Nearing the end of his third term as a Chancery Court Judge, Talmadge Littlejohn died unexpectedly Monday night in New Albany, after a brief illness. He had celebrated his 80th birthday only a few days earlier, and had presided over a session in his court earlier on the day he died.
Littlejohn’s career as an attorney, civic leader and elected official in North Mississippi spanned more than a half century. Early in his career he served in the state legislature as a state representative and then as a state senator for Union County. While in the legislature, he introduced a bill providing that New Albany’s New Haven Center be funded from Union County tax revenue, and was instrumental in getting that bill passed into law.
Having served as a district Attorney and as a New Albany municipal judge, he ran for the United States Congress in 1996, losing in the runoff election for the Democratic nomination. Littlejohn was elected a Chancery Court judge in 2003, was re-elected twice and was about to be elected without opposition for his fourth term as chancellor.
Tuesday was a day for reminiscing about Talmadge Littlejohn, for friends to retell favorite anecdotes about his long and eventful life.
His daughter, Christy Littlejohn Adair, said Tuesday, “Everything he did was to provide for his wife, children and grandchildren. He had a wonderful sense of humor, yet he knew how to be strict and provide discipline when we needed it. We never doubted his love for us. He always had our back.”
Littlejohn was a noted scholar of the Bible, the law, history and all things pertaining to Mississippi. He was also among the best Mississippi story tellers of his generation, blessed with a remarkable memory, a flawless sense of timing, and an unrivaled supply of stories–most, but not all of them, funny, and about Mississippi politics and politicians. Like most great raconteurs, he also enjoyed hearing stories, especially funny ones. He could always tell when the gag line was coming: his brow would furrow a little, he would start to grin, then laugh with unstinted joy at the punch-line.
He was also a talented orator on matters not so funny. Many will recall his blunt and timely speech a little more than six weeks ago, during the Patriot Day ceremony at the Cine’ Theater, during which he excoriated “the proposed deal with Iran, selling out to a little wart of a nation sworn to destroy the United States.” No ambiguity. No doubt about what he believed.
During a half-century of practicing law, Littlejohn mentored dozens of young lawyers.
New Albany attorney Bill Rutledge recalled learning from Littlejohn as a young attorney in the 1970s:
He was the District Attorney. As the county prosecuting attorney, I was assisting him with a case involving robbery with a knife. I interviewed our main witness about identifying the knife, so Talmadge let me question that witness in front of the jury.
When I asked the witness to identify the knife, he replied, “Nope. I never seen that knife before.”
I didn’t know what to do. I was green as a gourd and it showed. I thought Talmadge would explode.
He was very careful about who he let me question in the future.
Circuit Judge Jim Roberts of Pontotoc, a former Mississippi supreme court judge who was Public Safety Commissioner 1984-1988, said Littlejohn had “been a mentor to me from the time I started practicing law. He always ran an honorable court.” Roberts said, “I had known him since 1960 and quite well since 1970 or 1971.”
In 1960 I was a page working in the state legislature in Jackson. Talmadge was the brand new state representative from Union County, and W. T. Potter was the representative from Pontotoc County. Representative Potter, another page and I were to ride to Jackson with Talmadge. He picked us up early one Monday morning in his 1954 Chevrolet sedan, and we headed to Jackson.
About where the Ross Barnett Reservoir is now, Talmadge’s car ran out of gasoline. From then on he delighted in telling everyone he ran out of gas because of my excess weight. Said he had not realized how much more gasoline it would take to get to Jackson because of me being in his car.
The fact is that I was then only 14 years old and weighed only 140 pounds. However, I grew to over six feet tall and about 300 pounds, so he always teased me, said it was my fault his Chevy ran out of gas that morning 55 years ago.
Roberts recalled that, “Talmadge and (New Albany attorney) Steve Livingston and I were always teasing each other, especially aggravating one another about our physical characteristics.”
A stanch Southern Baptist, Chancellor Littlejohn was notably uncompromising in his opposition to the consumption of alcohol. Judge Roberts recalled a case while Littlejohn was municipal judge in New Albany:
I had a client who was arrested on an alcohol charge. I told the fellow that, in front of Talmadge Littlejohn, I would rather defend him for murder than for DUI.
Talmadge Littlejohn was a member of First Baptist Church in New Albany. In addition to one sister, Ivy Weeden, he is survived by his wife, Julia Gray Littlejohn, three children and six grandchildren: Lisa Littlejohn Gault (Phil) and their children, Phillip, Justin and Katie Allison, of Hartselle, AL; Christy Littlejohn Adair (Avery) of New Albany; Bradley Littlejohn (Morgan) and their children Julianne, Gray and Ivy, of New Albany.
Visitation and funeral for Talmadge Littlejohn will be at the First Baptist Church in New Albany. Visitation is Thursday, October 29th from 4 to 8 p.m. and again Friday at 10 a.m. Chancellor Littlejohn’s funeral will be at 11 a.m. Friday.