UPDATE: Houston grateful for friends, portrait unveiled for retirement

By Patsy R. Brumfield / Daily Journal

ABERDEEN – Distinguished friends praised longtime U.S. bankruptcy Judge David W. Houston III today on the eve of his retirement.

(Below is a running account of the afternoon ceremony at the Thad Cochran U.S. Bankruptcy Courthouse alongside Old Highway 45 in Aberdeen. Please excuse the typos and glitches likely as I type rapidly. Some of this will be paraphrases, too.)
1:56 – Judge Houston, his wife Debbie, take their seats in packed courtroom as the crowd awaits entry of official ceremony participants and other judges. Four rows of court staff in their seats, too.
2:00 – Officials file in, take their seats. Chief District Judge Michael P. Mills presides. The Rev. Sylvia Czarnetsky, former rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Aberdeen, offers the invocation. Among others in audience, U.S. Attorney Felicia C. Adams, and Houston’s successor, Jason Woodard of Birmingham, Ala.
Ladies ensemble presents patriotic medley and National Anthem.
MILLS – Introduces special guests. Thanks ensemble. Welcomes crowd to the proceedings, or “public hanging” of portrait of Young David Houston, as I first knew him. Says to hold applause until after he introduces guests, to help ceremony move along and “will avoid comparison.” (crowd laughs.) Judges Grady Jolly and Leslie Southwick from 5th Circuit Court of Appeals are sitting on dais with Mills. Among judges, district judges Sharion Aycock, Neal B. Biggers and Glen H. Davidson. Several bankruptcy and magistrate judges. Lots of out-of-state bankruptcy judges from New Jersey to Tennessee and Florida, and several points in between.
Introduces state court judges, chancellors, circuit judges, including Fred Wicker of Pontotoc. Social Security judges, federal court personnel. Woodard and wife, Stephanie. MC College Law School Dean Rosenblatt.
INTROS JUDGE JULIA GIBBONS, U.S. Court of Appeals, 6th Circuit (She is a longtime friend of Houston and was instrumental in getting approval to build the courthouse in which the ceremony takes place.) She’s on Judicial Budget Committee.
GIBBONS – Truly honored by Houston to say a few words, bittersweet occasion. You may wonder why a non-Mississippi judge has to him, not even in 5th Circuit. My primary connection is that he and I have served on the Budget Committee for the past 9 years. A lot of fun for me to be here. Seen a lot of old friends, Mississippi judges, others. A tribute to you, David, who are here today. This is extraordinary. Also fun to unveil the portrait. Jason Bouldin did my portrait for the district court some years ago. He worked on it, I talked. Looking forward to the unveiling.
To talk about David Houston, have to talk about budget committee – for U.S. judiciary on annual basis and to advocate to Congress for funding we need. When I joined committee, Houston was already there. He’s been on since 1997 and is longest serving committee member. Already knew him from another committee. Knew I could rely on Houston to be gracious. After ayear on panel, I became its chair. More and more appreciate Houston’s service there.
Doing our work, we msut work with legislative branch. No one is better than Houston. He knows how to stay in touch and he has the right touch. How to communicate judiciary’s needs. He is convincing. Very best advocate I know. Past several years, he’s chair budget’s out-reach committee – referred to as Get the Money Committee. His leadership has been critical for adequate appropriations.
Houston has been a leader in national bankruptcy conference, its president and on its board and its legislative chair. In 2003, received its Distinguished Service Award. All the time, he was doing this extra work, he had a busy docket. MS Bar Assn recognized him last year with its Judicial Excellence Award. Through years, we’ve gotten to know each other. Surprised he was born in New York, didn’t stay there long. Recognized his grounding and stability from living up to his community’s respect. Heard great stories from his years in FBI. Loyal husband and father.
When try to sum him up, words are common sense, good judgment and effective communicaiton. He just knows how to do things that many folks don’t know how. He does them so well, without pretense. When realized he’d be here without a role, a reflection of what a humble person he is. Many of us have trouble shedding the trappings of office. Here he is, choosing to sit with his family without a robe, just as he is. Essence of the kind of person people are glad to see coming.
I’m so glad to have had a chance to work with you. We will miss you. Wish you the very best in your endeavors.
MILLS – Intro Sen. Hob Bryan. Honored to have you here. Intros Ed Ellington.
JUDGE ED ELLINGTON – chief judge of Southern District Bankruptcy Court.
ELLINGTON – First acknowledged the obvious. Saw Cochran’s name and here I am. Was asked to speak because Cochran couldn’t attend. Like if you go to opera for Pavorotti, then out walks Tiny Tim with his ukelele. I’m honored to be asked to speak about my good friend and colleague.
Family has been devoted to practice of law for generations. His bedrock, explains his remarkable career. Over 29 years, has been a remarkable judge. His tenure is far more complex. Champion of the bankruptcy court. It was constituted in the late 1970s. Established as we know it in 1980s, when David came to bench. Active in wide professional organizations. How he has put up with all that travel through Atlanta, I don’t know. It might have affected his mind.
He’s got a unique ability to work with Congress and staff, and not get indicted doing it. On personal level, I will never be able to adquately be able to thank him for all the help he has given me. He’s always been there for me. I had little practical experience about bankruptcy. Often talked to him. He’s been willing to do the hard work of preparation and deal with mediation. David somehow gets them to settle. I’m really going to miss that talent.
He’s been a really good friend. On lighter note, every diamond has its flaws. We’ll leave out some of those. From days of linebacker at Ole Miss, to ROTC commands and FBI arrests. We can’t cover all that. But, his one outstanding contribution – when he was president, he had national conference meet in Toronto, Canada, to spread our southern culture – he persuaded Jason Dean Williams, Jerry Lee’s son, to come and entertain. We still remember. He put the yeast in the dough for our system.
FELICIA ADAMS – (Asks Houston to come forward) Presents him with a plaque in honor of his career and appreciation. Also, a hat. God bless you and your lovely family.
BILL CANTY, FROM COCHRAN’S OFFICE – (To read a letter from Cochran) He’s trapped up there and don’t know if he’ll get out for Christmas. (letter) Unfortuately, Senate business has kept me in Washington. My home and heart are in Mississippi. The two of us go back a long way together. Spoke at your investiture in 1983. Presided over remarkable changes in the practice of bankruptcy law and proceedings. Reputation for competence and fairness. This beautiful courthouse will be lasting legacy for your time in the judicial system. Best to you and Debbie in the years ahead.
MILLS – I came here in 1980, heard about Big David Houston, other lawyers in Aberdeen. Then heard about Little David, as he was known then. Those men created a standard of ethics and professionalism in a small town – like to think we were products of it. Also L.T. Senter, other fine lawyers.
DAVID PUDDISTER, COURT CLERK – to introduce the artist.
PUDDISTER – Jason Bouldin, Clarksdale native. (Goes through Bouldin’s resume, BA from Harvard and formal studio training from his father, Marshall III.) Portraits hang in wide range of places from Harvard to USDA and MS Capitol, London and U.S. courthouses. Worked with Jason on this project.
BOULDIN – (He looks more like a lawyer than an artist.) Real pleasure to be here today. Honor to be in the proceedings. Distinct honor to paint Houston’s portrait. Asked to describe the image and introduce the man, explain what’s going on in the painting. Two paths for an artist – first, to show something of the office for the person, other is to paint something of the individual who animates that office, who breathes like into that office. In the painting, we have series of visual cues. Paintings don’t have words. This is not like a long biography. It’s a brief art form. Artist relies on visual cues to intimate things about his or her subject.
On professional side, visual cues are noteworthy – robe of office, standing in comfortable but solid position. In left hand, pen and pad – indicating the work of the court. But like seeing it in his hand in this world of technology, he prefers to take notes by hand.
Other images, about person, robes are left open so we can see the person beneath the robe, person animating the robes. Familiar red and blue tie, loyalty to University of Mississippi and to all athletic teams there. (Little laugh by audience.) Glance of a wedding ring, suggests ties beyond the court. More than anything else, notice his face, his countenance. Others are secondary.
The face is the center of our interest in the portrait. To be recognizable, but also of intangible of personality, likeness of character. Hope you will recognize him, but someone who is positive, affable, approachable, fair and thoughtful. BAckground is light, matching of light shed in the courtroom. Light Houston brings to cases before it.
During initial sittings, saw him in this courtroom. Witnessed someone full of respect for lives of those before him. Full of respect for the law. Saw someone who understands himself of service to parties and to the law. Hallmarks of his tenure.
Judge MILLS AND HOUSTON, privilege to play a part in the visual history of the court.
DEBBIE HOUSTON – to help unveil the portrait. (2:52 p.m.) They pull cover off. Applause from audience.
DAVID HOUSTON – (Takes podium) May it please the court, haven’t said that in a long time. Thank you Jason for a job well done. Pleasure to know you and look forwardt o our friendship for many years. Accept portrait. Looks like I’ve got a secret, may tell you or maybe not. Direct it to be hung in this courtroom for as long as it can.
At any rate, my remarks are a series of thank yous to people important to me and my career on the bench. First, introduce you to my family – wife, Debbie, appreciate her help and support, unbelievable. Many nights and weekends, working at home. She’s put up with me, I thank her so much. (Intros children and spouses, children.) (Wife, Debbie, is wiping her eyes.) (Remarks one child is David V – says Houstons get in a rut and stay there.) Also some of their friends, other relatives.
Introduces my second family, the court family. (Intros staff) Somebody very important to me, my judicial assistant, Lisa Cox for 32 years. Law clerk. Also court security officers. Another important person, in raising money for this portrait, Terre Vardaman. Thanks to everyone who donated to this project, wouldn’t have been done without you.
Thanks to our speaker, Julia Gibbons. (Husband Bill) She is our leader, most valuable player in the judicial, she would get my vote. To Ed Ellington – called on short notice to speak for Sen. Cochran… who has a lot of important things to work on like the Fiscal Cliff. Ed, you get pinch-hitter of the year. Thank you.
Thanks to Mike Mills for presiding. Followed the script pretty well. Thanks to 5th Circuit judges and all district court people who are here today. Great spirit in this court. It was a team effort to get this building in Aberdeen. Lot of cooperation between 5th Circuit, district court and bankruptcy court. So important for all levels to work together. We are in very trying times. Also, my buds from all over the country – they came on their own nickel. You honor me with your presence. Thank you.
Seems like it was only a few weeks ago that I was trying a case in Abernathy Building in District Court with Presiding Judge L.T. Senter Jr. He called me in and asked if I would like to be the next bankruptcy judge. My dad had just passed away. My other partner had indicated he wanted to scale back, so I accepted it. Amazing that it happened in spring 1983, almost 30 years ago, almost three decades. They have flown by. Not often do you get to sing with the Temptations. They were our headline act in Toronto. At least I knew the words to “My Girl.” Others said, don’t give up your day job.
Your presence today means the world to me. You people mean the world to me. I’m going to miss this job, but I’m going to be around. Look forward to continuing our relationship. Will treasure this occasion and experience more than you will know.
Return program to you, your honor. 3:06 p.m. (Crowd rises, applauds.)
* READ story in Wednesday’s Daily Journal.