have time to continue to get to the ballpark with both his grandchildren, Blake and Austyn."

Also known as "Papaw," Higdon will, apparently, be going fishing, too.