A pillar of the East Tennessee legal community, a relentless advocate for youth and a tireless supporter of Morristown and Hamblen County, retired Judge James E. “Eddie” Beckner died this morning after a brief battle with an illness.
He was 81.
“I miss him already,” said long-time friend Danny Long. “He’s going to be missed by a lot of people. I know Eddie was a judge. I know he was a role model. I know we’ve lost somebody that was great for the Boys & Girls Club, great for the church. But more than that, I’ve lost a good friend that I think a lot of, someone that I really love. He and his family, I just think the world of them.”
Beckner was raised from humble beginnings in a small frame house behind the former Hale Brothers on East Main Street. The former drum major at Morristown High School originally set his sights on a career as an electrical engineer using the $300 his parents raised when they sold their only car to finance his education at the University of Tennessee.
That plan fell apart and Beckner returned to Morristown where he worked at Berkline before enrolling at Carson-Newman. It was there a professor suggested Beckner pursue a law career. He earned a scholarship, returned to UT and graduated with his Doctorate of Jurisprudence.
He returned to Morristown and began a successful career as an attorney. Despite financial success, Beckner was not satisfied. With a young family, he desired something that allowed him time with his family. When the bench for the criminal court judge of the Third Judicial District became open in 1976, he gave up private practice, took a substantial cut in pay and began a career as a judge that would last more than 30 years.
“Judge Beckner leaves a powerful and lasting legacy of excellence, integrity, humility and service to others,” said Thomas R. “Skip” Frierson II, a judge on the Tennessee Court of Appeals, who got to know Beckner well during long car trips to judicial conferences. “He was a highly respected jurist, deeply committed to fair and impartial administration of justice. He faithfully served his family, the profession of law and others who have the privilege of knowing him.
“I know our community and state will be much better places because of his countless contributions,” Frierson added. “For me, Judge Beckner was a trusted colleague with an abundance of knowledge and experience in law. He was my very good friend, and I will deeply miss Eddie. I am so thankful for his friendship and I know that I will long cherish his significant influence upon my life.”
In his time on the bench, Beckner garnered a reputation for being tough but fair.
“I hope I’m perceived as fair,” Beckner told the Citizen Tribune upon his retirement in 2006. “I believe people believe they can get a fair trial with me, but if after a fair trial they’re convicted, I think they rightfully believe I’m going to be really tough in sentencing.”
Retired Judge Dennis Inman said stern but fair rightfully sums up Beckner’s life on the bench.
“He was one of the best criminal judges in Tennessee, if not the best,” Inman said. “He was a walking example of what a good judge and a good man is. He didn’t have to tell you. He showed it.”
The man who succeeded Beckner on the bench, Judge John Dugger, said Beckner served as a great influence on his life.
“From a young lawyer trying my first case in his court to practicing 19 years trying cases,” Dugger said. “Then he was assigned to me as my mentor judge. Throughout my career, he always gave me his time and advice day or night.
“He was a pillar in the Tennessee Judiciary. Lawyers and judges throughout the state know and respect him for his knowledge of the law and his great wealth of experience.”
District Public Defender Greg Eichelman also views Beckner as a significant influence on his legal career, and life.
“Eddie was a consistently demanding but fair judge and a good man,” Eichelman wrote. “I practiced in his courtroom for four decades. He pushed me to become the lawyer I am today and for this I am grateful. While our confrontations in court were sometimes dramatic, outside of the courtroom we became and remained friends. This is a great loss for our community, for his family and for me. I suspect that he would want all of us to move ahead and ‘do the right things for the right reasons.’ I trust that we will.”
Hamblen County Circuit Court Clerk Teresa West said she will always be grateful for the kindness Beckner showed her throughout her entire career.
“It would be impossible to count all the ways that he has helped me,” she said. “He was a great friend and my mentor and he taught me so much, He always took time to talk to me with good sound advice. When I won my first election, he swore me in. He officiated my sister’s wedding, He was a close family friend and Hamblen County has a lost a great friend, mentor, judge and community leader.
“So grateful that he was a part of my life and for believing in me.”
Fellow Circuit Court Judge Thomas Wright said a common theme among lawyers throughout East Tennessee was that Beckner helped them improve their craft through his exacting standards.
“He established the utmost respect for the judiciary and the law. I was privileged to know him as a mentor and friend after being elected judge myself in 1998. He was a beautiful soul who cared deeply about the judiciary but more importantly about his faith, family and community. A great light in East Tennessee has gone out.”
That light shone beyond the courtroom as well. As much of an impact as Beckner had in court, he had a larger impact supporting the youth of the community.
A founding member of the Youth Emergency Shelter and a member of the Tennessee Boys & Girls Club Hall of Fame, Beckner threw himself behind any causes that supported local youth.
“We are absolutely heartbroken from the news of Judge Eddie Beckner’s passing this morning,” Boys & Girls Club director John Seals said. “Words cannot truly express the love and admiration we have for our friend and his family. The Boys & Girls Club Family and this community will dearly miss this extraordinary man.”
Upon Beckner’s induction to the Hall of Fame, Bill Seals, the former director, said he thought one of Beckner’s greatest strengths through the years has been the way he was hands-on with the young club members. He noted that Beckner personally taught more than 300 members how to water ski. He said a lot of kids have potential but lack resources to succeed because of a cultural gap. Beckner had a way of closing that gap.
Among his many accomplishments, Beckner formed the Boys & Girls Foundation, a separate organization devoted to raising funding for the club and played a key role in the implementation of the annual Steak & Burger Dinner fundraiser.
Eddie Davis, long time director of the Youth Emergency Shelter, said Beckner was a founding member of and was the one who came up with the name.
“He was there for the children of Hamblen County,” Davis said. “He was a great leader of this community and a great supporter of all worthwhile childrens’ programs in this county.”
One of the ways Beckner connected with kids was through athletics.
An avid hiker, Beckner led a yearly group hike to Mt. LeConte and kept himself in good physical shape.
Long, who taught Sunday School with Beckner and served with him on the United Way Board, said Beckner enjoyed working out and frequently played full-court basketball against people half his age.
For 25 years, Dugger was one of the members of the hiking group, making the annual trek.
“He was a generous person,” Dugger said, adding condolences to Beckner’s family. “He devoted countless hours to his community, including the Boys & Girls Club and to his church. Hamblen County has lost a valuable, devoted citizen. Myself and everyone in the Third Judicial District will miss him greatly.
Funeral arrangements had not been publicly announced at deadline. For full obituary information and more on Beckner’s impact on the Lakeway Area, see upcoming editions of the Citizen Tribune.