The letter was one of many accolades presented to retired General Sessions Judge Ron Durby on Wednesday. Earlier Court Room 6 at the Justice Building was “standing room only” as a beautiful portrait was unveiled, it capturing his warmth, compassion and good nature.
But at a surprise party two hours later, it was a letter from former Alabama teammate Steve Sloan that brought down the house. Sloan, the former coach and athletic director who retired from UT-Chattanooga, was once an All-American quarterback at Alabama after a banner high-school career in Cleveland, Tenn.
Sloan’s letter, handwritten, lavished praise on Durby early and noted Ron was “an outstanding player, although you may have played out of position. I know you secretly wanted to play quarterback, however you had to settle for guard. As you know the guard protects the quarterback, which served you well as you protected so many people in your legal career and as a judge,” Sloan wrote. “Your life is full of outstanding deeds and as a judge you were known to be good and fair but … you are still just a guard. Your teammate, Steve Sloan.”
The letter, read by former UTC All-American Bucky Wofford, captured Sloan’s great sense of humor and the honoree, who received commemorative footballs from Bill Battle and Nick Saban, laughed the hardest at Sloan’s zinger. As a matter of fact, the judge laughed with delight for most of the day.
The courthouse ceremony, with longtime friends Clarence Shattuck and Sam Payne holding forth, was a warm testament to Durby’s lengthy career on the bench with many lawyers, judges, and out-of-town dignitaries joining the General Sessions Court family. “If the Fire Marshall stops by we’ll all get arrested for having this many people in one room,” Judge Shattuck quipped.
State Rep. Mike Carter, himself a former judge, was delightful as he shared only a few of the many “Durby stories” that are often told at the courthouse and the retired judge squirmed a little, hopeful Rep. Carter would omit some of the best – and funny tales. The judge’s wife, Vicka, and their children – Mark and Michelle -- laughed the loudest, too.
A handful of Judge Durby’s lunchtime buddies, Kurt Schmissrauter, Sam Woolwine and Alan Presley, arranged for a private gathering to be held after the courthouse reception in the Northshore One clubhouse and the Durby family was whisked away from the justice building in a limousine with a heavy police escort. “Where are you taking me?” the judge asked his wife, “To an expensive restaurant … and you are picking up the tab!” she replied.
But when Judge Durby walked into the room and saw so many of his lifetime friends, it appeared for a moment his heart might melt. There was Harold Wilkes, Lacy Colston, Buddy Nix and George McDowell from the UTC family. Attorneys Lee Davis and Stan Lanzo, who spearheaded the portrait committee, mixed with Judges Shattuck, Christie Sell, and many lawyers who took time to honor the “fair and good” man who has done so much in his career.
A native of Memphis, Durby’s childhood chum, Ted Gatewood Sr., was among those who gave the judge his second standing ovation of the day and Alabama memorabilia – one picture showing Durby and Joe Namath side by side – was on every table.
Larry McGill, who was a freshman recruit with Durby at Alabama in 1961, drove up from Dothan, Ala., to be at the party and said his fondest memory of playing with Durby was “that we survived. Our freshman team went to New Orleans to play Tulane and none of us knew Coach (Bear) Bryant was flying down to watch us. When we got back to Tuscaloosa, we had the hardest practice I have ever experienced for 2 ½ hours. Then the varsity took the field and we practiced against then for another 2 ½ hours. Twelve guys quit football the next day. Coach Bryant did not like to lose.”
Durby smiled at the story, admitting it was awful at times, “but I wouldn’t trade the world for it.” McGill, who played fullback and linebacker, was a member of the 1961 national champions while Durby, red-shirted that year, played on the 1964 national champion team with Joe Namath and Steve Sloan.
“I remember Coach Bryant coming up to Chattanooga for the Scrappy Moore Banquet or something,” said Judge Shattuck. “He saw Ron sitting at a nearby table and yelled, ‘Well, if it isn’t ole Durby … you played better with the worst talent I ever saw!’”
Tim Miller remembered the classic story of Bryant yelling to an assistant to “get Durby in the game!” When somebody finally got up enough nerve to tell the legendary coach that Ron Durby had graduated two years before, Bryant fumed, “So, don’t give me a history lesson; I’m trying to win this game!”
While becoming one a history’s greatest college coaches, Bryant produced an uncommon number of what he used to call “winners” and Durby was always a favorite. As his life was played before him yesterday, and people talked about his contributions to the Prison Ministry, the FCA and the years he spent coaching, the judge was his charming yet humble self. “Vicka and I have been blessed, but today,” he smiled, “has been pretty special.”
Ron and Vicka Durby
- Photo2 by Wes Schultz