The Hon. W. Frank Brown, III arrived at the Hamilton County Courthouse, entered through the Georgia Avenue entrance and began emptying his pockets at the security post.
“You step right on through,” the guard said, allowing him to re-pocket his keys and change. “I hear they’re going to hang you today.”
The guard was referring to the unveiling of Brown’s portrait in the courtroom where he had served as chancellor for 16 years. However, the family members, friends and colleagues who packed the room were treated not to a roasting but a warm tribute to the life and career of an esteemed public servant.
Chancellor Pam Fleenor, who replaced Brown in 2014 after he announced he would not seek another term, led the proceedings. She began with the first of many kind works spoken about her predecessor.
“Frank served with honor, integrity and good judicial temperament,” she said. “Lawyers and litigants alike knew they’d received a fair trial and a careful, reasoned opinion based on the facts and the equities of the case.”
Fielding H. Atchley, Jr., attorney at McKoon, Williams & Atchley, echoed Fleenor’s sentiments by praising Brown for his fairness.
“We have come here to express our admiration, respect and gratitude for you and the way you conducted yourself as a chancellor of this court,” Atchley said. “You always conscientiously tried to make every lawyer and litigant feel like they’d had the opportunity to be fully heard and considered.”
Atchley also applauded Brown for giving every litigant the benefit of the doubt, making bold decisions and spending untold hours trying to reach the best decision possible given the law and the facts.
Even then, the former chancellor was sometimes wrong, Atchley joked, tempering his sentimentality with humor. “But that was on only about half of my cases,” he said, earning a big laugh.
“We’re here to honor you, to express our appreciation for your years of service to the bar and the citizens of this county, and to see you take your place on these walls with the cloud of jurists who came before you,” Atchley said, referring to the portraits of other chancellors in the room. “When we come into this courtroom and see your portrait, it will remind us of your unique personality and the example you gave to us, and we will remember the tremendous legacy of caring and professionalism you built.”
Attorney Linda Norwood, who presented many conservatorship cases to Brown, spoke about the chancellor’s tendency to work tirelessly.
“For the longest time, I thought you didn’t have enough to do because you were always calm, kind and thoughtful,” she said. “Little did I know you were here at 7 a.m., came in on weekends and often took work home with you.”
Norwood also commended Brown for his work on behalf of mentally ill individuals.
“I witnessed you treating mentally disabled and demented individuals with love and respect,” she said. “I’ll never forget the day you took away the rights of a lady who was almost 100 years old. You made her feel so special, she left the courtroom thinking she had won.”
After reminiscing about how Brown teasingly nicknamed her “Trouble,” Norwood said his portrait will inspire her when she appears before the court in the future.
“It will be a pleasure to enter this courtroom and see your kind and gentle face encouraging us to strive for wisdom, truthfulness and civility,” she said.
While Fleenor, Atchley, and Norwood said nice things about Brown, the first two also chided the former chancellor about one thing: his reputation for sending attorneys numerous lengthy faxes regarding the details of a case.
“He would send page after page of handwritten notes, often on the weekends, late at night or early in the morning,” Fleenor said.
Atchley spoke about coming to the office on Monday morning and finding faxes from Brown waiting for him.
“They usually pointed out, very gently, something I had neglected to take care of on one of Frank’s cases,” he said. “So I would pull out the file and get to the unpleasantness.
“By the way, Frank, you ruined about half of my Mondays when you were on the bench,” Atchley said, earning another big laugh.
After Norwood spoke, Brown’s wife, Marian, unveiled the portrait. Before removing the cover, she said the man Brown is in public is the man he is at home.
“He had a gentle, loving spirit in the courtroom, and he has a gentle, loving spirit at home,” she said.
“What you saw in court, I get to see every day. I’m a blessed woman.”
As Marian pulled the cover off the painting, she said, “Here’s what you’ll be looking at every day – my husband; my hero.”
After lengthy applause, Brown took the podium and immediately addressed Senior Pastor Tony Walliser of Silverdale Baptist Church, saying, “Brother Tony, if I sent any faxes on Sunday, it was when I was a member at the Methodist Church.”
This comment earned Brown a laugh that was longer and louder than either of Atchley’s.
Brown spent the next 15 minutes fighting back tears as he thanked the people who had helped him through the years.
From his supporters during his initial election campaign, to former Hamilton County Clerk & Master Lee Akers and his staff, to his fellow judges, the list was lengthy.
“I don’t miss the drama. I don’t even miss the big decisions. But I miss the people,” he said.
Brown also thanked his wife, who encouraged him to run for election when Brown’s predecessor, the Hon. Vann Owens, announced his retirement in 1998.
“The best thing about being retired is I get to be with Marian all the time,” he said. “For 16 years, I tried by best as an attorney to convince her she was the most important thing in my earthly life. I’m not sure I ever did, so I thank the good Lord I lived long enough to try to do it each and every day as a husband.”
Brown graduated from Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in political science.
He earned his Juris Doctor from Tulane University in New Orleans in 1970.
Brown was admitted to the bar that same year and began working for the Witt Gaither law firm in Chattanooga.
Brown had been a solo practitioner for nearly 20 years when he was elected to the bench, with his primary interest being conservatorship cases.
Brown served as chancellor, part one, of the 11th Judicial District from Sept. 1, 1998 to Aug. 31, 2014.
Brown received several awards throughout his career including the Chattanooga Bar Association (CBA)’s Harry Weill Zealous Practice of Law Award, the Conservatorship Association of Tennessee’s Outstanding Service Award and the Flame Award for his service to the Public Guardian program, to name a few.
Brown is a member of the CBA, a fellow of the Chattanooga Bar Foundation and a member of the Brock-Cooper Inns of Court.
He currently serves as a member of the school board at Silverdale Baptist Academy.
Brown and Marian have four children and nine grandchildren.
Brown closed by thanking those present for making the portrait unveiling a special occasion. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he said. “You being here has truly touched me.”