John Hendersons retirement ends familys 133-year span in local legal community
By JESSY YANCEY, Staff Intern
With his retirement from the office of public defender on Aug. 31, John Hughes Henderson Jr. ended an era. For the past 133 years, a Henderson has been working in some legal capacity in the city of Franklin.
“I’m concluding the Henderson legacy,” said Henderson, 70. “Law practice is a door in my life that I want to close.”
Looking forward to his retirement, Henderson intends to visit his grandchildren in Kentucky and New York, travel with his wife, return to playing the cornet, as well as do research on one of his passions: genealogy.
“The first Henderson in Williamson County was a Revolutionary soldier who lived in Bethesda,” said Henderson, who said the soldier came to the area around 1817.
Henderson has learned about his family’s past thanks to a rich and well-documented family heritage.
“Dr. Samuel Henderson was the second Henderson to live in Williamson County,” said Henderson.
The doctor kept a diary from 1834 until 1876, and Henderson’s grandfather, also John Hughes Henderson, picked it up starting in 1884. At that time, the elder Henderson had already begun the long-lived legacy of Henderson lawyers.
“It started in the fall of 1873 when my granddaddy opened an office in Franklin,” Henderson said.
The elder John H. Henderson served as a special judge on the Tennessee Supreme Court for approximately one and a half years. He was also president of the Tennessee Bar Association in 1902.
“Then, Capt. Tom joined his father,” said Henderson, referring to his uncle, Thomas Fearn Perkins Henderson, who became known as Capt. Tom upon returning from World War I.
Starting in 1903, Thomas P. Henderson began practicing law with his father, with the law firm Henderson and Henderson established in January 1904.
The elder Henderson passed away in February 1915, but his son continued the practice.
Henderson pointed out that during 1918 and 1919, there was no Henderson practicing law in Franklin, but only because Capt. Tom was overseas serving his country. During World War I, Capt. Tom became notorious for his attempt — along with seven other soldiers from Tennessee — to kidnap the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II.
“They were trying to get the Kaiser to Paris for the first war crimes trial,” said Henderson.
He has considered writing a book, or at least a chapter of a book, to tell the tale of the Tennesseans trying to arrest the Kaiser. He said three of the men involved were from Franklin: Tennessean founder Luke Lea, future New York Yankees General Manager Larry MacPhail and, of course, Capt. Tom.
“They remained loyal to each other until the day they died,” Henderson said.
When Capt. Tom returned to Franklin, he resumed his downtown law practice.
“He was joined by my dad in the late 1920s,” said Henderson.
Henderson’s father and Capt. Tom’s brother, another John H. Henderson, began practicing law in November 1928, and, the following year, Capt. Tom served as head of the Democratic Party in Tennessee.
“My dad was elected the district attorney general in 1930, which he served until 1950,” said Henderson, noting this included the latter part of Prohibition in the United States.
John H. Henderson Sr. returned to practice with his brother, and once again the firm name Henderson and Henderson was a staple in downtown Franklin.
Meanwhile, John H. Henderson Jr., as he was called until dropping the “Jr.” upon his father’s death, graduated from law school at Vanderbilt and began to practice with his father and uncle in September 1961.
Capt. Tom retired in December 1965 and passed away three months later, leaving the father and son team to carry on the Henderson legacy.
“My dad was elected Circuit judge in 1966,” said Henderson, “and he served until he was 72, in 1974.”
As Henderson Sr. was the only Circuit Court judge in what was then the 17th Judicial District, Henderson Jr. took the opportunity to move out of the county.
“I couldn’t practice in front of my dad,” said Henderson.
Instead, he became the legal counsel for the Tennessee River Pulp and Paper Company in Counce, Tenn., while living in Corinth, Miss. However, a few years later when the company wanted to transfer him to one of three different cities around the country, Henderson didn’t pick any of them.
“I came back the next day and said, ‘How about Franklin?’” recalled Henderson.
He returned to his hometown in 1972 and practiced in Franklin for more than a decade. In the late 1980s, his office was above Merridee’s Breadbasket.
“It’s hard to work when you got all that good smell coming up from downstairs!” said Henderson, laughing.
Just after Henderson Sr. passed away in 1989, Henderson was named the first public defender of the 21st Judicial District, which includes Williamson, Hickman, Lewis and Perry counties.
“I’m a public defender because I believe strongly in the rights of the accused,” said Henderson. “Unfortunately, the clients blame the lawyer more than anyone else. It’s all changed from the time when I became a public defender.”
While public defender, Henderson served as president of the Tennessee District Public Defenders Conference from 2003 to 2004, during which his major accomplishment was getting a voting position on the Tennessee Bar Association’s Board of Governor’s. In 2006, he received the president’s award from the Williamson County Bar Association.
“I really enjoyed being public defender until the last few years,” said Henderson.
By the time he retired last month, Henderson had fought for the rights of three generations of defendants.
“The grandparents were a lot nicer than their grandkids,” said Henderson. “They’re snipping, but we keep blindly going ahead, doing our job, trying to make sure their constitutional and statutory rights are honored.”
He said it would have been a mistake for him to continue on as public defender.
“It’s a young man’s or a young woman’s game,” he said. “Let them get all fired up.”
District Attorney General Ron Davis has known and worked with Henderson for many years.
“I think he’s done a great job as public defender,” Davis said. “He got the office started, and he’s been a real asset to the justice system in Williamson County.”
Henderson has also been an asset to the state, as he served on the state governmental methamphetamine drug task force under Gov. Phil Bredesen.
“Meth hurts so many people,” said Henderson. “It’s an epidemic, and we need to stop it.”
During his time on the drug task force, Henderson helped to write the state’s statute on the drug.
“I’m very proud of that,” he said.
Henderson is very proud of his heritage as well, but he doesn’t regret ending the 133-year family tradition of practicing law in Franklin.
“The way I feel, I’d rather make the determination when to stop the legacy rather than let the obituary column do it for me,” he said.
The Henderson family is still practicing law, though not in Franklin; John H. Henderson III works for a law firm in, fittingly, Henderson, Ky. His brother, Loyd Henderson, on the other hand, is an investment banker in New York City.
Although Henderson didn’t keep a diary like his father, grandfather and other ancestors before him, he hopes to make his mark in a different way, by writing a book that tells the history of the Henderson family in Williamson County. He’s also considered writing historical fiction as well.
It’s hard for a man who practiced law for 45 years to stop working, and Henderson certainly isn’t going to be wasting his golden years. He still goes to his makeshift office in Grassland nearly every day to write and research, as well as to relax.
“I had fun,” he said, “but I don’t look back. I’m looking forward to my retirement years.”
Posted on: 9/17/2006