Jim Hudson – ‘James’ to no one in the world save the parish register and the IRS – was a lawyer. A very, very good and successful lawyer. I met a few people over the years who did not have a high view of Jim, but every lawyer I ever met in town and the great majority of his clients had the highest possible view of him. He did his best for his clients, and in the process did well for himself. He was primarily a criminal defense attorney, and other lawyers said that if they were ever really guilty of something, they’d want Jim to represent them. He was loyal and generous to his friends, loved his church, and loved his priests. Jim called many people, many prominent people, ‘Baby’. Jim usually called me ‘Father’, but on occasion called me ‘Boss’. The parish once had a line dispute with a neighbor, and Jim and Bobby Gibson represented us in informal negotiations with the neighbor. The conversation went this way:
Jim to neighbor: ‘What do you want, Baby. What’s your bottom-line?’
After the neighbor spoke, Jim said to me, ‘Can we live with that, Boss?’
In the end we reached a compromise. The neighbor never followed through, and the parish, which was willing to split the difference, got everything. Jim and Bobby, Boss and Baby, were all involved, but I think Jim really produced that happy outcome. After I came back from a vacation once Jim told me that he felt better knowing I was in town. I told him that I felt safer knowing he was in town.
Jim grew up in western North Carolina and went to Wofford College in Spartanburg where he played football. After a stint in the draft-era military, he coached football at the North Carolina School for the Deaf, then came to Georgia to be an assistant coach under Wally Butts and to attend law school. In his early career Jim could, for a fee, make DUIs, and sometimes more serious offenses and even evidence, disappear. He had some notorious cases and clients, and of course many perfectly ordinary clients, and a great many wins. A parishioner, Rufus Adair, who was a newspaper man, told me with some awe of a church property case in which Jim, representing a local congregation in a rural county, ended up during his summation on his knees quoting The Grapes of Wrath. It usually worked.
For the most part that side of Jim’s life was beyond my ken. I did, however, encounter him in court once shortly after I moved to Athens. While the parish was still enjoying the generous Sunday morning hospitality of Bernstein’s Funeral Home (late 1983 to spring 1987), Jim succeeded in gaining a mistrial for a rather obviously guilty client. It was a remarkable verdict because the client, if I recall correctly, had stolen a car during a family reunion with multiple witnesses present. The next Sunday as Jim came through the line after Mass I said, ‘Congratulations, Jim.’ He said, ‘What for, Father?’ I said, ‘For getting a mistrial for your client.’ Jim smiled at that and said, ‘Well, sometimes you get the jury to do the wrong thing.’
Some months later I had jury duty for the first time in my life. It was in the Superior Court of Clarke County. The judge presiding often wore dark glasses in court, often appeared to be napping, and almost always seemed very severe. I myself was wearing a black suit and clerical collar, after several people had assured me that lawyers did not want clergymen on juries. This assurance, by the way, I have found to be false, as I have subsequently been the foreman on juries in cases in both the State and the Superior Courts. On this occasion I was the number one person in the jury pool, seated in the front row, left hand seat. Out came Jim Hudson: the case was the retrial of that earlier mistrial. Before the lawyers began their voir dire, after briefly describing the case, Judge Barrow asked his usual preliminary questions, of which the one that chiefly concerned me was, ‘Is there anyone here who cannot serve on this jury?’ Usually this question elicited five or six pleas from students facing examinations, faculty members facing busy schedules, business owners needing to do inventories, and others upon whom the judge did not often look with favor or mercy. Nonetheless, I raised my hand with the others.
As the judge turned his unpitying gaze to me, he said brusquely, ‘Why can’t you serve?’ For a moment I considered the possibility of retaliating for this slightly disrespectful suspicion by saying, ‘Your Honor, the defense attorney told that his client is guilty.’ Empty the court room of its jury pool, pay them all their tiny stipend, and reschedule. But perhaps also hold the priest in contempt and fine him. I quickly dropped that idea, and instead said, ‘Your Honor, I have special knowledge of this case.’ The judge looked at me suspiciously – though with his dark glasses perhaps he just looked at me as he did at everyone else. In any case, the judge called Jim and the assistant district attorney up to the bench, they all began whispering, and then they all began laughing. The judge, now with notable cheerfulness, said, ‘You may go.’ I went.
Jim was a pilot, with part interest in three airplanes, including a Steerman biplane. He took me up in the Steerman once. I was fitted with goggles, as the cockpit was open, and was astonished that the plane began to fly while taxiing at a seemingly impossibly slow speed – so much lift did it have. We flew over the church and most of the county, and the experience was interesting and only slightly terrifying. Later in the day at the YMCA, after I recounted this experience to Jim Paine, later an Air Force pilot himself, Paine said, ‘You know, that plane has acrobatic capabilities.’ I thanked God there were no acrobatics while I was in it. In retrospect I am glad I went up once, but found that once was enough. Jim Hudson was, I later learned, blind in one eye, and in the normal course of things should not have passed the periodic medical review for the renewal of his pilot’s license. Sometimes you get doctors to do the wrong thing too, it seems. Pilot friends told me, though, that Jim was a perfectly safe pilot. In fact I was told that Jim was so experienced and so good a pilot that he probably could fly safely by sound alone and without either eye.
Once I went to the post office window to have a letter to Jim weighed and stamped. The man at the counter looked at the front of the envelope, looked at me, looked back at the envelope, and said, ‘This is a really, really good man.’ I agreed. People all over north Georgia agreed, because Jim was always doing favors to and kindnesses for all sorts of folks.
Jim was a friend of Bill, and he told me that if he knew anything in the world it was drunks. He took me to a few open Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. I was enthralled by the speakers and their drunkalogs. Every parish priest should go to at least a few AA meetings to learn about drunks and, more generally, to learn about the human soul, the human capacity for self-deception, and the power of grace. I have found that AA members often make the very best of parishioners. They understand sin and redemption and the daily walk not by sight but by faith.
Jim’s mother, Lonnie Hudson, came to live with him her final few years. She was a good old mountain woman. I visited her regularly after her move. Her religious background was an amalgam of fundamentalism and Pentecostalism, supplemented by attention to some not terribly scrupulous television preachers. Nonetheless, Lonnie was always seemed glad for a visit from me. In her final days she joined the parish and received the last sacraments. I enjoyed those visits on their own merits, but was also glad that by caring for Jim’s mother I could in a small way repay a little of his abundant kindnesses to me and the parish. Counting Lonnie, the Hudsons became a three generation ACC family, since Jim’s daughter, Elaine, also joined the parish in its early days and was a faithful member until her own death.
To my sorrow I was in New Zealand when Jim died in 2010. Father Foggin took the funeral. It sounded splendid. Several judges spoke. The Steerman flew over the graveyard, and everybody sang, of course, ‘I’ll Fly Away’.