As John Harrison spoke his final words as the president of the Chattanooga Bar Association during the organization’s annual meeting Feb. 3 at the Westin, he recalled the jovial nature of his induction one year ago.
“We told a lot of old lawyer jokes and had a great time,” he said to the camera that was transmitting his reflective smile to his colleagues over Zoom.
Harrison’s tone darkened, however, as he segued into discussing the challenges that washed over Chattanooga and the U.S. in unrelenting waves of adversity in the months that followed.
“Five weeks later, those of us who were at the association’s memorial service were exposed to the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Hamilton County,” he said, remembering the first in a series of occurrences that led him into more than four months of isolation.
“Many of you probably had similar experiences because of the pandemic. I tend to think of 2020 as the year that wasn’t.”
Harrison then described the devastating events that followed on the heels of the coronavirus, including the death of George Floyd, the ensuing civil unrest, the election cycle (which he said showed the process “at its worst”) and the day “we saw our nation’s Capital defiled in the name of patriotism.”
“I believe we’re seeing an erosion in the faith of our people and our national institutions,” he offered.
Harrison did not end on that dejected note as he summed up his thoughts about 2020. Instead, he returned to Chattanooga and its bar association, turned his apparent pessimism on its head and offered a message of reassurance based on a single word he said defined the city’s bar in 2020 – stewardship.
“A steward was a guardian of that which was precious to a family,” he explained. “Our legal system is one of the most cherished and valuable institutions we have, and those of us who are called to the law are called to be its stewards.”
To offer an example of the bar’s stewardship in 2020, Harrison called Judge Alex McVeagh to the camera to present the YLD Volunteer of the Year Award, which went to Husch Blackwell attorney Ariel Anthony.
McVeagh echoed some of Harrison’s remarks as he discussed the racial injustice that culminated in some of the biggest stories of the last year.
“Since then, we’ve heard a lot about opening a dialogue about minority issues, which is a good thing, but it’s almost like ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ have become buzzwords. Real inclusion is when someone feels they have a voice and are being heard,” he said, paraphrasing Anthony’s Sept. 11 interview with the Hamilton County Herald.
“It takes leadership in action to begin to address these issues and help minorities position themselves to thrive, particularly in our profession. The YLD board recognizes that leadership in action with this award.”
Calling Anthony “a leader among her peers, in her industry and in her community,” McVeagh offered a lengthy list of her contributions to the legal profession and the Chattanooga community, including volunteering at pro bono clinics, expungement clinics and mock trial competitions and serving on various YLD boards in the city.
Anthony also serves on the Tennessee Bar Association’s Diversity Task Force, chaired the TBA’s Diversity Leadership Institute and co-founded the Chattanooga Leadership and Law Academy, which helps high school students who are interested in the law connect with legal professionals.
“The upcoming YLD board is set to be the most diverse in its history, with over half being women and a third being minorities. That is in no small part thanks to the hard work and dedication of Miss Ariel Anthony. We have a long way to go, but thanks to Ariel, we’re closer.”
Other awards followed, including the Harry Weill Zealous Practice of Law Award, which Past President Steve Jacoway presented to Misty Harris of Harris Law Firm.
The CBA presents the award annually to a member of the bar whose “energetic and enthusiastic service to clients is worthy of praise, and whose polite and dignified manner, even in the most contentious situations, provides a model of civility that is worthy of emulation,” Jacoway read.
Jacoway returned to the camera to receive the President’s Award from Harrison, who expressed gratitude for his fellow lawyer’s help, guidance and friendship during the pandemic.
Harrison then honored attorney Bill Colvin with the Albert L. Hodge Volunteer of the Year Award, which the CBA gives to an attorney who has provided exemplary volunteer service to the association and the larger legal community.
Before yielding the camera to another presenter, Harrison announced the CBA’s selection of the Hon. Curtis Collier as the recipient of the Jac Chambliss Lifetime Achievement Award, an honor presented to a member of the bar who has “demonstrated the highest standards of excellence for the legal profession, facilitated access to the justice system, served and supported the community,
maintained a high standard of ethics and enhanced the image of attorneys in Hamilton County,” Harrison read.
Harrison traced Collier’s life from his days of growing up the son of a laborer in a small Arkansas town, where he worked in cotton fields, to the day he left his home to earn a chemistry degree at Tennessee State.
From there, Collier secured his legal credentials at Duke University School of Law, then served in the Air Force JAG Corps and then worked for the U.S. attorney’s office in New Orleans. Collier moved to Chattanooga to take the role of assistant U.S. attorney.
President Bill Clinton appointed Collier to the U.S. District Court of Eastern Tennessee in Chattanooga in 1985. The judge took senior status in 2014.
“[Judge Collier] exemplifies the best in all of us and the best we could ever ask of a public servant,” Harrison continued. “He is a steward in one of the most important positions in one of the most important institutions in our community.”
One of Collier’s law clerks, Carrie Stefaniak, delivered the award to the judge, who was attending the ceremony virtually in his chambers and was unaware he was the recipient.
Stefaniak later told the Herald Collier looked surprised and happy. “He said John’s speech brought back memories for him, and that the little boy he had been would never have dreamed that an entire bar association would someday give him an award like this.”
Attorney Joe White of Spears, Moore, Rebman & Williams announced the CBA’s final award of the day – the Ralph H. Kelley Humanitarian Award, which White presented to Marc Harwell of Harwell Law Group for his “exemplary service to the people of Chattanooga.”
The committee that selects the award unanimously chose Harwell from the pool of nominees for his efforts to consistently help feed the victims of domestic violence sheltered by Partnership for Families, Children and Adults since May.
“As of last Friday, the group [Marc] ... spearheaded has fed 1,428 people,” White announced. “Many other members of the bar have supported this effort. One law firm has purchased the dinners for the families there seven times. Other firms have also bought meals multiple times.”
Harwell was unable to receive the award, as he was not among the smattering of members gathered at the Westin or attending virtually due to being “on the slopes” at a remote location, Executive Director Lynda Hood said.
After Harrison installed the 2021 board of governors by acclamation, Justice William Barker swore in the CBA’s new president, Jeffrey Maddux of Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel.
As Maddux closed the meeting, he said that while 2020 was difficult, he hopes to move the bar association forward in 2021.
“I came up with a word I hope will describe the bar in the coming year – community. I’ll be working with the board to emphasize the benefits this bar association can provide to the community and renew our sense of community with each other.”