Friends and colleagues Saturday remembered U.S. District Judge B. Avant Edenfield as a hard-working and intelligent lawyer and judge. Edenfield died in a Savannah hospital early Saturday morning at the age of 80 after a lengthy battle with cancer.
“Avant was my best friend,” said former Ogeechee Circuit Court Senior Judge Faye Sanders Martin. “We began first grade together at Stilson in 1940 and graduated from Stilson High School in 1952, the first 12-year class to graduate. We went on separate benches just days apart — I went on the Superior Court bench and he on the bench of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia.
“Judge Edenfield was a man of great wisdom, strength and determination. He was a jurist of broad dimensions,” Martin added.
A native of Bulloch County, Edenfield practiced law in Statesboro for 20 years as a successful trial lawyer before President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the federal bench in 1978, serving the Southern District of Georgia. He was chief judge from 1990-97, and has served on the 11th Circuit Judicial Council. In 2006, he moved to senior judge status.
Former partner Wallace Wright called Edenfield, “the most academically oriented lawyer with whom I ever practiced law. He graduated second in his class at the University of Georgia. He was always prepared, but he was always ready to help young lawyers like me. He never wavered from his principles, neither in private practice nor in more than 35 years on the federal bench,” Wright said.
Knowledge of the law
Another of Edenfield’s partners was Charles Brown who joined Allen & Edenfield in 1965.
“It was a wonderful, funny learning experience,” Brown said. “I admired his intensity, his through knowledge of the law and his remarkable ability to relate to people from every walk of life and every strata of society. He was remarkable well read, and had become something of an expert on World War I. He wrote and spoke nationally on the causes and long-term impact of that war on the rest of the 20th century.”
His interest in the First World War may have been influenced by the fact that his father, Perry was a WWI vet.
Brown echoed other’s comments about Edenfield’s knowledge of the law.
“When I would visit him at home, Avant would typically be seated in a chair reading advance sheets, the pre-publication opinions of every case before the Georgia Court of Appeals, the Georgia Supreme Court and the 11th District Circuit Court of Appeals,” Brown said. “I don’t know anyone else who did that.
“If I ever thought that the fact that the judge and I were former partners would lead him to cut me any slack in his court, I was disabused of that thought when his law clerk called me one day to immediately come to Savannah as an appointed counsel for a defendant who had been picked up for a parole violation,” Brown said. “I ran out of my office so quickly that I left the jacket to my suit hanging in my office. When I got to Avant’s court without a coat, he immediately instructed me that I would not appear in his court without a jacket. At that point a kind security guard took me to their locker room where he found me a coat about four sizes too big. The probationer was returned to federal prison.”
Edenfield earned a Bachelor of Business Administration and law degree from the University of Georgia. He was a charter member of the Statesboro Kiwanis Club, president of the Statesboro Jaycees, regional vice president of the Georgia Jaycees, a member of the Statesboro Rotary Club, chairman of the board of the Statesboro-Bulloch County Regional Library and a member of the State Advisory Committee on Vocational Education.
Susan Cox remembers
“Never be late, always be prepared,” said Susan Cox, who clerked with Edenfield and later joined his firm shortly before President Jimmy Carter’s appointment. “That was Judge Edenfield’s expectations of young lawyers in his practice and all who appeared before him on the bench,”
She recalled him as being an incredible trail lawyer who was “amazing at reading members of a jury.”
“I remember him as a hard-working lawyer with an unbelievable work ethic,” Cox said. “But I also recall his wonderful mischievous sense of humor. He had an endless supply of wildly funny stories, but the problem was he knew the coming punch line and he would often start laughing so hard it could be difficult to hear the ending.”
“Avant and I have been friends since I set up my practice in Statesboro in 1965,” said local CPA Earl Dabbs. “We had a lot of mutual clients so we worked together a lot and our friendship grew out of that early association.
A library for Statesboro
“He was a great friend of Statesboro. Growing up in Stilson, Avant relied on the bookmobile to bring him books, so he was always a champion of the library. Back in the 1970s before we had a SPLOST sales tax for community capital improvements, you had to have a bond referendum for something like a new library. Statesboro desperately needed a new library, but the bond issue was rejected until Avant got behind it and in 1977 and it passed," said Dabbs.
Cox recalled that a few years ago as she was making an award to Judge Edenfield on behalf of the Georgia Bar Association, she mentioned his role in facilitating the new library.
“In his remarks, the judge said, ‘That was a no-brainer. Books are the doors to the world, so why wouldn’t you want books to be available to everyone?’”
Edenfield was selected in 1963 as Bulloch County’s Outstanding Young Man and in 1978 he was selected by the Statesboro Rotary Club as Bulloch County’s Man of the Year.
Long-time friend Paul Akins said, “My wife Jo and I have been close friends with Avant and Melvis for over 60 years … Avant loved the law and was still active on the bench. He was an intellectual but never publicly exhibited that fact. Though he left Statesboro for Savannah years ago to become a federal judge he still loved Statesboro and has many friends here. Every time I saw him he asked me how things were in the Boro. He will be sorely missed.”