Judge Duane Benton
Fri, 09/30/2022 - 9:59am admin
In my experience, some of the smartest people I’ve known are Willow Springs High School alums. And by any measure, Judge Duane Benton (WSHS, 1968) would be among those at the head of the class. And as a former Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court and current Judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, one of the highest achievers.
A few weeks ago, I was honored to have lunch with His Honor (by the way, with friends, he still goes by Duane) in St. Louis County and learned some things I had been curious about for years. I’ve known Duane for decades, but, in a sense, from a distance. I was a senior when he entered high school, but in a small town you know most everyone and their families. His parents owned the Auto Parts store on East Main Street.
As a side note, he reminded me that Willow Springs Auto Parts sponsored the uniform I wore for summer baseball in grade school. He even remembered my number—36. I remember some obscure things, but that’s amazing.
A popular and involved student, Duane’s accomplishments at WSHS suggested a bright future. I’ll mention a few highlights: class valedictorian; debate championships (with classmate and salutatorian Gary Tetrick); National Forensic League president; number one ratings as a vocal soloist and bass clarinetist in district and state music competitions; upper ten percentile on the statewide Differential Aptitude Tests on Verbal Reasoning and Numerical Ability; garnered the title of Mr. Supersalesman (yearbook sales); and was the last Fall Fiesta king—he crowned classmate Sarah Burns as queen their junior year. I would have to use bullet points to include the rest.
But it wasn’t until 1972, after he graduated from Northwestern University, summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, that I got to know him better. We reconnected during Wendell Bailey’s first campaign for the Missouri General Assembly, which he managed. And later, when I worked with him on two subsequent Bailey congressional races that he managed.
In the political campaigns, our conversations were generally brief and mission oriented, but the integration of his intellect was always apparent. During the 1982 congressional race, I can still picture him sitting at his desk in the campaign headquarters in Blue Springs, pouring over two local newspapers, while talking on the phone, but as I opened the front door to leave for an assignment, Duane’s voice got my attention, “Whitaker, Whitaker—wait!” He had last minute instructions to give me.
Since those days, I have followed his career with admiration, and frankly, a bit of awe.
Duane is a 1975 graduate of Yale Law School—the perennially number one-rated law school in the nation—where he distinguished himself as the editor and managing editor of the Yale Law Journal. During our lunch, he mentioned Samuel Alito was a classmate, and that he had edited the future Supreme Court justice’s law journal article. He also knew Clarence Thomas while a student there (Justice Thomas was one year ahead of Justice Alito and Duane).
A Vietnam veteran, he served with the U.S. Navy and retired from the Naval Reserves at the rank of Captain, after 30 years of active and reserve service. He is a graduate of the Naval War College. While on active duty, he earned a master's degree in business administration from Memphis State University and became a CPA in Missouri 1983.
From 1989 to 1991, he served as Director of the Missouri Department of Revenue. As an example of his kind nature, during his tenure as director, he called all DOR employees on their birthdays to wish them a happy birthday.
Judge Benton has taught as an adjunct professor at Westminster College and at the law schools of Vanderbilt University, University of Missouri, Brooklyn Law School, Pepperdine University, and St. Louis University.
A deacon emeritus and trustee emeritus of the First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, he is former counsel to the Missouri Baptist Convention.
An active Rotarian, he has been president of two clubs, a District Governor, led Show Me Rotary statewide president-elect training, and chaired international meetings with representatives from all the 200 countries with Rotary clubs.
But wait there’s more . . . a Shannon County connection. Duane’s mother Pat (Nicholson) (Birch Tree High School, 1948) and my mother Opal (Casey) claimed the families were related. With a bit of genealogical research, I discovered that my great-great grandfather Isaac Casey (born in 1823) married Martha Elizabeth Nicholson in Shannon County. Perhaps, we are cousins a few times removed. Moreover, as a kid in Montier I knew Duane’s grandfather, Lem Nicholson, who lived within walking distance of the Church of God of Prophecy.
During our lunch, you might think a judge of the U.S. Circuit Court for seven states (by the way, the only court higher in the Federal system is the Supreme Court) and a lawyer would talk about recent cases and controversies—hardly. We reminisced about the friends, teachers, and coaches we had growing up in Willow Springs.
Duane said, “Mrs. Munford was one of my best writing instructors compared to any of my professors at the famous schools. She taught me to write concisely, precisely, focusing on the verbs and staying organized. Coaches, Joe Scott, Lee Yardley, Rex Pace, and David Meek taught me the value of hard work and focus. And the music teachers— particularly Gene Kirkham—showed me that I could contribute and even excel in band and chorus, though in retrospect, I had average talent.”
We discussed other important matters, such as remembering the names of two brothers from Birch Tree, Floyd and Dale Nicholson—a righty and lefty—who pitched in town team baseball games at Booster Field in Willow Springs in the 1960s.
Duane recalled that Dale, the southpaw, threw him a knuckle curveball that was impossible to hit. I saw the Nicholson brothers on the mound in Willow, but I also saw Dale pitch for the Birch Tree High School Bulldogs when I was in the sixth grade. My brother Jack played on that BTMO team and says, “Dale couldn’t throw a straight ball.”
I asked Duane when he decided to become a lawyer, and he said he had known he wanted to be a lawyer since the fifth grade in Mountain View, even though there were no lawyers in Willow Springs or Mountain View. Duane lived in Mountain View at the time. His father Max Benton (Mtn. View High School, 1944) also owned and operated a store there—Mountain View Auto Parts.
I also wondered how an Ozark boy ended up at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. I got a succinct answer—a debate scholarship. He smiled when I asked if it was culture shock arriving on a Big 10 campus, and he said he had never even visited the school before he arrived to begin classes. Now, that was an act of faith that proved worthy.
From my observation, his proudest moments of our conversation were about his family: his wife, “Nurse Sandra;” his children, Megan (now, a Platte County Associate Circuit Judge) and Grant, a human-resources manager with HCA hospitals in Tennessee; and his grandsons, Nolan and Pierson. As a sidenote, part of Duane’s motivation for our lunch meeting was to get books from my Mulligan children’s book series for his grandsons. As a collateral benefit for me, I got to chat with Judge Megan when Duane telephoned her that he had the books.
I called Wendell Bailey for his insight regarding his longtime friend, and he provided me with the perfect summary. He said, “When I think of Duane, I think of his work ethic. He’s smart, but he works at being smart—he studies and outworks everyone. His outstanding achievements are an example of what hard work can accomplish.”
My thanks to classmate Annette Tetrick Johnston (our class salutatorian) for research assistance.