Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 9, 2018

Brown lauded for service, humor

Retired judge honored for 48-year career

When attorney Roger Dickson of Miller & Martin learned the Chattanooga Bar Association would be honoring his colleague and friend Judge William L. “Chink” Brown with the Jac Chambliss Lifetime Achievement Award, he thought they were kidding. If Brown were receiving an award, surely it was in spite of the things he’d done rather than in honor of them.

Dickson’s mind flashes back to the early 2000s, when he and Brown were trying a jury trial in Knoxville on behalf of Coca-Cola Enterprises. Brown was in the middle of a presentation when he knocked over the easel containing his visual aids, scattering its contents across the court room floor.

As Brown bent over to pick them up, he indiscreetly aimed his backside at the jury. Not wanting to lose the case on a technicality, Dickson stood up from his seat, walked to his friend and whispered, “You’re pointing your ass at the jurors!”

Brown responded by loudly and colorfully suggesting his co-counsel bend over and help.

Dickson laughs nearly to the point of tears as he tells the story. This is the effect a Brown story has on a person.

Another attorney friend of Brown’s, Phil Lawrence of Lawrence & Lawrence, supports this theory by smiling as he recalls a trip he and Brown took to Cancun in the 1970s with a group of trial lawyers.

“I started laughing the moment we stepped onto the plane and I didn’t stop laughing until we parted company once we were back in Chattanooga,” Lawrence recalls. “Chink is that funny.”

The laughter didn’t subside even when both men were stricken with Montezuma’s Revenge. “If anything, that heightened Chink’s ability to laugh at a situation,” Lawrence adds.

Lawrence won’t share any of the specifics of Brown’s humorous antics, though, saying they’re unsuitable for the printed page.

Dickson, however, tells another Brown story that is appropriate for public consumption: the time Travis McDonough, now a judge for the U.S. District Court of East Tennessee but then an attorney with Miller & Martin, convinced Brown to make a bid to become the attorney for Bledsoe County.

“The mayor wanted Chink to replace Harold Upchurch because Upchurch kept suing the county,” Dickson recalls. “Chink was smart and said no, but Travis talked him into it.”

Brown and McDonough attended a public meeting with the County Commission and the mayor in the auditorium of Bledsoe County High School. Brown was seated up front, and as the meeting started, Upchurch walked in with his attorney, Steven Greer.

The crowd cheered their arrival and celebrated again a few minutes later when the County Commission elected to retain Upchurch.

“The audience booed and jeered Chink as he walked out,” Dickson says, nearly doubling over. “When he was back in the truck, he let Travis have it for talking him into doing that.”

Although Dickson was surprised when he learned Brown would be receiving the Jac Chambliss Award, he quickly came around. “When I read through the criteria, it became clear that he checks all the boxes,” Dickson points out.

Box 1: Demonstrates a high standard of excellence for the legal profession

Brown earned his license to practice law on April 4, 1970, and was sworn in four days later. Not wanting to wait until the Supreme Court convened in Knoxville, Brown and Lawrence traveled to Jackson to be introduced to the court. Brown then joined his father, Chattanooga attorney Harold Brown, at his one-man firm the next day.

As Brown shouldered his share of the rigors of their practice, he consumed a steady diet of jury trials in personal injury and criminal cases, including murder. Lawrence remembers Brown taking to the work like a duck to water.

“He rapidly took to the craft,” Lawrence says. “He didn’t experience much of a learning curve.”

Brown sharpened his trial skills on a grinding stone of some of the finest lawyers of that time, including Charlie Goins, Paul Campbell, Ted Milburn, Sike Williams and Fred Milligan, among others.

“These men weren’t chicken salad,” Lawrence says. “They were hard-nosed, seasoned lawyers with years of experience. The assistant district attorneys – Don Poole, Gary Gerbitz, Jeff Hollingsworth and Stan Lanzo – were talented, formidable opponents, as well.”

Despite stiff opposition, Brown tallied many victories, including one case he tried with Gene Griffin that resulted in the creation of new law.

“Two couples were camping in Crossville and were on their way to buy groceries when a tandem dump truck loaded with asphalt struck them in the rear. Our lady’s neck was broken in the collision,” Brown explains.

“The company [paving for the state] had its own trucks but the job was so big, it was hiring independent haulers. The truck that struck them was an independent hauler, and he was overloaded.

“At the time, the law said a company that hires an independent contractor can’t be held liable for their actions because they’re beyond their control. But we proved they did control them; they operated the weigh station, they intentionally overloaded the contractor’s trucks and they were on notice because they were paid by the ton.”

Brown and Griffin claimed there was independent intervening negligence and argued the case all the way to the State Supreme Court, where they won and established new law.

Brown was at the apex of his career as a lawyer when in 1988 he expressed an interest in becoming judge of Division IV of Hamilton County Circuit Court, which was vacated when Judge David Tom Walker went on disability. After meeting with Tennessee Gov. Ned McWherter, Brown received the appointment.

“The system for appointing judges was less complicated then than now,” Brown says. “I might not have gotten to first base under the current system.”

Brown’s skills as an attorney transferred seamlessly to the bench, where Lawrence says he placed his full effort on both the judicial and human aspects of the cases he heard.

“I often heard Judge Brown admonish the litigants in domestic relations matters about how their acrimony and hostility toward each other had inflicted collateral damage on the innocent ones around them and how destructive those actions were to their own self-interests,” Lawrence adds.

“Judge Brown felt a duty to admonish when it was his hope that some positive change might result,” Lawrence continues. “It was not in his capacity to give a sterile ruling. He gave those who were there to hear a part of his feelings – his emotions about the human aspects of the case.”

Brown didn’t sugar-coat his delivery, either, but became known for being “more direct than indirect, more straightforward than oblique,” Lawrence says diplomatically.

Eventually, Brown’s frustration with the unbending, vindictive nature of domestic litigants caused him to the retire from the bench. “I let the divorces get to me,” he says. “Most of the people involved in them would do anything to spite the other party, and their children suffered as a result.”

Although Brown was already thinking about stepping down, the final straw came on Christmas Day, 1996, when he received four phone calls about a custodial parent refusing to let the other parent see their children.

“I told my wife, ‘That’s it. When I go back, I’m setting a date to resign and writing the governor,’” Brown recounts.

Not one for downtime, Brown retired from the bench on March 1, 1997, and then went to work as a partner at Miller & Martin on March 4.

Brown has been with the firm ever since. Although he recently went of counsel and is now taking only mediation and arbitration cases, he continues to demonstrate a “high standard of excellent for the legal profession,” Dickson says.

The Chattanooga legal community at large agrees, and in 2016, a regal portrait of Brown was unveiled in the courtroom in which he had served from the bench, where it will hang in perpetuity.

Box 2: Stimulates a feeling of respect, esteem and good fellowship among members

One of the things that makes Brown a good lawyer, Dickson says, is his ability to connect with people, including clients, juries, fellow lawyers and judges. “He’s a forthright, straight up guy,” Dickson adds.

Lawrence says Brown will be remembered for his warm, welcoming spirit. “You don’t make many friends as a judge because either one side on a case is really unhappy or both sides on a case are mildly unhappy,” he says. “Judges get a lot of attention from attorneys, but a lot of that is the lawyers trying to keep in their good graces.

“But Chink has made lasting friends among the bar. He’s open, gracious and has a highly developed sense of humor.”

Box 3: Maintains a high standard of ethics

Basketball legend John Robert Wooden said the test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching. Wooden might have added that what a man’s friends say when he’s not around speaks volumes as well.

Dickson has only good things to report about Brown’s character. “He’s the best friend you can have,” he says. “He’s loyal and considerate.”

So does Lawrence. “Chink has a deep sense of loyalty to his family and the friends he’s made over the years,” he adds.

Box 4: Devotes significant time and effort to benefit the community

If Brown has one quality that trumps all others, it’s his generosity, according to Dickson and Lawrence. But people rarely see this side of Brown because, when he does give, he does it quietly, behind the scenes.

So, although Brown’s resume doesn’t contain a long list of boards on which he’s served or civic clubs to which he’s belonged, he’s had a significant impact on the lives of the people he’s helped.

“When someone has undergone some misfortune, Chink is always deeply moved and will go beyond what’s expected to give whatever comfort and aid he can,” Lawrence says.

“Chink is very kind and generous,” Dickson adds. “If he knows someone is down and out, he’ll help them, but on the side. And when I’m involved in the Boys & Girls Club, he gives me a check every year.”

Occasionally, Brown will do something in the public eye – as he did when he coached youth baseball on Signal Mountain for 14 years and served as a Tennessee Wildlife Commissioner for several years – but in general, he prefers to operate under the radar.

Box 5: Enhances the image and esteem of attorneys in Hamilton County

The purpose of this category is slightly elusive. How does one improve the image of lawyers beyond their effectiveness as an attorney, ethical fortitude and generosity?

By devoting themselves to the care and support of their family – like Brown has done.

Brown, who’s now 77, was born and raised in Chattanooga. He was the oldest of three boys, although he and his family lost their youngest, Mike, on Dec. 22, 1953. He was four at the time. “Christmas was never fun again for my parents,” Brown acknowledges.

Brown excelled in athletics, although he goes out of his way to avoid bragging. Nevertheless, he played quarterback for Central High School at a time when the school was a regional powerhouse and was co-captain of the team that won the 1957 state championship.

In the end, Brown was named All-City first team, All-State first team and All-Southern first team and received an honorable mention as a high school All-American.

Brown’s abilities on the field translated to a scholarship at Auburn, where he was moved to left halfback. “I couldn’t see over the center,” he recalls, laughing. Although Brown dislikes tooting his own horn, he always has a self-deprecating joke at the ready.

Homesick and lovesick in equal measure, Brown left Auburn after one year and returned to Chattanooga. Once home, he married Judy Holland and began attending classes at the University of Chattanooga and working at Davenport Hosiery on 11th Street. “I’ve been hooked to the plow ever since,” Brown says, laughing again.

When investors purchased and moved the mill, Brown took a job driving an 18-wheeler for the Teamsters. His sporadic schedule made taking classes difficult, so three years later, Brown switched to Combustion Engineering, where he worked seven days a week for four years building pressurizers for nuclear submarines. Somehow, he also finished his marketing degree during this time.

Brown’s credentials didn’t land him a job offer more lucrative than his position at Combustion Engineering, so he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and go to law school. Unlike his dad, who attended the defunct Chattanooga College of Law, Brown sold his house and moved his family to Birmingham, where he attended classes at the Cumberland School of Law and, once again, worked full time.

Brown burned through law school in two and a-half years, then made a triumphant return to Chattanooga, where his father was waiting to unload his criminal case load on him.

Fatherly influence

Looking back, Lawrence says he believes Brown’s father had a profound influence on his personality and character. Not only does Brown have his dad’s sense of humor, he also has his heart for altruism and commitment to family.

“Harold was colorful, charismatic, garrulous and witty,” Lawrence says. “You have to have a sense of humor to stick your kid with a nickname like ‘Chink.’ He was a whirlwind of energy and mischief.

“Watching him in a courtroom was pure entertainment. He could say things during a trial that would get someone disbarred today.”

At the same time, Lawrence says Brown was more organized and serious about the business side than his father and became the steadying influence in their practice. He acquired those traits from his mother, Lawrence contends.

“There was something of a role reversal between father and son when it came to the business side of being a lawyer,” Lawrence says. “There were several occasions when [Chink] ... would have to assert himself against quite a formidable person to right the ship.”

If Brown’s business sensibilities came from his mother, then perhaps the seeds of his generosity can be found in his father, who took in two boys from outside the family and helped them finish school. There’s a hint of pride in Brown’s voice as he recalls how his father even helped the young men get their footing in college.

There’s also a touch of sadness in Brown’s voice as he remembers losing his father to a heart attack in 1981. The elder Brown was 62 years old, but his legacy lives on through his first-born son.

Family ties

Although people have commended Brown for working as hard as he did to finish school and support his family, he redirects any whiff of praise to Judy.

“I give my wife the credit,” he says. “While I was at Combustion, I was either working, going to school or sleeping. We had one car, two kids and we didn’t go anywhere, but instead of complaining, she motivated and encouraged me.”

“Chink is fortunate to have Judy,” Dickson says. “She’s been a solid rock in his life.”

Although Brown and his wife will celebrate their 58th year of marriage in May, the two weren’t high school sweethearts. Even though their families knew each other, they didn’t meet until later – unless being together in the nursery at Erlanger Hospital after being born two days apart counts as their first date.

Although Brown is still active in the practice of law, he limits his mediations and arbitrations to seven or eight per month. This allows him to spend more time on his favorite pursuits: hunting, fishing and spending time with his five grandchildren.

Brown and Judy’s children include a son, Doug, a Presbyterian minister in Denver, and a daughter, Holly Novkov, who works at the Hamilton County Circuit Court Clerk’s office. Doug and his wife have three children; Holly and her husband have two.

Although some have noted a degree of incongruity between Brown’s candid and irreverent nature and his son being a minister, Lawrence says there’s nothing at all strange about that.

“Ministry is about connecting on a close, personal level with other people,” Lawrence says. “That’s a trait Doug adopted from his father, whose skills as a mediator springs first from the fact that he connects to the people with whom he’s dealing and second from his honesty. [Chink] ... exhibits empathy not as a pretext but because he cares about the outcome.”

Brown travels broadly to hunt but likes to fish locally. He’s currently pleased that his second granddaughter, Caroline, is taking to hunting, much like he did when his uncle took him on outings as a boy. The two recently hunted together in Southern Alabama, where she killed a deer. “She knows what gets close to her pappy’s heart,” Brown says, laughing.

Although Brown is as sharp and energetic as ever (he built several of the houses in which he and his family lived with his own hands and looks like he could still do it today), he admits the day is coming when it’ll be time to “put the old mule out to pasture.”

But he’s not done yet. Brown is looking forward to his upcoming mediations, which include several that arose out of the Woodmore bus crash.

His thoughts, however, are turning more and more toward making all of his time family time. “I’m having fun. I’ve been blessed with health, family and a job. If I had to go today, I’d have no complaints. I’d like to hang around and see what my grandkids are doing, though.”

Whatever Brown does, his legacy is already established, Dickson says, and will live on through his family, the people he’s helped and the clients he’s served. “Chink is a tribute not just to the bar but to mankind as well,” he says. “He’s a wonderful person.”