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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 15, No. 2
June, 1937
JUDGE JAMES H. GORDON

By Preston C. West

Page 198

The Athenians required by law an annual oration in honor of those who sacrificed their lives in fighting for their country. We are met today with one mind and one heart to do honor to a hero of peace.1

Almost fifty years have passed since I first met James Herndon Gordon. Neither of us had then heard of the other. The purely accidental circumstance of our being assigned the same quarters when we entered the law department of the University of Virginia was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. The blessed memory of him who is gone makes my duty today indeed a labor of love. Would that my tongue were equal to the task of translating into noble and melodious words the picture of the honorable man, the splendid citizen, the great lawyer, the devoted husband, the loving father, and the faithful friend whose loss we mourn and whose virtues we shall cherish always.

Owing to a peculiar reticence about himself—for with him, as with few other men I have ever known, the use of the personal pronoun was almost a lost art—not even his intimates knew much of the details of his boyhood. His life in Indian Territory and Oklahoma is an open book. In its fair pages is recorded a story that is worthy the emulation of us all.

His father, Andrew J. Gordon, was a native of Vermont; his mother, Lucy Herndon Willis Gordon, was born in that part of Virginia known as the wilderness. Thus in his veins was mingled the blood of the Puritan and the Cavalier.

The father established a boys' academy at Locust Dale, Virginia, in 1858, which he conducted until his death, in 1876. There "Jim" Gordon, as we all affectionately called him, was born October 3, 1868. There his mother died when he was but five years old, and his father when he was but eight. Fortunately for him, he



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had an older sister who became both sister and mother. This sister, Mrs. Briggs, it was my good fortune to meet and know while I was a student at the university. She undoubtedly had a large share in shaping the character of the man we honor today. After the father's death she married Mr. Briggs, who was conducting a boys' school at Suffolk, Virginia. Her husband took over the Locust Dale academy and was still conducting it when I knew them. Judge Gordon got his early education at that institution, and before taking his academic degree at the university, for a time taught some classes there. His legal education was acquired while that great teacher Professor Minor was at the head of the faculty of law at the University of Virginia, and he received the degree of Bachelor of Law in 1890.

At twenty, when I first knew him, he was more mature in both character and intellect than the vast majority of men at thirty; but for all that, none the less a youth, with all the joyous fullness of life that belongs to young manhood. He was not only a cheerful and winning companion, but even not above an occasional practical joke. Throughout life he possessed a rare and subtle humor and a gentle and kindly satire which was the delight of all who knew him; as it was also often the means of dissipating false notions and putting things in their true light.

During his law course at the University, Congress passed an Act, approved May 2, 1890, enlarging the jurisdiction of the United States Court in the Indian Territory, established the preceding year; divided the territory into three divisions; and provided that: "the second division shall consist of the Choctaw County, and the place for holding said Court therein shall be at South McAlester." This was a determining factor in his life; he decided to come to what was then Indian Territory and arrived here July 20, 1890. Then for a short while we were both associated with one of my early preceptors in the law, Hon. Thomas P. Winchester, of Fort Smith, Arkansas, with offices at both Fort Smith and McAlester—an association which, though only a brief duration, had only pleasant memories for us all. He next formed a partnership with J. H. Harley, but this partnership also was not to continue for very long.

Page 200

In 1895 Judge C. H. Stuart resigned the United States judgeship in Indian Territory, and for fifteen years thereafter he and Judge Gordon were law partners. For a time William Harley was also a junior member of the firm. Judge Yancey Lewis succeeded Judge Stuart on the bench and filled out his unexpired term. From that time until Judge Lewis became Dean of Law at the University of Texas, the firm was Stuart, Lewis and Gordon.

In 1909, William C. Liedtke, afterwards judge of the Superior Court, was associated with the firm of Stuart and Gordon, and before his elevation to the bench became a member of the firm. When Judge Stuart removed to Oklahoma City, in 1911, Mr. E. E. McInnis joined Judge Gordon, and from then until December 1918, when Mr. McInnis became solicitor for the Santa Fe, the firm was Gordon and McInnis. After the dissolution of this firm Judge Gordon practiced alone until 1929, when his son, A. James Gordon, became his junior partner, and father and son, as Gordon and Gordon, practiced at McAlester until the father's death, last October.

Judge Gordon was one of the organizers of the First National Bank at McAlester, served almost forty years as a director thereof, and was several times its president. He was appointed Master in Chancery of the United States Court in 1895; was chosen President of Oklahoma State Bar Association in 1911; and was a member of the first board of governors of "State Bar of Oklahoma." He was State Chairman of the Third Liberty Loan during the World War. In April 1924 Governor Trapp appointed him to fill a vacancy on the State Supreme Court.

Judge Gordon Married Bertha L. Frederick at Litchfield, Illinois, April 4, 1900. Mrs. Gordon was born at New Offenburg, Missouri. Their union was blessed with two children: a son, A. James, and a daughter, Margaret.

This recital of the principal events of Judge Gordon's professional and business life, and his public services, while it tells a story of more than ordinary achievement, gives no adequate picture of the lawyer or the man. His career in his chosen field of endeavor was marked with abundant success, and full of those honors

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most dearly prized by a lawyer. For nearly half a century he has typified and exemplified the highest ideals of the profession. And this not because of any conscious and deliberate effort toward that shining mark, but because nothing else was possible for James Herndon Gordon, the man.

Every impulse of his nature forbade the resort under any circumstances to the devious ways of the trickster. For him no path to fame or fortune existed except that of civic virtue and professional probity. It never occurred to his honest and straightforward mind to attempt to warp the facts to meet the law. Instead, he sought at source the legal principles of law applicable to the facts of the specific controversy, and deduced the true rule which would work equity and justice in his client's behalf.

As a trial lawyer he was preeminently successful because he always knew his case. He had the happy faculty of bringing home to both court and jury a true picture of both the law and the facts. Without any attempt at dramatic art, scorning to resort to appeals to passion or prejudice—alas, an all too common device in our forums—he won his cases by convincing logic, persuasive reason, and fairness of presentation.

Judge Gordon's all too short period of service upon the highest judicial tribunal of the State established and confirmed his title to greatness as a sound lawyer and an accomplished jurist. His opinions unfailingly rang true. He never undertook to overlay them with any ostentatious display of learning, howsoever inviting the field and opportunity; nor to adorn them with those flowery dissertations which, though they may furnish attractive reading matter, are seldom of much benefit to the practitioner. He had the happy faculty of going to the very core of the controversy, and setting forth his conclusions in such luminous and understandable form as left no obscurity, and gave the sanction of authority to the result. Could he have remained on the bench for the balance of his life, although it would have been a tremendous personal sacrifice, it would have been of inestimable advantage to the jurisprudence of the State. To his family, and his devoted and admiring friends, his judicial record is a priceless heritage.

Page 202

But it was perhaps as a counselor that the full stature of his splendid mind and character was attained. He had that fine balance of courage, foresight, and sound common sense which in combination with uprightness of character and integrity of purpose made him an ideal adviser for those who wished to know in advance the probable legal and financial results of any contemplated course; he was a tower of strength and comfort to all who sought the law's strong arm against wrong, oppression, and fraud. No man ever more fully measured up to the ideal of a lawyer's true position, and the duty his relationship to his client implies and requires, so aptly summarized by another great lawyer and judge in these words:

"An attorney is a man set apart by the law to expound to all persons who seek him the laws of the land, relating to high interest of property, liberty and life. To this end he is licensed and permitted to charge for his services. The relation he bears to his client implies the highest trust and confidence. The client lays bare to his attorney his very nature and heart, and leans and relies upon him for support in the saddest hours of his life—knowing not which way to go to attain his rights, he puts himself under the guidance of his attorney, and confides that he will lead him aright."

No man ever more faithfully discharged those duties, or better lived up to the standards which have always been the beacons set by the wisest and best of our profession. He never forgot that the very foundations of civil law rest upon the protection of right and the prevention of wrong. For him the practice of his calling meant the suppression of blackmail, restraint of cupidity, the fostering of truth, and, wherever possible, amicable settlement of bitter controversies. He was, indeed, a true hierophant at the altar of justice.

And so today, while we mourn his loss, we glory in the record of his attainments, and are consoled by the reflection that his character, his service, his friendship have been a benediction which we have shared; to thank Heaven it has been our privilege to

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walk with him for a space along the old familiar paths, made brighter and better for his companionship.

But if James Herndon Gordon was a great lawyer and a learned and upright judge, and he was all of that, his personal character and private life overtopped the professional heights attained as the peaks of the Kiamichi the valleys between. If the very stones of this city, and forests and prairies of this State, could give tongue, they would be vocal with his worth. He was courageous in danger, helpful in need, loyal to those he loved, and generous to all who came within the boundaries of his daily life. Especially in time of trouble did others look to him for counsel and for aid. It is not, I hope, unfitting or unbecoming for one who has himself been the beneficiary of these qualities, which were his in so marked a degree, to testify thereto in open court, and under the sanction of this solemn occasion. It has been my privilege during the long and intimate associations of many years to know the man himself. From the care-free era of our college days, through the more than four decades which have followed, it has been my good fortune to see him in all the varied relations of a full and active life—from scenes of actual personal peril, to intimate companionship in his home and at his fireside, at the counsel table, in the courtroom, in public and private gatherings. When danger threatened he looked out with steady eyes from an unruffled soul; calm, serene, and unafraid; and always his hand, his heart, his purse, were at the command of those he loved. As David said on the death of Abner, "Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel?"

All who hear me today, all who knew him in life, are oppressed with a sense of personal loss—to him who speaks it is a loss irreparable. Many times during the past six months it has been impossible for me to comprehend that my bereavement is an accomplished fact. At such times my heart has re-echoed those pathetic lines from "In Memoriam":

Page 204

"If you should bring me this report,
That thou had touched the land today
And I went down unto the quay
And found thee lying in the port;

And standing muffled round with woe,
Should see the passengers in rank
Come stepping lightly down the plank,
And beckoning unto those they know;

And if along with these should come
The man I held as half divine,
Should strike a sudden hand in mine,
And ask a thousand things of home;

And I should tell him all my pain,
And how my life had drooped of late,
And he should sorrow o'er my state
And marvel what possess'd my brain;

And I perceived no touch of change,
No hint of death in all his frame,
But found him in all the same,
I should not feel it to be strange."

But though the mortal remains of our loved friend and companion now lie in yonder cemetery, he yet liveth. Whatsoever any other may think, as for my single self it is impossible to believe that the soul which inspired and fashioned his earthly life can ever die. If it were otherwise, the observances of this hour are futile, and do but mock us.

His whole life and character proclaim the truth of that sublime faith so eloquently expressed in the words of Victor Hugo:

"When I go down to the grave I can say like many others: I have finished my day's work—but I cannot say: I have finished my life. My day's work will begin again next morning. The tomb is not a blind alley; it is a thoroughfare. It closes on the twilight; it opens on the dawn."

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