After being born and raised in Chattanooga and serving for 32 years on the Circuit Court bench; there aren’t many in Chattanooga who haven’t heard of Sam Payne, including some who know him as Father or Reverend.
Born in 1933 to James E. and Ernestine Payne, Samuel Houston Payne was the apple of his mother’s eye. “Of course, I called her ‘Mama’,” the judge says. “She was the best woman; the hero of my life - even more than my father,” he admits.
“She was a wonderful, wonderful woman.
She put up with seven kids - with me
included! That alone will probably get her a good seat in Heaven,” he quips - but without a smile. The judge’s honesty juts through whenever he says something jokingly and it is apparent that he is only half-joking or being blatantly honest.
“We all got along pretty good. Jamie my oldest sister, looked after us most of the time,” he pauses and adds “she still does!”
The judge reveals that while growing up, his family had a tough time. Was his father tough? He arched his brow carefully and affirms, “My dad was not real tough, but I had to mind him. He said ‘Do it!’ and I did it!”
Young Sam learned and upheld responsibility and he didn’t take it lightly. His first job was a newspaper route in which he had to wake up before dawn. “I slept outside one night and put the alarm clock in a dish pan so I would be sure to hear it. It went off and it scared my mother to death,” the judge laughs.
Thinking back to his childhood aspirations he says, “The first thing I wanted to be was probably a policeman - isn’t that crazy? They are the most underpaid people in the world for what they do. Those kids go out there every day with a flak jacket on, hoping to get through the day without getting killed. I think policemen ought to be more respected to be honest with you,” Sam acknowledges.
Mrs. Payne found it hard to sign the waiver for her young son to join the Air Force at just 16 years old during the Korean War in 1950 - though she was sure to be a support to Sam the best way she knew how.
“She rode the bus downtown and went to mass every day to pray while I was over there,” Sam says. “I didn’t write home often and my mother got a hold of the Air Force and was asking about me because they were losing a lot of planes - we had planes that were shot down. The Colonel called me and said, ‘You will write your mother every two weeks!’ – gave me an order.”
Volunteering to be a gunner on a B-29, young Payne went in knowing there were a lot of planes being shot down but he was fortunate to meet up with “Flying Jack” LaForge.
“My pilot was a very famous man - who retired as a general. He had a son almost as old as I was and that man looked after me like he’d look after his own son,” the judge declared. “We were coming back from a recognizance mission. We had an engine shot out and there was a chance that we would not make it back. He gave the crew an option to ‘bail out’ over Tokyo Bay… I wouldn’t even think about it! I went and sat upfront with him. No one bailed out. He flew in and landed perfectly.”
Sam could have gotten out a year earlier, but instead was sent to a training command. “I was a sergeant. They sent me to weather school to be a weather gunner on a B-36, which at that time was the largest plane in the world – it had 10 engines on it and carried the atomic bomb in it,” he says.
After four years of serving his country, Sam decided to attend college at the University of Chattanooga, now UTC. It was there that he would meet his bride to be, the lovely Miss Carolyn Lowe.
She recalls, “We were students at UC. He was a very good listener, even then. Our first date was the opera which was held at that time in the auditorium at the old Chattanooga High School. He had worked on the sets. We seemed to hit it off and the next thing I knew - he had a ring and I had it on!” Carolyn professed. “That was in May. We were married in August of 1956.”
During the early years of their marriage, Carolyn stayed home with the children. Her husband says, “She worked while I went to college and then when I got through, I looked at jobs and didn’t like anything I saw. So I said to her, ‘I believe I’ll go to law school’, and she said, ‘Well, you better do it now’. I called and they were giving the exams the following day. I drove to Knoxville, took the exam and fooled ‘em. I got in,” Sam exclaims proudly.
The couple moved to Knoxville living in GI barracks that were made into apartments. The judge recalls the difficult time that he had in high school before joining the Air Force. He had trouble understanding what he learned while he was growing up in his large family.
He fondly remembers a college professor, “My favorite teacher was Isobel Griscom. When I lived at home I found I could read a page and I couldn’t tell you what I read. Mama was always patting me on the back encouraging me, but I had told Ms. Griscom about my background. I said, ‘I don’t know an adverb from a proverb’ and she said, ‘Mr. Payne, we’ll learn’. She would take me one or two times a week in her office and go over the Harbrace Handbook. Of course, my wife is a genius in English and became my tutor,” the judge attests.
In the year 1977, former students honored the highly regarded Ms. Griscom by publishing her poems under the title “Isobel Griscom: An Appreciation”. Judge Payne was one of the speakers. “She was just great,” he says, “I have a book of her poetry at home. I kept up with her after she retired and I would go see her when she was sick.”
The first law firm Sam Payne worked for was Kefauver, Duggan & McDonald and he later became a partner in the firm Shattuck and Payne in the Pioneer Bank Building. In August of 1974, he was elected Circuit Judge of Division II of the Eleventh Judicial District of Tennessee. After being re-elected three more times, he retired in 2006.
While their children were small, Carolyn Payne would not work. She finally went back to school when the children were in school, but she did not take any class that interfered with the time the kids were at home. They were her priority.
“I told her to go after her PhD,” the judge says. “She was so smart, but she said that she would rather teach.”
Mrs. Payne taught for 24 years in the Hamilton County schools. “She even got teacher of the year - very smart,” the judge emphasizes, “I out-married myself when I married her.” Though Sam gives his humble smiles sparingly, he smiles with all of his heart and soul.
A member of the Fellows of Chattanooga Bar Association, Judge Payne has served on numerous boards such as St. Barnabas, Family and Children Services, CADAS (Council for Drug and Alcohol Abuse), the YMCA and in 2004, the CBA recognized him with the Ralph Kelley Humanitarian Award, which he is most proud of.
The criteria for the award includes: member in good standing of the Chattanooga Bar Association or a Judicial Officer; a minimum of 15 years tenure in the Chattanooga legal community; and recognized community service with emphasis on social service of both public and charitable nature, as set forth in the resolution establishing the award.
With these obvious successes, how does the couple account for an equally successful marriage all these years? “I loved her,” Sam says. “I still do! We can communicate - is the biggest thing. Most any problem we ever had was usually my problem – I brought it on. But if I was mad, I could get away and calm down and then we could talk it out. We have a rule – we don’t have any secrets. If she doesn’t like what I am doing, she tells me, if I don’t like what she’s doing, I tell her. I have done a lot of counseling for years and if you don’t get to things right away, it is like an onion skin; pretty soon you have another one on there and it just gets so big you can’t get ‘em down. You have to talk to each other and get it out in the open so you don’t have anything building up,” the judge says emphatically.
Carolyn says, “As a husband, he must be a good one since we have lasted soon to be 56 years! He is kind, considerate, helpful, loving and uplifting. Sam has mellowed over the years,” and, she adds under her breath, “He was noted for a fiery temper as a young man. Though, he never exhibited it to me or the children.”
The couple has three children: Sharon Hamrick, a CPA working at Joseph Decosimo and Company; Dr. Houston Payne, who performs hand and micro-surgery in Atlanta, and Dana Payne Buse, an executive at BMI in Nashville.
It is obvious how much this man adores his beloved, “I wanted to make sure that she got to do what she wanted to do and she had a good life where she could take care of the children. In fact she is leaving tomorrow on a trip with the girls. She takes them all – girls only, every year …and I always got the bill,” he laughs.
Carolyn says, “Sam is a wonderful father with strong principles tempered with love. He is always ready to listen and even though he sets high standards, he helped them - and me, to attain them. He expected as much of himself,” she confirms. “I have been blessed.”
According to the judge, Carolyn built the house they have lived in for 44 years. “She was the one that did it. Richard Abercrombie was a builder and she would ride around and show him what she liked and he built it,” he says. “It’s hard to leave something when all your children’s memories are there. I still like to cut my grass, we garden – she likes to garden more than I do. We eat out of it all the time. If we have too much, she will give it away at church.”
Sam speaks of ‘burying’ Mr. Abercrombie (officiating) along with a few other friends or people in his life including Gail Palmgren. He taught Gail’s children in Sunday school. The compassionate priest has such a love for people and he gets tears in his eyes at times when he mentions them and how they meant something to him. Being a reverend, Sam visits many when they are in the hospital. A story is told of a sickly lady who once asked for him at the hospital and the nurses thought she was asking for ‘champagne’ when she was requesting that they get ‘Sam Payne’! That nickname kind of stuck over the years.
A nice haven for the Paynes to get away is to their rustic house on Lookout Mountain. “We have a place I bought in 1970. I have 200 square feet on the brow. You can see all the way to the Blue Ridge Mountains. I built a half-acre lake that I stock with fish that my children and grandchildren can fish from. I put a good restroom up there; I spent more money on the restroom than I did on the house. I was told if you want to keep your women folk happy, you have to give them a good restroom.”
When asked who Sam Payne’s best friend is, he immediately said ‘Carolyn’. In regards to male friends, he esteems his former law partner, Clarence Shattuck.
“Top notch man. We used to play handball at the Y. Clarence is a really good athlete. He is good in basketball too. He and some guys play in the senior nationals,” Sam says. “My job was to get the rebound and kick 'em back to him. I’d slap ‘em back to Clarence, cause he can shoot – he can still shoot,” the judge insists.
Ever so fit and trim, Judge Payne still works out at the YMCA downtown but admits to waking up and doing yoga first thing at home.
One of the enjoyments Sam would have was to play guitar. A group of six, Debbie and Jerry Mowery, Don Moore, Carolyn, and the Judge were called ‘Jerry and the Judge and Jury’ and played about 35 shows a year for 10 years. They played country, bluegrass and religious music in area retirement centers and nursing homes.
“We played one night at a retirement center in East Ridge when it was family night,” the judge says. “There was a big crowd and this fella had a mother out there who hadn’t spoken in years. We did this one song and,” Sam chokes up with tears in his eyes and says, “It’s hard for me to talk about it - just tearing up,” he continues, “and …she began to sing! Sang with us! They all cried - we all cried,” Sam vows.
When he recalls his early days of preaching at St. Peter’s, Sam says, “I came in one morning on my Sunday to preach. I had my sermon prepared but it wasn’t on the scripture we were reading that day. I had confused it. I told Father Warren that I made a terrible mistake telling him I prepared for other scripture. He asked which one I prepared on and I told him. He said, ‘That’s the one we’ll read - nobody will ever know but George Connor’,” the judge laughed and said, “…and he DID know it, too!”
With many years counseling, hearing confessions and working with people at CADAS, the judge has heard troublesome woes. People have asked him if it bothers him to listen to people’s confessions. “It may be hard to believe, but I couldn’t tell you the first thing about any confession I ever heard. I don’t know whether the Lord blocks them out or what,” he says with his own confession. “I heard them, but I couldn’t tell you anything about them. Its purpose is for their healing,” he pauses “and mine.”
The biggest jolt for the judge was when his mother died.
“I was a grown man and had to bury her. Her mother had died when she was three and her daddy was killed on a train when she was 12. She was the most influential person in my life - without any question. She looked after every one of us. And after she got older, I looked after her. I’d go get her every week to take her to dinner and my sisters were there for her – one of them would be there every day. If she needed anything, I got it. She couldn’t drive so I sent her to Haman’s Driving School and got her a car that she could drive. I couldn’t have done it without my sisters, we are clannish. We don’t clan together all the time, but if something goes wrong, we close rank in a hurry,” the judge says. “We are all that way - that’s just the Paynes.”