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VOL. 43 | NO. 39 | Friday, September 27, 2019

The many pursuits of Robert Godwin

Few idle moments for attorney, author, athlete, conservationist

By Nancy Henderson

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During his two-year stint in the U.S. Army, Robert Godwin was charged with, among other things, writing press releases for hometown newspapers when soldiers received commendations or were wrapping up their tours of duty.

About a month before his own discharge in 1968, his commander summoned him to write a new one.

“Who for?” Godwin asked. “Nobody’s getting out.”

“You are.”

“So I wrote up my own, and if I get blue or I get depressed, I go read the thing,” the 77-year-old Knoxville attorney says with a chuckle. “It’s on my wall together with the medal.”

A world traveler, accomplished athlete, environmentalist, four-time author and co-founder of one of the city’s first suburban law firms, Godwin has never been afraid to write his own script.

Godwin has competed in more than 450 running races, including 15 marathons – Boston three times – and has competed in 57 triathlons. A slip on his icy concrete sidewalk six years ago shattered a kneecap and sidelined his running. But he still bikes and swims, and has pedaled in 13 cross-state rides as well as cross-country in Sweden and France.

Now focusing on probates and wills, Godwin is widely respected as a friendly, honest professional with a keen sense of humor and an eagle eye.

Kenton Page, Sr., owner of Fountain City Pharmacy, became friends with Godwin five decades ago, after they met at church and starting running together. Godwin is currently assisting Page with the legalities of selling his longtime drugstore.

“After the purchaser’s attorney presented some documents and stuff, Robert went through it, and one thing he did was pick out a lot of misplaced words and punctuation errors,” Page says. “He pays attention to detail.”

Because of his December birthday, Godwin started school when he was just 5. Younger than the majority of his classmates, he was a bit shy and withdrawn. By third grade, he had already read most of the books in the school library. He was a well-rounded kid, too, often visiting his grandparents, who owned a cabin about 50 feet from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Gatlinburg, and playing outdoors.

“I grew to love the mountains and hiked a great deal,” he recalls. “I just felt like they were mine, and I retain that feeling to this very day.”

For years, he took piano lessons from his mom, a music teacher, and played both classical and popular tunes. He still owns an upright 1898 Stieff that is uniquely triple-strung all the way through the bass. “It’s usually double-strung for the bottom couple of octaves,” he says. “Mine is triple-strung all the way through, and it surprises any technician that comes to work on it.”

His dad, he says, served as a positive role model until his death from Alzheimer’s. “My wife asked once, “Mr. Godwin, what’s it like not to remember things?’ and he said, ‘Well, you don’t remember the bad things.’”

Godwin toyed with the idea of becoming a minister but ultimately majored in psychology at Atlanta’s Emory University and, at the end of his junior year, decided he wanted to be lawyer.

The dean of the University of Tennessee College of Law, Army Colonel Harold Warner, happened to be a close family friend, so Godwin called him for advice about how to prepare for his studies there.

“Robert, anything you take may be of help because you don’t know who is going to walk into your office with what problem,” Warner responded. “It might be a problem with a boundary line. It might be a contract. It might be an accident. So the broader your knowledge, the better you are.”

“And then he said something that I found to be quite true: Your clients will specialize you,’” Godwin remembers. “And that happened.”

Godwin was studying for his senior finals in 1965 when the first draft notice arrived in the mail. So he called up the draft board and asked, “Can you defer me for a while to allow me to graduate? Otherwise I’ll forget everything I’ve learned.”

The second notice came just before he was scheduled to take the bar exam. Again, he persuaded the draft board to delay his entry into the military.

Upon receipt of the third letter, Godwin made yet another call. “I know you think I’m making this up, but I have a date to get sworn in at the Tennessee Supreme Court. Can you delay it a week or so?” Again, he successfully made his case.

“I have found throughout my career that people believe me,” Godwin continues. “I always attempt to be honest with people, particularly the other side, because that only helps my client if the other side knows I’m being straight with them. Very, very rarely does anybody doubt the truth of what I’m telling them. I will never mislead you. I’ll just tell you if I can’t give you the answer.”

At Fort Dix in New Jersey, he declined an officer commission because it would require a four-year term, twice as long as that of an enlisted soldier. “I had decided at that point that what I wanted to do was return to Knoxville and be kind of like a family doctor, only I would be a family lawyer. And I wanted to come back as quickly as I could.”

He was training to be a company clerk when one day he sneaked out of typing class and into the Staff Judge Advocate’s office. It didn’t take long for the colonel in charge, a UT graduate and someone with whom Godwin shared many acquaintances back home, to pick up the phone and call personnel. “I’ve got a Private Godwin here,” he said into the mouthpiece. “I want him up here as soon as he finishes his MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) because I’m getting a free lawyer.”

Godwin, who rose to the rank of specialist fifth class, was put in charge of the claims department, investigating negligent parties in injury cases involving servicemen and their dependents. Sometimes his boss instructed him to remove his jacket emblazoned with the word “Private” and give legal advice alongside the officers.

During his time as a law office clerk while earning his J.D., Godwin had discovered that if he befriended the clerks at the courthouse, he stood a better chance of getting the information he needed. So he applied the same strategy to his work in the Staff Judge Advocate’s office. “The Army has a lot of officers, but if you need something done, you call the enlisted guy. That was true in the courthouse. The clerks make everything work, and I enjoyed meeting them and getting acquainted with them. They treated me so nicely.” Because of that experience, he says, “I could jump into practice pretty easily.”

As usual, when Godwin got out of the Army, serendipity worked in his favor. David E. Smith, the attorney for whom he had clerked, was ready to leave his firm and strike out on his own, so the two opened an office together in the then-unincorporated community of Fountain City in northern Knoxville “at a time when very few lawyers were anywhere but within an arm’s reach of the courthouse.”

Oddly, a different attorney with his partner’s exact name had also hung out a shingle in Knox County. “Whenever we’d get the other David E. Smith’s mail,” Godwin says, laughing heartily, “we made it known to everybody that we kept the checks and forwarded his bills.”

Godwin still practices in the heart of Fountain City. “He feels like attorneys should be in areas where they may be needed and not in a big fancy downtown suite,” Page explains. “He’s also tried to keep his fees lower because he fancies himself, and is in truth, somebody that is invaluable.”

Godwin still has the same assistant, Janet Fluri, whom he and Smith hired 50 years ago after the high school senior outperformed the firm’s fulltime secretary during a brief internship. “I promised to stay until she could draw Social Security and she can, and we’re still working,” Godwin adds.

Not long after Godwin began practicing law, it occurred to him that his law school mentor was right. “Our clients kind of specialized us,” Godwin says. At first, he followed in his new partner’s footsteps, handling property issues and bankruptcy. Eventually, he took on more domestic cases.

During his first jury trial, which involved a contract dispute, he received what he calls “one of the greatest compliments I ever got as a lawyer” when during closing arguments, the plaintiff’s attorney cautioned the jury, “Now folks, I don’t want you to vote for the defendant just because you like Mr. Godwin.”

“We won,” Godwin quips.

Often, the family law cases came with complexities, even when they shouldn’t. During one hearing, he turned to his female divorce client and began asking the standard questions: “Have I given an accurate version of this to the court? You’ve settled all of your property matters? And you have no children?” Each time, she answered “yes,” until Godwin inquired, “And you want the judge to grant the divorce and approve your agreement?”

“And she turned to me and tears were going down and she said, ‘No.’”

“Every lawyer in there was laughing,” Godwin remembers. “Well, the judge and I understood each other and I turned to her and said, ‘Well, ma’am, what you really mean is you are so sad that it’s come to a divorce but you had no choice.’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ So I got it. One of the worst things that can happen to a lawyer is to lose an uncontested case.”

As Godwin’s practice grew, so did his obsession with fitness. “When I got out of the Army – I had drunk a lot of beer and eaten a lot of peanuts – I had gained weight. And I said, ‘This will never do.’”

He began running laps on a track but soon grew bored and took to the open roads. By the time he finished a 10-mile race at Cades Cove, he says, “I was hooked.”

“It got me outside and I would see the changes almost daily of the seasons and that was exciting,” he says. “And I knew where the blackberries were growing and I’d get there first.”

“He didn’t pound like other people. He glided,” says Page, who for years ran with Godwin in the cemetery close to Page’s house and on trails in the Smokies. “One time we had minus 24 degrees. We were the coldest city in the whole country including Alaska, and we had quite a bit of snow,” Page recalls. “He didn’t let that keep him [from running]. He came up to my door and tried to entice me out, but I didn’t do it.”

He and his wife, Karen, also love to travel. One of their most memorable trips took place in 1997, when they camped in the jungle low country of Nepal. Godwin quickly became attached to his elephant, a 53-year-old female. “We hit it off, and rode here, there and yon, always with guides, of course. … It was a magic time.”

The other wild animals, however, weren’t so friendly.

After he announced to the camp guides that he planned to go for a run each morning before the day’s adventure, they murmured among themselves, then said, “We would rather you didn’t.”

“Guys, I run everywhere and I make it a point not to get lost,” he told them.

Again, the group huddled together, whispering before one of them said, “It’s not that we’re worried about you getting lost. It’s the tigers.”

Godwin promptly decided to forego the running; that week one of the big cats killed a water buffalo near the camp. “Oh boy, when you hear a tiger roar in the middle of the night, every hair on your body stands on end,” he says. “It was the most frightening thing you ever heard.”

Sadly, when Godwin returned to Kathmandu, he learned that his law partner had died of a heart attack two weeks earlier while watching a televised football game in his den. Godwin was crushed. “This was totally unexpected,” he adds. “Everybody else was two weeks along in dealing with that when I got home, and it was so disconcerting to go through that experience because he was just wonderful.”

Godwin has practiced solo ever since. For the past 10 years, he has primarily focused on probates and wills. Most clients turn into friends, he points out.

“There’s hardly anybody that I deal with now who I wouldn’t count more as a friend than just a client. I think most everybody does feel comfortable with the way I meet them and greet them and try to understand their problems and sometimes send them to somebody else who would do a better job.”

A longtime environmentalist, Godwin supports related causes and is deeply concerned about climate change. “When I was young, I could drink out of streams in the Smokies,” he says. “Those days are long gone due to pollution. That’s so sad because I’m old enough to have seen the changes.”

Conservation is no doubt in Godwin’s blood. His grandfather’s nephew, attorney Harvey Broome, helped establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and in the 1960s persuaded Congress to create the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Godwin, his wife and 21-year-old grandson, who is on the autism spectrum, live in a 19th-century log cabin bought from another relative and located in the woods near Knoxville. He sometimes uses humane traps to rid his fix-it workshop of possums. “I haul them off to an area that is on the edge of a cemetery, that is forested, and I let them out where I think they’re safe and can make a home close to a stream, and close to the woods, and not get run over.”

For a while, a nearby nest of baby flying squirrels could be heard squeaking when they woke up. “One day my wife, who was raised as a hillbilly in western North Carolina – there’s not much that knocks her off her feet – pulled out one of the kitchen drawers and there, snoring peacefully on its back, was a little flying squirrel that had helped himself to some flour,” Godwin says. “Well, those creatures woke up and there was widespread panic on his part. We finally caught him in a pillowcase and took him outside.”

After garnering positive critiques for his weekly assignments in a creative writing group several years ago, Godwin realized he had the makings of a novel in the noir genre made popular in the 1940s and early ’50s. He has since published four books and is currently working on two more, one of which is set in modern-day times.

At work, the thing he enjoys most is “working with people through their problems to a happy end. Not all problems do we ‘win,’ but if we can get them solved, and the person knows they’ve been treated well … rarely does somebody, even if they don’t get what they wanted, feel that they didn’t get a fair hearing. They need to know that justice really is very active, very available, and that they got a good shot.”

Godwin chuckles as he recalls an early divorce case in which he represented the wife in a crowded courtroom in Union County. The husband was on the witness stand, refusing to part with the couple’s canopy bed. Under cross-examination, Godwin coaxed the man into admitting that, yes, his wife had wanted such a bed ever since she was a little girl and, yes, he had bought it for her to make her happy.

“So why are you insisting on having it?” Godwin asked.

“And he turned red and looked at his lawyer, and the lawyer indicated he had to answer,” Godwin says. “And he said, ‘Because of the overhead mirror.’”

“Talk about uproarious laughter. Even the judge ducked his head,” Godwin says, laughing out loud.

“We got the bed.”

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