Eulogy for Judge William Augustus "Gus" Bootle Given by Mercer President R. Kirby Godsey
Saturday, January 29, 2005
We gather together here amidst the stained glass of First Baptist Church to offer a tribute to our friend, our colleague, our mentor, and our counselor, Judge William Augustus Bootle. Words are frail. Language cannot convey the depth of human sentiment that gathers here.
Virtually every person here has been changed or affected in indelible ways by the presence of Gus Bootle. Some have loved him as a father and grandfather. Some have been his students and law clerks, learning of his gift of language, his precision with words, inspired by his consummate wisdom. Some have been colleagues as faculty and trustees, as jurists and administrators, tutored by his judicious hand. All of us have been influenced not only by his words so well crafted and inspiring, but even more by his gentle spirit that seemed to embrace the worth and the wonder of every person.
Our souls are yet stirred by the echoes of his strong voice. Gus Bootle affected the destiny of all of our institutions. He was a person whose views were not driven by some grandiose philosophical framework. He was more direct. He was compelled simply to do the right thing. Swayed not by political correctness or theoretical abstractions, he was prepared to set aside a mountain of tradition in the service of doing what was right.
Judge Bootle cared deeply about the law. He cared about the high calling of the Courts and all who carry out the systems of justice in our land. In his own manner as well as his thoughtful judgments, he raised our understanding of human responsibility. He provided a higher standard by which to measure right and wrong.
Gus Bootle was a man of faith. From time to time I have been known to teach the Sunday School class of which Judge Bootle was a member. Always inquisitive, always probing the unexpected, Gus Bootle had remarkable insight into human character and the meaning of Christian discipleship. He was devout without dismissing those who followed other traditions of belief. He was pious without being condescending. Gus Bootle was a deeply earnest man of faith.
Surely, you will indulge my saying that Gus Bootle was a Mercer man. In the language of the University, Gus Bootle was a "Master Mercerian." The mark of his leadership is embedded deeply in the history of Mercer and his voice and his insight will be one of the enduring lights for Mercer's future. Gus Bootle knew Mercer University up close. He walked the terraces of its campus. He learned from its springs of knowledge. He worshipped in its hallowed sanctuary, labored in its fields of teaching. He was mentor to his colleagues on the Board and has been a persistent reservoir of wisdom for all of us who have walked alongside him.
Judge Bootle spoke regularly each year during the first week of Mercer's orientation of first-year law students. No doubt when this stately gentleman of 90+ years entered the large tiered classroom, most of these students were prepared courteously and respectfully to endure a recitation of a legal statesman long since out of touch with their concerns. Within minutes each year, these L-1students were captured motionless by the wisdom, the grace, the insight, and the humor of this statesman of the law. They were one by one lifted from their pedestrian ways, inspired to begin their pursuit of a legal career with a deeper commitment to respect for the law and a more enduring appreciation of the nobility and wonder of the profession they were about to enter.
For twenty-five years he was counselor to me, as well as his fellow members of the Board at Mercer. He served five terms on Mercer's Board and then became a lifetime trustee, one of only two lifetime trustees at the time of his death. But he was not only my counselor. He was counselor to Presidents Rufus Harris, to George Connell, to Spright Dowell, and even to Rufus Weaver. He lived through these presidencies and made each of us better leaders. While he was fiercely independent, he was also doggedly loyal. He served as a life Trustee of the Walter F. George Foundation, a foundation which serves Mercer's Law School and which was established largely with Coca-Cola stock and the good will of Mr. George Woodruff. In our Foundation Board meetings, if the question was ever raised, which it periodically was, about the possible sale of Coke stock, he swiftly and persuasively argued that such an idea was imprudent and unwarranted. His viewpoint always, without exception, prevailed. His views were, in part, informed by a wise market perspective. But his views were, more importantly, a reflection of his loyal devotion and respect for the beneficent spirit of the benefactor, Mr. George Woodruff and the Woodruff Foundations. Such loyalty is not commonplace today. Today we are far more driven by expediency and the interests of the moment. Gus Bootle was a man who lived his life taking the longer look. He could see farther than most. He lived longer than most. And, in all candor, he embodied more loyalty and integrity than most.
This gathering of family and friends and colleagues is itself a tribute to the life and character of Gus Bootle. He was not an ordinary figure yet he never took himself or his labors to be extraordinary. He was always at ease with himself, carrying his responsibilities without fanfare or trumpets, relating to others with trust and respect, all of which was, of course, a part of what made him extraordinary. With Gus Bootle, there was no shadow of pretense. He was an ordinary man with extraordinary gifts and he helped mold the conscience of a generation.
When someone who is large in our lives and in our histories leaves us, we are inevitably put off balance. Certainly we knew that Judge Bootle, even with all of his strength and wisdom, could not walk among us and touch our lives in person forever. But knowing that in our minds does not compare to the actual experience of his absence. We feel today profoundly the absence of his spontaneous good humor. We feel the absence of his wise and caring counsel. We feel the absence of his deep, strong, voice advising us, the absence of the insight which he could frame in such poignant ways. His absence leaves a void, making us aware that our history, our personal histories, our social histories, our legal histories, indeed the history of our nation have the indelible imprint of one man who proudly announced that he was born in Round 0, South Carolina, who walked into the halls of Mercer University and before he left its hallways changed the course of the University, who entered the practice of law and before he laid down the mantle of serving the canons of justice, transformed the nature of our society. There is only one Judge William Augustus Bootle, but in the wisdom of Almighty God, we needed only one.
It has been said that Aristotle was the last man who knew everything. Gus Bootle may be the only person I have known to constitute a serious challenge to that footnote of history. Judge Bootle, it seemed, both knew and could do everything. His talents were so wide-ranging. For example, he was a hunter. Now, I am not hunter enough to hurt. At least when I hunt, the birds have pretty good odds. Nevertheless, on some anniversary of my being president, Judge Griffin Bell and a few other trustees decided that any respectable college president needed a shotgun. So, at the end of the annual meeting, they presented me with this elegant shotgun, broken down in this elaborate case. Judge Bell and David Hudson, both hunters, began to put the gun together and to their slight embarrassment, couldn't manage to get it together. Judge Bootle, 95 years of age, arose from his chair, walked to the front of the room and promptly snapped the barrel and the stock in place. It only required someone who knew what he was doing. One other story about Judge Bootle as a hunter. He had one of the world's finest shotguns, made in England. It's called a "Purdy." Having determined that the gun was in need of some repair, Judge Bootle sent it to its manufacturer in London. The company promptly acknowledged receipt of the gun and said it was being placed in the queue for repair, though he should expect it to take 3 years before the repairs might be completed. Judge Bootle wrote them back saying, "in light of the fact of my 95 years, perhaps you should simply return my gun." They wrote him immediately saying, "In the light of your age, your shotgun is being placed at the head of the queue."
This story reminds me that every person's life is a story. There are no uninteresting stories and certainly there are no unimportant stories. Judge Bootle's story is more interesting and more important than most. Born in 1902 in Schlee Swamp, near Round O, near Walterboro, South Carolina, Judge Bootle spoke of having inherited his deep voice from the rich bass voice of his Dad. He lived on a farm where his Dad supplemented their farm income by hiring himself and his mule out to a nearby sawmill to assist in logging operations. His family migrated to high ground from the swamp, near Hendersonville, South Carolina. That's South Carolina, not North Carolina, where his father went into the sawmill business on his own. Judge Bootle finished the fifth grade there. In 1917, the elder Bootle moved the family to Nashville, Georgia, and a year later on to Reidsville where his Papa was the superintendent of a large sawmill. In 1920, Gus Bootle became a student at Mercer University, receiving an A.B. degree in 1924 and a law degree in 1925. In 1928, he was appointed U.S. Attorney and in 1933, he became Acting Dean of the Law School. In 1954 Gus Bootle was appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to serve as U.S. District Judge. The rest, as they say, is history, or more appropriately, the rest was the making of history and no history-making event more remarkable or more memorable than when he ordered the integration of the University of Georgia in 1961.
Judge Bootle was once introduced with an abundant fanfare that concluded, "Ladies and Gentlemen, please join me in welcoming a great American, Judge William Augustus Bootle." With a gleeful chuckle, Judge Bootle told me that on the quiet ride home he turned to Virginia and asked, "Virginia, how many great Americans do you think there are?" She paused and replied, "I don't rightly know, Gus, but probably one less than you may think." Dear Virginia, his true beloved, Blues singer and player of jazz, may this once have been wrong. I believe that Gus Bootle may indeed have set the standard and embodied the essence of what it means to be a Great American.