Judge Bob Hamilton shows us the good life after 28 years on the bench
Lou Gehrig, upon retirement from baseball and facing a very serious health condition, was quoted saying “I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”
I’m not aware of any serious health conditions in my case, but I also feel that I am the luckiest guy in the world. I have many friends, I had a great career, I am married to someone I love and adore, I have two sons and a daughter that I am very proud of, and I am happy.
I am a proud Tennessean. My father was a 4th generation Wilson Countian, growing up in Hamilton Springs; my mother was raised in what is now the Waters Hill development. They were great parents, teaching me right from wrong, but for some reason, when I was about 14, I decided to be a rebel. Whatever they wanted me to do, I wouldn’t do. I didn’t want to harm anyone, but I decided I wasn’t going to do my school work.
Whenever a young person gets this mindset, how do you turn them around? For myself, there was no amount of counseling or punishment that could make me want to do right.
As a judge, I saw this mindset in so many troubled young people, and I wished I had the answer to their change in attitude, but I didn’t. From my experience, the main thing we can do is try to prevent them from getting into more trouble, and pray that they change their mindset. We cannot, as a society, give up on them. I am so thankful that drugs were not an option in my youth, as they are now. Young people are faced with much more serious temptation today than I experienced.
My dad had health conditions that allowed him to take early retirement and when I was a junior in high school, we moved to Palmetto Florida. I was enrolled in Palmetto High School, tried to find rebellious friends, but could not find anyone. I love friends, though, and as luck would have it, I instead made friends that were into sports and academic achievement.
It was a life changing event for me. I began trying in school and my attitude changed. I don’t advise anyone to go through the hard experience I endured, but I do think it gave me insight as a judge, into what many of the individuals that appeared before me were experiencing.
We remained in Florida until the end of my Freshman year of college, and upon my father’s death, my mom and I returned to our home in Lebanon.
I entered middle Tennessee and graduated from college in 1968. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I loved the study of American History and Philosophy. Upon graduation I was faced with the issue of Vietnam. I joined the Navy and was accepted to Naval Officer Candidate School in Newport, RI.
Officer Candidate School was a shock to my system. First, we were disciplined by Marine Drill Instructors—enough said. Another big change: In college liberal arts, the answer could be this or it could be that. In OCS, they really wanted an answer. It was tough. The quality of those entering OCS was very high. I remained and served four years, being discharged as a Navy Lieutenant. I served a tour in Vietnam and completed a cruise that went around the world.
Four years is a small time span in my life, but the navy had a great impact on me. Three great lessons learned were 1) When assigned a task, make sure you complete the most important requirements; 2) Accept responsibility for your decisions; and 3) Be on time. Upon discharge from the navy, I returned to Lebanon. I worked with the Tennessee Game and Fish Commission and created, along with my friend Phillip Tidwell, the Tennessee Hunter Safety Program.
I entered law school at the University of Tennessee in 1972 and for the first time, felt I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I loved the study of law, and I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, no matter how long it took. I had a dream in law school that I would return to Lebanon and one day I would be able to walk down West Main Street and people passing by would recognize me and wave. Boy, did that dream come true.
Upon graduation in 1975, my law school roommate Gary Copas and I opened a law office on Cherry Street. I would like to remember that we were a phenomenal success, but it was not that way. It is hard to begin a practice, but we stuck with it. I developed a business practice, additionally doing estate and divorce law.
We all have different skills and talents, and as a lawyer, I could become aggressive, but it never felt natural. My skill was more as someone to facilitate settlement—a problem solver.
I never planned to run for public office, but in 1980 I became involved in Bob Capers’ campaign for Circuit Court Judge. At first I felt self-conscious about asking people for support, but in a short time I began to enjoy it. Judge Capers won and that was the end of my political activity, or so I thought.
Then in 1986, the county voted to add a second General Sessions Judge. Division II of General Sessions was to hear civil cases, probate and divorce matters—exactly the area I had practiced in. Had I not been involved in the previous campaign, I would have never entertained the idea, but because of that experience, it occurred to me that I would like to run for the judgeship. Asking for a vote was as easy by that time as breathing.
Running for elected office is hard and stressful. My family and many friends worked day and night to support me, and when the vote count was completed, I had won. It is hard to describe the feeling of being selected a judge. I think back to the election night in ’86 and feel very humbled.
Haywood Barry was the judge for Division I, and he was and is a great friend, someone that established a high standard. It would be very hard to be a judge alone, because there would be no one to discuss issues with. Judge Barry was always there to help me, never telling me what I should do, but always giving me his honest opinions.
I’ll never forget the confidence people put in me to make decisions concerning the most valued relationships in their life—like custody arrangements involving their children. I always tried to approach every decision as if I were involved as a party. How would I want my judge to conduct himself and make these decisions? I’m sure I didn’t always get it right, but I am sure I tried to my utmost.
As our county grew in population, a third Division was created and I was able to choose the criminal division. I worked for years with Judge Barry Tatum. He also served as Juvenile Judge and we never had a single disagreement. I knew of some counties with multiple judges where those serving had issues with each other. This was never a problem with the judges I served with. I always respected and enjoyed being with them.
I served as a judge for 28 years. Judges in Tennessee are elected for an 8 year term, and I was up for another term in Sept 2014. At 68, I felt it was time for someone else to take the helm. I loved my job. I loved the people I worked with, the clerks, attorneys, officers. I even felt a friendship with most of the defendants that appeared before me.
But I didn’t want to hang on until I was no longer an effective judge. I announced in 2010 that I would not seek re-election.
When I would think about leaving I would become very emotional. At the General Sessions Judges Conference in February 2014 in Nashville, the retiring judges throughout the state were recognized. I told my wife Donna about the ceremony and she said, “I bet you were the only one with tears.” She knows me.
I am blessed with many interests. I love outdoor activities—fishing, hiking, hunting, and trap shooting. My best buddy, Judge David Durham, and I have been on many hunting trips and we plan our third safari to South Africa in May of 2015. I also love guitar music, and my wife and I enjoy travel. I have been married to Donna Gallaher for 25 years. She is my best friend. I am an only child, but she is one of six, and as part of the marriage, I now have five brothers and sisters.
I have had a great life—a good mom and dad, a great wife, children that I love, a job that I loved and never took for granted, many friends, a church at Lebanon First Methodist, and my hobbies. I am having such fun being with those that I love, doing the things I am passionate about and living every day. So here’s a question that Lou Gehrig might have had an answer to:
How can anyone be any luckier?