William Henry Duckworth was the third of ten children born to John Francis (called Jack) and Laura Jane Noblet Duckworth. He was born on the Duckworth farm just east of Old Liberty Baptist Church, Choestoe, where his grandparents, General Jackson and Celia Emaline Collins Duckworth had lived. His birthday was October 21, 1894. Grover Cleveland was serving his second term as twenty-fourth president of the United States. Times were hard. A depression was sweeping the country (not the Great Depression of three decades later, but a time when many were without work and the economy was shaky). The Duckworth family on Choestoe had food grown on their farm, and like their neighbors, managed the best they could.
When Henry was fifteen years of age, his father, Jack, met an untimely death in a shooting match near his home on December 10, 1910 at the hands of a cousin, Jeptha Collins. Henry’s mother, Laura Noblet Duckworth, was left to rear eight children (two had died in infancy). By sheer determination and hard work, Laura Duckworth was able to see the eight children turn into fine, productive citizens.
William Henry Duckworth got his early education in the one-teacher schools in Choestoe. A bright lad, he was invited by Dr. Joseph A. Sharp, then president of Young Harris College, to take a job working there to help defray his tuition. A great uncle of Henry’s, Francis Marion Duckworth, who, with his wife, Nancy Davis Duckworth had taken Henry’s mother into their home to rear when she was a small child, loaned the young student some money for college. In 1917, William Henry Duckworth graduated from Young Harris with honors. Later in his life he would ardently support the college through donations and service. The library at the college is named Duckworth Library, honoring William Henry and his brother, James Lon, also a lawyer.
During World War I, Henry Duckworth joined the U. S. Navy where he served as an Ensign.
His desire to become a lawyer was not thwarted due to lack of finances to attend law school. He read law, a practice generally followed then, in the law office of his friend, E. D. Rivers. He took a correspondence course in law from LaSalle University, Chicago, where he earned the LL. B. degree in 1919. He successfully passed the bar examination. He went to south Georgia where he met and courted Willabel Pilcher, daughter of John Preston and Ida Singletary Pilcher. They were married July 2, 1922 in Thomas County. Three children were born to them: Dorothy, Mary and William Henry, Jr. He practiced law in Cairo, Georgia for several years.
He was elected senator from the 7th District of Georgia in 1931. This launched his career in state government. He successfully managed the gubernatorial candidacy for E. D. Rivers when he was elected Governor of Georgia. They had been classmates at Young Harris College.
He became assistant Attorney General of Georgia and served in that capacity during 1937-1938. He was hoping to be appointed to the next vacancy on the Georgia Supreme Court, only to be told by the incumbent governor that he was “too young” for the position. He ran for the position in a three-man race and won. From October 18, 1938 through January, 1956, he was an associate justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. He was presiding justice from January 1, 1947 through September 10, 1948 when he was installed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, a position he held until his death August 9, 1969.
Keeping his deep-seated integrity and his fearlessness, he wrote some noteworthy decisions in the annals of Georgia law. One was when Governor Eugene Talmadge died before taking office. The Georgia Legislature appointed Herman Talmadge, Eugene’s son, to become governor on the basis of a few hundred write-in votes. The two other contenders for the office of governor were incumbent Governor Ellis Arnall and Lieutenant Governor M. E. Thompson. Chief Justice Duckworth declared M. E. Thompson as the next governor by “majority opinion.” It was said to be the “most explosive” political decision up to that time in Georgia history.
Known for his intensive questioning and his search for truth, Supreme Court Justice Duckworth was adept at finding weak points in arguments and lack of evidence.
During the last sixteen years of his life, he suffered with and was treated for chronic leukemia. In 1953 he had a heart attack that slowed his work for several weeks while he recuperated. It was a heart attack that brought his demise on August 9, 1969.
He had fulfilled his youthful dreams of becoming a lawyer and a Georgia Supreme Court Justice. In 1955 he was elected as chairman of the National Conference of Chief Justices, made up of the top jurists from all the states of the union.
His pastor at Druid Hills Church, Decatur, the Rev. Louie D. Newton, sometimes known as the Dean of Georgia Baptist pastors, conducted his funeral at Spring Hill Chapel, Decatur, on Monday, August 11, 1969. Interment was at Decatur City Cemetery.
Another man went out from the hills of Union County and made his distinctive mark in history.
c2004 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published November 4, 2004 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.