The Honorable Ruth M. Kinnard

The Honorable Ruth M. Kinnard

Ruth McDowell Kinnard was the essence of Southern gentility, a pioneering lawyer, and a respected judge.

She was born in Camden, Alabama and spent her early years at a nearby plantation named Liberty Hall.  After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Alabama in 1940, she worked briefly as a newspaper reporter in Montgomery, Alabama before becoming the traveling secretary of her college sorority, Delta, Delta, Delta.  She would later become the Tri Delts’ national president.

While living in Montgomery, Ruth met and married a dashingly handsome Army Air Corps pilot from Franklin, Tennessee named Claiborne H. Kinnard, Jr.  She continued to live in Montgomery while Clay was stationed in England where he distinguished himself as a much decorated fighter pilot and as commanding officer of the 4th Fighter Group.  Colonel Kinnard was credited with destroying twenty-five enemy aircraft in one year.  

Ruth and Clay moved to Franklin, Tennessee after Clay returned from the war.  They brought sophistication and style with them. They lived in the Kinnard family home, Martlesham Heath, which Ruth decorated with refined and exquisite taste.  Clay became a very successful businessman and inventor, and Ruth made a home for him and their three children. One of their contemporaries noted that the Kinnards “added civility and verve” to Franklin.  For a time, Ruth drove the only Cadillac in town, and Clay drove the only Jaguar.  

Invitations to Martlesham Heath became sought-after and prized. People were drawn to Ruth because she was genuinely interested in them.  She found common ground with most everyone she met and became deeply involved with the community. Ruth attended St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and, over the decades, prepared generations of twelve-year-olds for Confirmation.

The Kinnards’ life changed when Clay was diagnosed with brain cancer.  One day during his long illness, Ruth, who was forty-seven at the time, told Clay that she had just found Jesus.  Clay replied “just be glad you are not sixty-seven.” Clay died in September 1966, leaving Ruth with three children – the youngest of whom was twelve – and an uncertain financial future.

Displaying her quiet courage, Ruth told a friend, “I want to have something important to get up for every morning.  I don’t want to spend all my time playing bridge and going to luncheons.” That mindset led her to enroll in Vanderbilt Law School in the fall of 1967.  She was one of three women in a class of more than one hundred, and she was significantly older than her fellow students, most of whom were in their twenties.

United States District Court Chief Judge Frank Gray, Jr., who had served as mayor of Franklin before being appointed to the bench, recommended Ruth for a clerkship with the United States Attorney for Middle Tennessee.  As a result, Ruth worked as the United States Attorney’s first law clerk during the summer following her first year of law school. 

Ruth excelled academically at Vanderbilt, but perhaps more significantly, as one of her classmates later recalled, “she was the soul of our class.”  Another classmate explained that “[w]e confided in her, and she confided in us. She gave us excellent advice we did not always take.” He added that Ruth “had a certain class, a certain sophistication, and a certain way of understanding what was going on that put her on a different level.”  Martlesham Heath became the class’s favored venue for study groups and class parties.

Women lawyers in Nashville were still a rarity in 1970 when Ruth graduated from law school and was admitted to the bar.  She joined the Trust Department of Commerce Union Bank. Two years later, Chief Judge Gray appointed her to serve as a Bankruptcy Referee for Middle Tennessee.  With this appointment, Ruth became the first woman to hold a federal judicial position in the State of Tennessee and the first woman to serve as a judge on the state or federal bench in Nashville.

Ruth had little experience with bankruptcy when she was appointed, but as more experienced lawyers discovered, “she had a reputation as a quick study.”  Those who appeared in her court found her to be “dignified and precise.” At the same time, “her graciousness and compassion suffused [the] courtroom.” One attorney recalled that “Judge Kinnard spent countless hours rehabilitating bankrupt clients, offering good legal advice and, more important, a shoulder to cry on, a sympathetic ear, and suggestions for how to turn lives around.”  In 1972, the Professional Women’s Club of Davidson County, the only professional women’s association in Nashville at the time, named Ruth its “Woman of the Year.”

When Ruth stepped down from the bench in 1978, she joined the firm of Chambers & Wiseman.  After Thomas A. Wiseman, Jr. was appointed to the United States District Court, she continued to practice with John L. Chambers in the firm of Chambers & Kinnard.  During this time, Ruth was elected to the Board of Directors of the Nashville Bar Association. In 1985, the association presented its Pro Bono Award to Ruth because she had represented more clients pro bono than any other NBA member since the inception of the pro bono program.

In 1989, Ruth became “of counsel” at Stokes & Bartholomew.  The lawyers who practiced with her there remember her as a “warm, giving, and understanding friend . . . who understood more than the rest of us by valuing personal relationships and allowing those relationships to trump greed and power.”  The younger lawyers in the firm viewed her life as a “lesson in grace and compassion.” One young lawyer who did not smoke valued Ruth’s company so much that he purchased an ashtray for Ruth’s use when she visited his office.

Throughout her career, Ruth continuously served the Nashville community where she worked and the Franklin community where she lived.  She served on the boards of the Nashville Symphony, the Cumberland Heights Alcohol & Drug Treatment Center, O’More College, the Vanderbilt Law School Alumni Board, and many others.  In Franklin, she served as an alderman, a member of the Franklin Board of Zoning Appeals, the Franklin Airport Authority, and the Franklin Charter Study Commission.

Ruth was a founder and three-time president of the Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County.  She was instrumental in establishing historic zoning for the City of Franklin. On the day of her death, she was scheduled to be recognized at the Heritage Foundation’s Annual Banquet for her many contributions to historic Franklin.  

In 1990, the Nashville Bar Association bestowed its highest award, the John C. Tune Public Service Award, on Ruth.  This award is given to lawyers who have shown the highest degree of dedication, not only to their work as a lawyer, but also to the betterment of the community in which they live.  Ruth was the eighth lawyer to receive this award. During the presentation ceremony, Ruth was recognized as “one of the most compassionate professionals in this Association – and perhaps the most beloved.  Her entire life is a legacy of giving – giving to her family, to her profession, to her community, and to her church.” Indeed, as one of her colleagues put it, “Judge Kinnard taught an entire generation of lawyers to give back.”

Ruth was particularly interested in helping women, not only those already in practice but also those considering going to law school.  Many sought her counsel, particularly women with children. Ruth’s advice, based on her own experiences, was always candid and encouraging.  Today, scores of women at the bench and bar fondly remember Ruth’s support along their professional path.  

Ruth’s sense of style remained impeccable following her retirement from the practice of law.  She was always seen in her trademark black dresses, her Ferragamo pumps with grosgrain bows, and when needed, her large sunglasses.  A huge Tiffany gold Cross on a massive chain around her neck completed her ensemble. Sometimes the Cross would be empty, but sometimes a Star of David would be superimposed at its center.

Ruth remained committed to her friends and the community following her retirement from the practice of law.  She was a much sought after guest at many social occasions. When the holidays rolled around, her friends eagerly awaited her homemade jellies and the peppermint candy wreaths she made herself.

For a time, Ruth was an urban pioneer when she moved into a townhouse in Franklin on the second floor above the D-Roy Entertains store.  She loved living downtown and could often be seen walking to this store or that restaurant and greeting virtually everyone she passed by name.  She always had time for people and never failed to stop to ask them about their families or their work or something else important to them.

Ruth later moved to her little cottage on Evans Street which she named Saffron Walden after a town south of Cambridge, England where Clay had been stationed.  Because of her fondness for angels and for Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel, she received a large stone angel for her seventy-ninth birthday.  As she described it, the angel “guards over my cottage and tries to keep me happy.”

Throughout her life, Ruth was gentle and genteel with an independent nature and an iron will.  She was firm, committed, and goal-oriented, often without others realizing it. Ruth always knew precisely what she was doing, and she did things for the right reason.  She was an excellent lawyer whose clients received every ounce of her attention and the best legal advice available. She was a treasured mentor to many of Nashville’s and Franklin’s best and brightest attorneys.  She loved the law and was a fierce advocate for her chosen profession. 

Ruth was the best friend a person could have.  She was unfailingly interested, unconditionally loyal, and always there when you needed her.  When you were with her, she gave you the gift of peace, no matter what was swirling around in your life.  She was a lovely and gracious lady who never lost her childlike curiosity or her enchantment with learning something new.  She was a faithful correspondent whose notes and letters were treasured by their recipients. She was a gifted writer and avid reader who could be found pouring over a scholarly legal tome or burning the midnight oil with a hot new murder mystery.

When Judge Kinnard, Ruth, Ruthie, Dar died on May 17, 2001, it was as if the lights had gone out in Nashville and Franklin.  Ruth and Clay are buried at Mount Hope Cemetery in Franklin, and stained glass windows in their memory grace St. Paul’s Church in Franklin.

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