by Bertha Jane Dunavant
Special to the Gazette-Virginian
April 11, 2003
(James S. Easley was one of Halifax County's most outstanding citizens. He was the grandfather of Jack Dunavant; therefore, I was fortunate to have known him and I admired him immensely. Having grown up in Mr. Easley's home, Jack was greatly influenced by his grandfather. He was a "statesman" in the finest sense of the word; and I dare say that it would be hard, if not impossible, to find anyone who did not like and admire him. I have always considered it a privilege to have known him and it is with pride that I share this biography. - BJD)
James Stone Easley was born in Halifax, Virginia on April 7, 1885, one of five children of Robert Holt Easley and Louisa Edmonia Gilmer Easley and he was a descendant of William H. Cabell, Governor of Virginia,1805-1808.
His family has been a part of Halifax County since the early 1800's. His grandfather, the first James S. Easley, was a partner of James Coles Bruce of Berry Hill in the mercantile business and they started the first "chain stores" in the county.
Mr. Easley and another partner, William W. Willingham, owned 400,000 acres of land in the Midwest during the mid 1850's.
After finishing school in Halifax, James Easley entered Virginia Military Institute in 1901 and graduated with honors in 1904 after only three years. At the age of nineteen he went to Toano, Virginia, a small village near Williamsburg, where he taught at Hickory Neck Academy for one year.
He entered the University of Virginia Law School and earned his law degree in 1907. In 1908, at the age of 23, he was appointed Examiner of Records for the City of Lynchburg and the counties of Mecklenburg, Lunenburg, Campbell and Halifax.
The following year he married Margaret Glen Kyle, daughter of Judge and Mrs. Hugh Graham Kyle of Rogersville, Tennessee. In 1912 they bought "Woodland", a beautiful Queen Ann-Victorian home built by Edmund Shaeffer of Lynchburg. Robert Holt Easley had sold 12 acres of land adjacent to his home on Mountain Road to Mr. Shaeffer in 1900 to build a summer home with the stipulation that should he decide to leave Halifax, he would sell the property back to Easley or his heirs.
Woodland was a large home built in the middle of the rolling acreage and surrounded by large original growth trees. The Virginia Historical Society believed that the stained glass windows in the house were some of the finest examples of Queen Ann-Victorian windows in the state. The property was purchased from the estate by Mr. Easley's grandson, Jack Dunavant in 1968. For the next six years he embarked upon a restoration project. Unfortunately, the old home burned to the ground in the early morning hours of November 21, 1974, leaving only the three, three-story chimneys standing. The present Dunavant home is built over the same basement. The original carriage house and stable still stand at the rear of the present house.
The Easleys had two daughters, Bertha Glen and Louise Gilmer. Bertha, who married Samuel Jackson Dunavant of Charlotte, North Carolina, was the mother of Jack Dunavant and James Dunavant. Louise married Paul C. Edmunds,III, and was the mother of Margaret DeJarnette, Gilmer Edmunds, Paula Preskett Henry Edmunds and Bee Espy.
Mr. Easley was chairman of War Bonds for Virginia in World War I. In 1918, at the age of thirtythree, he served one term in the General Assembly. From 1920 to 1929 he was Halifax County Commonwealth Attorney and in 1930 was elected to the State Senate. In 1933 he was a member of the State Constitutional Convention. He was a member of the Board of Directors of the State Chamber of Commerce in 1938-39 and its president for two terms after which he was an ex-officio member until 1950.
Mr. Easley also served as president of the State Bar Association from 1950-52. During the Second World War he was chairman of the War Finance Committee for the State of Virginia. He was one of the founders and a member of the Board of Managers of Halifax Community Hospital from its inception until his death. In 1956 he was the temporary chairman of the State Constitutional Convention. From 1941-1965 he was on the Board of Directors of Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company.
He served as president of the VMI Alumni Association and was a member of the VMI Board of Visitors and its president 1949- 1950. There were many in the state who wanted Mr. Easley to run for governor. He didn't run but served his county and state in many other ways.
Upon tendering his resignation as Commonwealth Attorney to the Court in 1929 to run for the Senate, Judge E. W. Hudgins said, "Mr. Easley, it is with sincere regret that I receive this resignation at your hand and I think it but fair to you and to the people of Halifax County to express to you the very high esteem in which you are held by the court.
Permit me, therefore, to say that during the three years I have presided over this court, I have watched you in the progress of criminal cases with much interest and have been impressed with the ability, the efficiency, the courtesy,and the fairness with which you have performed that duty. Since I have been on the bench I have been in a number of other circuits in Virginia, and, while comparisons are odious, I desire to state that in no Circuit Court or Corporation Court with which I have come in contact have I seen a more able, a more fearless, a more efficient or fairer prosecutor than you are."
During the years of the National Tobacco Festivals, he and Mrs. Easley entertained as many as 100 people at dinners in their home. Guests included movie actresses Martha Scott and Mary Pickford, Governor James Price, Postmaster General James Farley, Senators Harry Byrd, Sr. and Carter Glass and Ambassador David Bruce. General George C. Marshall, who was a friend and fellow cadet at VMI and the composer and pianist, John Powell, were also guests of the Easleys.
Mr. Easley believed that Patrick Henry was this nation's greatest patriot and called him "the greatest Apostle of Liberty". When he saw that Henry's home, Red Hill, near Brookneal was in ruins, he was appalled. The house had burned and the cemetery was overgrown and in disrepair. He urged the state to preserve the cemetery as a shrine, but his efforts were futile.
He sought help from the local and federal governments which also failed. He then took it upon himself to show Southside Virginia, the state and the nation that this was a worthwhile project and that Virginia could not let one of its great citizens' last resting place become forgotten.
He started to raise money to buy the property and preserve the cemetery and rebuild the house, law office and out buildings in 1944; and he was the Patrick Henry Memorial Foundation's president until his death in 1965. An off-shoot of the Foundation was Patrick Henry Boy's Plantation of which he was Vice- President.
That he was a patriot himself and fully aware of his responsibilities as a citizen of his state and nation is shown in his speeches. In remarks he made in May, 1944, as speaker at the dedication of a memorial plaque honoring citizens of Charlotte, County in the armed forces he said, "...To discharge our obligation to these men and women we must cherish the highest ideals of our nation and must not weary or let down with the coming of peace between the armed forces. Our fight to make of this country a place fit to honor those that have defended it with their lives must go on until we have set its course to meet its great destiny . It is fitting that here in historic Charlotte County whose sacred soil contain the ashes of the greatest Apostle of Liberty the world has yet seen, this dedication should take place. Henry's great apostrophe 'Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death' is the battle cry today of the allied armies, and in the smoke of burning cities, in the charred and broken bodies of innocent victims, ....the answer is being written for future generations to read. God, grant it may be settled for all time and that the spirit of men may be so free that tyranny can never again plague the world."
In giving an address to the graduating class at VMI during WW II he said . ..... . "There are today more questions of tremendous importance engaging the thoughts of men throughout the world than ever before... Our forefathers of the colonial period founded this nation on a new concept of liberty expressed in the Virginia Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and finally, in our Federal Constitution, which set us in the forefront among the nations of the earth, and our progress under that concept has amply proved their wisdom.
I believe that the greatest weaknesses we have shown in our development have come from the fact that we have been so engaged in enjoying the privileges which flowed from our liberty that we have faded to give sufficient thought to the obligations imposed on us as citizens to make our course conform to the original ideals.
If America is to take her rightful place of leadership in the world of tomorrow we must have an enlightened electorate who will shape the destiny of this country by a sound judgment freely expressed and not leave our destiny entirely in the hands of professional politicians who, in the absence of a sound public opinion, are often swayed by selfish minorities ......"
In 1955 Mr. Easley was the recipient of Halifax County's Man of the Year Award. On his receiving this honor, an editorial in the Halifax Gazette stated: "At the annual meeting of the State Chamber of Commerce (which was held at the Chamberlain Hotel) ... Senator Harry Byrd had been asked to speak, but an illness had caused him to cancel the engagement.
But during the luncheon, a car was parked at a nearby Newport News airport and when the passengers from Washington deplaned, a Halifax Countian walked easily from the plane to the waiting car and was whisked to the Chamberlain. He had barely enough time to wash his hands before the master of ceremonies was to begin his introduction. James S. Easley was the man who had agreed to pinch hit as speaker for the occasion. As if he'd been there all the time, he calmly moved into the luncheon group and heard a few "Hi, Jim's" from the rank and file of Virginia statesmen, moved on to the speaker's table and delivered an address on highway progress that Harry Byrd would have been proud to hear.
Few people in Virginia could have spoken extemporaneously and with such authority on a specialized department of this state; yet few people are as well acquainted with the government of this Commonwealth as is James S. Easley. He has served in both branches of the Legislature, and on two occasions when Virginia saw fit to amend her constitution, Mr. Easley was chosen to help in this all important task. It was entirely fitting that he be chosen to receive his own county's honor as "Man of the Year" last Friday."
In 1957 he received the Virginia Chamber of Commerce Distinguished Service Award "in recognition of his constructive services to Virginia as a citizen, lawyer and legislator." He joined many other distinguished people who have received this honor including Senator Carter Glass, Dr. Francis P. Gaines, Senator Harry F. Byrd, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., John Stuart Bryan, W. Douglas S. Freeman, the Right Reverend St. George Tucker, General George C. Marshall, Mrs. Alfred I. du Pont.
A local editorial stated, "If any Virginian of recent times ever measured up to the award, he would be our own "Jim" Easley .. He is indeed a distinguished Virginian in all that that term means and connotes. In physical appearance, the straight dapper country lawyer with the iron grey hair, noble features and warm smile has that outward appearance that one associates with the word distinguished .... It is the outward manifestation of inner nobility of character, of inner calm, poise and strength.
Because Mr. Easley thinks noble thoughts, he exudes that scholarly quality that marks him in a crowd and charms the drawing room circle .... Mr. Easley surely must fondle the state's highest honor to a native son, he must cherish it as a sort of prize from all of us. What greater thing than this greatest of all tributes? .... Knowing Mr. Easley and his love for Virginia and things Virginian, we suspect he'd prefer to have it in his cupboard to the seal of the White House."
In 1960 at the age of 75 he was again pressed into service as Halifax County's Commonwealth Attorney, a position he held until 1964. He served on the Board of Directors of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia, Stuart Hall for Girls at Staunton, Jackson-Feild Girl's Home and was a leader in St. John's Episcopal Church in Halifax where he was a member all his life.
In 1961 Halifax County Sheriff C. T. Coates wrote in a letter to Mr. Easley, "In my twenty years experience as a law enforcement officer, I have never felt more at ease than I have since you have been Commonwealth attorney."
Upon his retirement Sheriff Coates again wrote, "As the time has come for you and your most able assistant (Frank Slayton) to vacate the Office of Commonwealth attorney for our great county, I am compelled by my inward feelings, to pass on to you and Frank the thoughts of myself and my staff.
We have found in you both men that will proudly stand erect and be counted for the right things, honesty and the principles that have made Halifax County great and will continue to make it great because you both have passed this way ... You always stood erect, a champion for morality, integrity and Godliness, for this we will always love you."
And from his friend, Bill Tuck, upon learning of his retirement: "I am sure you must derive genuine satisfaction from your reflections upon your distinguished record in official, civic and private life. You have served your County and State well. No other man in our County has served in so many civic positions as you and there are none in our County who have ever served as President of the State Bar Association or the Virginia State Chamber of Commerce, and you have held both of these positions."
On August 9, 1965, James Stone Easley died at his beloved home, Woodland. The State of Virginia had lost one of its most distinguished and able sons. Word of his death brought many tributes. Virginius Dabney, Editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, wrote an editorial for that paper in which he stated,
In September, 1965, Dick Gillis was quoted in Commonwealth Magazine of Virginia: "Jim Easley came from an era of gentlemen. He walked the world with dignity and treated his fellowman in the manner of a true Virginia gentleman. Now he is gone. His epitaph might well be 'He was a gentleman'."
Lynn Shelton, publisher and editor of the Gazette, writing in his Notebook column after the death of Mr. Easley said, "In the later years when he did not drive it was our privilege to drive the car to meetings of our board, just he and ourselves. On such occasions, we would pique him into debates on the glory period of our nation, the time of his idol, Patrick Henry.
No child of Athens ever sat at the feet of Socrates and enjoyed those very scholarly discussions any more than we did. His keen blue eyes would dance when he got on a subject that he knew and had mastered perhaps better than any man of his time .... that brilliant mind often flashed like lightning like shafts of light in a storm that blinded one with its luster. It was one of the great joys of our life that we knew him."
On May 2, 1966, in the Circuit Court at Halifax, a portrait of James Easley painted by David Silvette of Richmond was presented by the Bar Association. Judge G. E. Mitchell accepted it on behalf of the court and directed that it hang in the courtroom with other distinguished Halifax County citizens. The speaker for the ceremony was former Governor Albertis S. Harrison who was introduced by Congressman William M. Tuck, former governor.
Governor Harrison said he had come "to pay respect to a great Virginian." He said "Mr. Easley served the foundation of our society - the law," and added he had a "sense of responsibility. He felt a compelling need to serve his fellowman. He was a man who measured up to his obligations. He was a leader among men. He had an innate sense of fairness and justice. The law was not just a profession to Mr. Easley, it was the cornerstone of civilization, the salvation of our society. It was a rich and rewarding experience of mine to have known James Stone Easley."
Congressman Tuck referred to Mr. Easley as "a gentleman in every sense of the word .... he was one of the most effective courtroom lawyers it has ever been my privilege to know. He was magnanimous in defeat as he was in victory. He was an incurable optimist and carried honor and dignity to any office he ever had, and he believed that the forces of righteousness would triumph and right would ultimately prevail .... I learned a lot from him."
Robert T Vaughan, a law partner of Mr. Easley, who presented the portrait remarked, "I never knew a finer man, a man who could think or do no mean thing. He was the greatest man I ever knew."
James E. Edmunds, in presenting a resolution from the BarAssociation, said, "As a courtroom advocate, he had few equals, and his final summations were masterpieces of sincerity, force and clarity.
To try a case against Mr. Easley, was, therefore, comparatively easy, to defeat him was exceedingly difficult .... opponents often witnessed a case seemingly snatched from their grasp by the power of his summation . . . As a leader of great ability and dignity at the bar, as a warm Christian gentleman, as a public servant, and a delightful social companion, he was without a peer and beyond reproach. He harbored no envy, grudge or malice, and there was never a question of stain upon his personal honor ... Fortunate was this county and state to have had one so richly endowed with the highest qualities of heart and mind devoted to his fellow man and the public welfare .... Surely he was an honor to his generation and a glory of his time. As long as life lasts, those of us who were privileged to know and work with him will remember him with great esteem and affection."
In response to a letter from Jack Dunavant thanking him for participating in the portrait presentation, Bill Tuck wrote, "Your grandfather, James Easley, was one of the finest men it has been my privilege to know and everything that was said about him and more was justly deserved. He will be greatly missed in our County and State."
In 1989, his daughter, Louise Edmunds Morrow, presented a portrait of her father to the Patrick Henry Memorial Foundation. Frank Slayton, a law partner of Mr. Easley, former state delegate and a trustee of the Foundation, in delivering the address at the dedication said, "He became a leader of the movement that would teach Southside Virginia, as well as the rest of the state and nation, that the memory of Patrick Henry and the site of his last home and final resting place were too vital to our heritage not to be preserved and restored to their original state For out of this renaissance man from Southside Virginia was to emerge a living memorial in the form of the Patrick Henry Memorial Foundation."
Dr. Robert D. Meade, author of a two-volume biography of Patrick Henry wrote: "Mr. Easley did not disdain small opportunities to lend a helping hand. Yet his outstanding abilities were more often devoted in his later years to fulfilling responsibilities of statewide and even national significance .... It is appropriate that the inspiration for the Foundation should come from a native of Southside, a descendant of Paul Carrington who was a staunch supporter of Patrick Henry in the Stamp Act debate .... W. Easley conceived the original plan for the Foundation, he enlisted the support of influential persons, and he secured the purchase of the historic Red Hill estate from Mrs. M. B. Harrison, a Henry descendant ... The Foundation will miss Mr. Easley's rare personal charm ......
I can think of no more tributes to give this southern gentleman than have been given. It was an honor and a privilege to have known him.
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