Former Alabama chief justice and U.S. senator Howell Heflin was hailed for an honorable life and career of public service during his induction into the Alabama Men’s Hall of Fame Tuesday, Sept. 20.
“The fame he achieved came not because he served, but how he served and what he accomplished in each capacity,” said Steve Raby, a Huntsville public relations executive who served 10 years as the late senator’s chief of staff.
Heflin, who died in 2005, and post-Civil War era governor Thomas Goode Jones became the 46th and 47th men inducted into the Hall of Fame, which is housed in Samford University’s Harwell G. Davis Library.
Raby said that as chief justice, Heflin left a lasting mark on Alabama’s judicial system by pushing for passage of the Judicial Article of 1973, the first and still the only major revision of the Alabama Constitution of 1901.
And while reform garnered most of the public attention, it should be noted that the Supreme Court disposed of all backlogged cases during Heflin’s one term, Raby said during the Hall of Fame induction luncheon at The Club in Birmingham.
During his tenure as U.S. senator, 1979-1997, Heflin led the effort to create the U.S. 11th circuit court. Known for his service on the agriculture committee and to the space program, he also was identified by his bipartisan appeal, said Raby. A Democrat, Heflin was considered for high office by U.S. presidents of different parties—by president Jimmy Carter for U.S. attorney general and by Ronald Reagan for the U.S. Supreme Court.
Raby noted that Heflin used his humor to entertain, to make a point or to diffuse tension. “He could take any boring subject and deliver an after dinner speech weaving in stories of his old friends, No-Tie Hawkins, Beltless Bill, Brother Ham Benderson, or the Ledbetter Family, and entertain any crowd.”
Although his former boss believed every person had flaws that history should acknowledge, Raby said that Heflin is remembered as a man of honor and integrity who believed and practiced the founding fathers’ words that all men are created equal.
Throughout his life, Raby said, the former Marine held firm to his conviction to uphold the public trust.
“He was a man that everyday lived his commitment to his state and its people. He was a soldier when his country called, a judge of men when duty demanded it, and a statesman when we needed it.”
Heflin’s son, Tom, a Tuscumbia attorney, accepted the plaque that will hang in the Samford library. “I was blessed to be his son,” said Heflin, with whom the late jurist and senator practiced law for the last six years of his life. “He knew that to be truly great we had to be united, and if we are united, we can be truly great.”
The honoree’s widow, Elizabeth Ann, and grandchildren, Mary Catherine Heflin and Wil Heflin, assisted with unveiling the plaque.
Paul M. Pruitt, Jr., special collections librarian at the University of Alabama Bounds Law Library, described honoree Jones as one of the most successful and powerful men of the late 1800s.
While in many ways Jones was a conventional conservative Democrat of the day, as evidenced by his opposition of agrarian reforms and support of disfranchisement, “there was more to Thomas Goode Jones,” said Pruitt.
Noting Jones’ life-long concern for the poor and repressed, Pruitt said that the two-term governor and U.S. district judge, who died in 1914, believed that “you take care of people you perceive as needy.”
Jones was author of Alabama’s 1887 Code of Ethics, which embraced rules of fair play and due process, and was, Pruitt said, open to changing laws or customs that were unfair, illegal or repressive.
He opposed lynching, which he viewed as the ultimate denial of fair trial and due process, led reform of Alabama’s convict lease system, and opposed the practice of imprisonment for not paying debts. Jones also worked with Booker T. Washington to overturn Alabama’s 1903 contract labor law that criminalized breach of contract by sharecroppers, said Pruitt.
During a life that represented “victories against tragic things,” Pruitt said, Jones was doing what he could and what few conservative democrats would do. “He was for the status quo, but only as it stood for fairness.”
Charles Nelson, dean and professor at Jones Law School in Montgomery, accepted the award on behalf of the law school. The honoree’s son, the late Montgomery County circuit judge Walter B. Jones, founded the law school and named it after his father.
The luncheon, which was co-sponsored by the Birmingham Women’s Committee of 100 and the Men’s Hall of Fame, also recognized this year’s winner of the Hall of Fame student essay contest.
Sydney Nelson, a fourth grade student at Vestavia Central Elementary School, was presented a proclamation from the Alabama House of Representatives by Men’s Hall of Fame board member and state legislator Howard Sanderford of Huntsville.
Daughter of Tina and John Nelson, Sydney won first place among history essay writers in Birmingham area schools for her essay on 19th century military commander and politician Joseph Wheeler, a 1994 Hall of Fame inductee.
Kathryn Hicks Porter is president of the Women’s Committee of 100. Richard S. Manley of Demopolis is chair of the Men’s Hall of Fame.