John Allen grew up in the 1950s and '60s in the Booker T. Washington public housing complex about five blocks from the Columbus Government Center.
The odds were not in his favor.
Last week, Allen, 70, announced his retirement as a Muscogee County Superior Court judge. His last day is Oct. 31.
When he was a senior at segregated Spencer High School in 1961, Allen never imagined that a half-century later he would be leaving a distinguished legal career that has earned him the chief judgeship in the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit and the head of Georgia's judicial watchdog commission.
"Absolutely inconceivable," Allen said Friday of the notion. "I never knew a black lawyer growing up. And I had never heard of a black judge. There were no role models."
When Allen graduated from Tuskegee University with a degree in mechanical engineering, the ROTC cadet also received a commission as an Air Force officer. He became a decorated fighter pilot who served two tours in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, flying nearly 300 combat missions.
After leaving the Air Force, he went to law school at the University of Florida's law school.
"What I have learned is there are very few absolutes," Allen said. "The answers to any or all questions are influenced by what we have experienced in life."
When Allen was sworn in to the Georgia Bar in 1976, it wasn't by another lawyer, a judge or a Supreme Court justice, but by the clerk of Muscogee County Superior Court. "And he had a huge, ol' cigar stuck in the corner of his mouth as he read me the oath," Allen remembers.
At the time, he was one of four black lawyers in Columbus.
Allen remembers that early in his career he had trouble getting clients, even black clients.
"There was blacks who did not believe they could get justice if they were represented by a black lawyer," Allen said.
And some in the legal community tried to label Allen.
"There were attorneys who told people I was just a civil rights lawyer," Allen said. "They said I didn't know anything about domestic, criminal or civil law."
Allen overcame the obstacles, becoming a Columbus Recorder's Court judge in the mid-1980s. A year later, in 1987, he was appointed to the State Court bench, where he served about seven years before becoming a Superior Court judge in 1993.
His accomplishments have earned Allen great respect -- both at home and across the state.
"He is a pioneer and a trailblazer," said Columbus criminal defense attorney Stacey Jackson, who is also black. "He has opened many doors for minorities in the legal field. Not only has he opened the doors, he has set the example for me and others. If you look up in a dictionary what a judge should be, his picture would be in there."
Jeff Davis, who has been the director of the state Judicial Qualifications Commission during Allen's tenure as chairman, agrees with that statement. The commission has had about 40 judges removed from office or resign during Allen's time, when he became a judge of judges.
"Judge Allen is a man of integrity who led this commission through an unprecedented period of time where he had to deal with a tremendous number of misconduct cases," said JQC Director Jeff Davis. "He is a man of principle who demands the highest standard of ethics from himself and his peers."
Davis said Allen approached his commission duties like a fighter pilot.
"When you have been shot at, I guess you look at things differently," Davis said. "He was always steady at the control. And when he got fired at in this job, he always knew what the mission was and never strayed the course. He was courageous."
A decade ago, Allen spoke of his fighter pilot days to The History Makers, an organization that documents African-American history. Allen flew F-4 Phantom jets over hostile territory during the Vietnam War.
"I never once thought I was going to die," Allen said. " It was almost like a game."
Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Hugh Thompson, a former Superior Court judge from Baldwin County, has known Allen for many years.
"We all know he's a courageous man, and we all know he is a trailblazer," Thompson said Friday. "When you put a trailblazer and courage together, you end up with someone who is very forward thinking and trying to find the best new solutions to any problem."
Jim Butler, now a nationally known trial lawyer, has known Allen since the late 1970s when both men were young Columbus attorneys. Butler has appeared before more than 200 judges across the country.
"John Allen is a man totally dedicated to doing the right thing as a judge, and he works very hard to do it," Butler said. "He's incredibly even tempered, even in the face of provocation. Given his accomplishments, he's extraordinarily humble and modest."
The chief justice offers Allen high praise.
"He's the kind of fellow we need on the bench," Thompson said. "And I, for one, am sorry to see him leave. He has an even demeanor and he has an analytical mind to weigh a lot of options presented to him. He's deliberate and his concern is that justice be done."