Two Southern Champions: A Late Appreciation of Don Paine and John Egerton

Knoxville will miss Don Paine. Until his death last month at age 74, he was one of the most energetic and interesting lawyers in town, and a much-beloved teacher at UT Law School.

His colleagues, and those who grew up with him in Bearden, can speak more personally of him. My acquaintance with him was mostly via his annual presentations to the local bar association luncheon, to which he graciously invited me for several years. The high point of each banquet was always his dramatization of key courtroom dialogues. Almost always they were about murder. It was not his law firm's specialty, but Paine was a student of homicide and the justice that doesn't always follow.

He used some stories I'd written, to explore as court cases, and always burrowed much deeper into them than I had, sometimes deeper than the original attorneys had, prying out details and questions others had missed. More than one concerned middle-class professional men killing their wives' boyfriends, in a car on Locust Street in 1916, or at a prominent construction site on Henley in 1930. Those interested Paine, but none moved him like the better-known case of Maurice Mays, whose arrest for the murder of a white woman in her Eighth Avenue home touched off the lynch-mob scene that escalated into the deadly melee recalled as the Riot of 1919.

Mays wasn't lynched, except legally. He was executed for the murder in 1922. Paine, after carefully reviewing the records, grew more and more convinced Mays was innocent and got nothing approaching a fair trial. Motivated by service to the disadvantaged, Paine often took on pro-bono cases. The Mays case became his most unusual one.

A couple of years ago, he took his plea to the governor, whose attorney politely declined to second-guess a jury's verdict, 90 years after the fact. That was unsatisfying to Don, for whom justice has no statute of limitations. He would have tried again with the next governor.

He was seriously ill in recent years. My impression was that he was never much interested in that fact. There were always subjects much more compelling than cancer. We can all hope to find a passion so engaging it carries us along so thoroughly we forget ourselves.


Author John Egerton also died last month, at age 78. He and Paine had a couple of things in common, including an ambivalence about the latest communications technology, and a passion for righting wrongs.

I once believed Egerton to be several different people. He wrote many good books, and two really great ones, Speak Now Against the Day and Southern Food. They're both classics, two of the most essential books about the South.

One's mostly about civil rights; the other's mostly about food. They have little in common except for Egerton's smart, friendly style and his extraordinarily comprehensive way of thinking, of looking at a subject from more angles than you knew existed.

He was a Georgia-born, Kentucky-raised Nashvillian, but he had some East Tennessee roots. In 1977, he finished a slim history called Visions of Utopia, published by UT Press. It was maybe the first book of Tennessee history not about the Civil War that interested me. Egerton outlined Utopian schemes that have briefly exalted several remote parts of Tennessee. When I first read it, I stupidly didn't realize that I knew the author.

Egerton was a friend of my great Aunt Baxter, who lived in Dickson County. He was quiet, respectful, courtly in the old-fashioned way, a good listener. He used to call us "cousins," but we weren't blood kin. There's a complicated story that I wish he were around long enough to tell once again, about his grandfather, Graham Egerton, a footloose Englishman who joined Thomas Hughes' idyllic colony at Rugby, one of those utopias that got Egerton interested in that subject. Rugby didn't work out well for anybody, especially the elder Egerton, who lost a hand in a train accident. Graham Egerton drifted west and somehow ended up living with my ancestors in Dickson County. He studied law and was appointed solicitor general for the U.S. Navy during Wilson's administration. He and my great-grandfather, who was also an attorney and judge, became close friends, and their descendants after them.

John Egerton's Southern Food is the standard text on the subject. In it he mentioned one of Aunt Baxter's more peculiar old family recipes, pancakes made from crumbled leftover biscuits.

Once I went to the University Center to hear a prominent scholar of civil rights. Sitting in the packed auditorium, I realized this groundbreaking scholar of Southern politics and social activism was, improbably as it may seem, the same John Egerton. But he'd been writing about civil rights since the days when segregation was still a rallying cry.

Speak Now Against the Day is a modern history of the South, and a patient but incisive answer to the assumption that the Civil Rights movement was a Yankee idea born in 1954. He outlines the stories of hundreds of brave Southerners, black and white, who risked life and career for racial justice long before the TV cameras were rolling.

He was the food expert again when he was here in town last year, for the 2012 International Biscuit Festival. For a crowd dominated by professional food writers at the History Center, he narrated a demonstration of an antique machine for making beaten biscuits. Later, when the Southern Food Writing Conference convened for a banquet at Blackberry Farm, they gave him an award, for his landmark Southern Food, and a teary standing ovation.

I had no idea. It's emblematic of his character that you could get to know John Egerton and never guess he was famous.

The next day he broke loose from a morning session, and we had a long, deep talk over coffee at Cafe 4. We talked about his grandfather and my great-grandfather, and the importance of local history. "A 100-square-mile aperture is not narrow if you're trying to see everything," he said. "And everything belongs."

Part of what made him rare was that he tried to see everything.