The Great Ray

The Great Ray Jenkins

“If you walk into a crowded room, Ray Jenkins will be taller than anybody else, have the heaviest head of crewcut hair, look you straighter in the eye,
speak with more authority, throw a more irresistible grin, kiss more women, crush more bones with his handshake, know what you are thinking regardless of what you are saying, or be quicker to do you a favor.”

— The late Andrew Holt, President Emeritus of the University of Tennessee,
from The Terror of Tellico Plains, published in 1978 by the East Tennessee Historical Society.

No lawyer better illustrates the transition in jury trials from dynamic oratory to diligent preparation through extensive research better than the fabled Ray Howard Jenkins, a man based in his Knoxville law firm but renown throughout Tennessee for his extraordinary skills in the courtroom (retired attorney Bob Campbell, an occasional adversary, recently exaggerated this point, “If you wanted to hide the law from Ray, put it in a lawbook”). At the height of Ray’s legal career and with a background of unprecedented success, he stepped competently and colorfully onto the national stage in what some newspapers, during the first term of the Eisenhower administration, described as the worst scandal of the 1950s.

The son of a physician, Ray was born in North Carolina, but his family soon moved to Tellico Plains in Monroe County. At a time when there were no other motorized vehicles in his community, Ray took his father’s “lizzie” one night without permission to visit a girlfriend. He wrecked on his way home and, fearful of the consequences, caught a freight train to Knoxville before Dr. Jenkins found out. On the next day his father discovered his son’s whereabouts and brought him back home. Ray was able to finish at his tiny high school, graduating in a 1916 class of three. His streak of independence undeterred by the incident with the “lizzie,” Ray soon joined the Army — without the knowledge of his parents — in hopes of being a part of an expeditionary force assembled to capture bandit Pancho Villa in Texas. Ordered to Nashville for training, Ray was eventually assigned to a small town near the Mexican border where he was promoted to the rank of sergeant. One evening, as a drunken soldier resentful of Ray’s authority attacked him with a knife, this future legal icon attempted to defend himself by breaking a bottle of ink on the soldier’s forehead. An aide intervened, shooting Ray’s assailant through the tongue. When those involved chose to maintain silence about the incident, the entire company was court martialed. In the ensuing trial, Ray chose to represent himself. He and his men resorted to a theory of defense Ray later used time and time again: “When a bully has been shot or killed, paint him so mean that a jury will want to shoot him again!” The panel exonerated Ray and his aide, ruling the incident to be a clear case of self-defense. 

 Shortly after Villa was captured, Ray left the Army and enrolled at the University of Tennessee College of Law. Fate intervened when the United States entered World War I. “Dreaming of glory and a life around the world on a battleship,” he joined the Navy and trained in San Diego. Despite extensive training, Ray conceded that he “never boarded so much as a canoe.” When Germany’s Kaiser surrendered, Dr. Jenkins used his influence to secure his son’s release from the military. Ray’s next stop was back at the law school. Working his way through, he passed the bar exam well before graduating with honors in 1920. After earning his shingle, he worked with attorney Alvin Johnson for two years, investing long hours in his practice and earning recognition by his oratorical gifts in even the most minor cases. “A fiery, impassioned speech is the best way on earth for a young lawyer to advertise,” he wrote years later in his book of memoirs.

Once on his own, Ray’s first of some six hundred homicide cases took place near his hometown in Monroe County. After receiving what was then a standard fee of $500, Ray was confronted by his father who threw down five $100 bills and insisted that he withdraw from representation. Ray declined, explaining that he was bound by his agreement. In a case described by one mountaineer as the “worst killing I ever saw in these parts,” the prosecution sought the death penalty. While conceding his client’s responsibility for the heinous crime, Ray’s emotional, biblically based plea during final argument saved the life of the remorseful defendant. 

 After decades in the practice of criminal defense and in contrast to the fictional Perry Mason who “never lost a case,” Ray’s more modest claim of notoriety was that he had never lost a client to the death penalty, conceding that several, including the defendant in his very first homicide case, spent considerable time in Tennessee’s prisons.

In 1927, Ray partnered with the talented Erby Jenkins, not related, to establish the firm of Jenkins and Jenkins. As their law practice grew, Erby’s brother Aubrey joined the partnership and, later, Fred Musick, Ted Lowe, and others came on board. Meanwhile, Ray, in high demand, was called upon to represent several high-profile cases in the Knoxville community with remarkably good results, like grocer-politician-local TV country music host 

Cas Walker and, of course, the glamorous madam, Hazel Davidson. His first foray into the national news involved his representation of an aging Ed McNew, a sickly bail bondsman who had a history of behind the scenes influence in local political races. As McNew stepped out of his downtown office one day, a professional photographer aimed his camera in his direction. Immediately, the bondsman drew his weapon and shot at him, thankfully missing his target. The photograph later appeared in the popular Time magazine. When the case came to trial, Ray had little to argue in defense except for “every man’s right to privacy.” When the trial judge suggested an adjournment after a long day of testimony, Ray, seeking “brownie points” with the jury, offered to waive what is known as the “rule of sequestration,” which would have allowed the jurors to go home rather than stay the night at a cheap hotel. The photographer stood to strenuously object, angering the jury members who would have much preferred sleeping in their own beds. On the next day, the irritated jurors returned a verdict of acquittal on the attempted murder charge, notwithstanding the photo, convicting McNew of a lesser offense, resulting in only a fine and probation. 

That Ray Jenkins possessed a huge personality is a vast understatement. With an unparalleled air of self-confidence, “He could often take over a courtroom, including the judge,” according to John Gill. A master of developing relationships with the various clerks’ offices, rumor has it that he would arrange with a clerk to be last on the docket late on an afternoon, fill the room with friends and family of his client, put on a couple of witness in defense of the charge, and then ask the judge if he (no she in his day) would like to hear from his many other favorable witnesses present. Sometimes the tactic persuaded an exhausted judge to decline the offer and dismiss the charge.

Ray, fully aware of his giant reputation with the bench and bar, was always overly complimentary to both his prosecutorial adversary and the judge. One hundred-year-old Joe Duncan, a premier trial judge in the Knox County Criminal Court in the 1960s and 1970s, recalled presiding over a hearing involving a difficult question of law. Needing to do some independent research on the issue, Judge Duncan announced that he would take the matter under advisement. Ray stood to complement the judge as the “world’s greatest on taking matters under advisement.” Realizing that the expression of the good judge indicated that he did not perceive the “high praise” as necessarily favorable, Ray quickly recovered, “I apologize, your honor” while flashing his famous grin, “I don’t think I meant to say that!” As court adjourned for the day, the judge, the prosecution, and all assembled left the courtroom with smiles on their faces.

Late in his career and very early in mine, Ray arranged to meet Bob Ogle, my senior law partner, in Sevierville, who had associated Ray as his co-counsel in several cases over the years. Word spread throughout the office that Ray would arrive at our back door at noon. Eager to meet the legal icon, I rushed to his point of entry at least ten minutes early. Three of our veteran female legal assistants were already waiting in line to receive a kiss on the cheek, what I later learned was a customary practice. Such was reputation of this legal icon.

As Ray’s stature continued to climb, prospective clients were eager to pay previously unheard-of fees in order to secure his services. Moreover, lawyers throughout East Tennessee often associated Ray in their own cases with the knowledge that their portion of a shared fee would exceed their normal charges. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, attorney and friend Clyde Key, who had benefitted by such joint representations, once quipped, “I should love Ray because he taught lawyers how to charge a fee, but ‘my hatred’ stems from our successful defense of a beautiful young lady in Criminal Court. When the jury announced a verdict of not guilty, she threw her arms around my neck, but kissed Ray! I have had no respect for him since.”

National prominence knocked more conspicuously on Ray’s door in 1954 at the height of the “Red Scare.” The notorious communist hater Senator Joe McCarthy, then chairman of the United States subcommittee on governmental operations, charged that he had given Robert Stevens, Secretary of the Army, a list of “34 subversives, communists, alcoholics, and homosexuals” working for the army at a sensitive radar plant at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. He charged that Stevens had done nothing about it. Stevens countered that McCarthy and his lawyer had subverted his office by insisting on special favors for a lowly private, pointing to 65 phone calls and 19 personal visits from McCarthy or his lawyer. The thrust of these charges was that Stevens granted these special favors in return for McCarthy’s forbearance on a public investigation of those alleged “subversives” under Stevens’ supervision. The hearings were to be aired by the national television networks. The Republican majority on the committee assigned to hear the dispute needed an attorney. So did the Democratic minority. Respected Republican Senator Everett Dirkson, well acquainted with Congressman Howard Baker, Sr., had become the father-in-law of Howard Baker, Jr. The Bakers and Knoxville attorney Bruce Foster recommended Ray for the job. The Democrats hired young Robert F. Kennedy, later named the Attorney General in 1961.

Ray recalled his reaction to the selection: “I was suddenly catapulted into national prominence, with my picture emblazoned on every major newspaper in the nation.” Charged with developing truthful facts without favor to either Stevens or McCarthy, Ray viewed his role as representing “the American people.” Cross-examining with equal vigor each of the men charged with misconduct, Ray not only earned bipartisan praise from the committee members but also the national media. As the evidence began to establish improprieties by both McCarthy and Stevens, President Eisenhower, as Commander-in- Chief, intervened with an Executive Order that served to effectively terminate the proceedings — without a formal conclusion from the investigating committee. 

Afterward, Ray heaped great praise on the performance of Kennedy, whom he had befriended, and later stated that he agreed with Kennedy’s minority report, which was critical of both Stevens and McCarthy. Of importance, however, a Gallup poll gave Ray Jenkins the highest rating of any of the individuals involved in the process. His photograph, depicting his cropped reddish hair and ruddy face, appeared prominently on the cover of Life magazine – his legendary status secured.

Reverend Dan Matthews, who later reached prominence as Rector at the Trinity Episcopal Church on Wall Street in New York City, wrote of Ray when serving in his ministry at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Knoxville. His words serve as a benediction for this remarkable man: “When we meet people of acknowledged stature, we sense in their presence a glimpse of what it is to be great. When I am with Ray, I feel my own heritage affirmed. In being his own man, he helps me to be mine.” Ray died the day after Christmas in 1980 at the age of 83.  

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