Superior Court Judge John Allen fought back tears Tuesday night as more than 300 attorneys, judges, community leaders and family members ushered him into retirement after 26 years on the bench.
Allen, a decorated Vietnam fighter pilot raised in the Booker T. Washington public housing complex a half mile from the Columbus Convention & Trade Center where he was honored, could not squeeze out the words as he tried to thank those who had come to honor him.
One of those watching as Allen thanked his wife, Vicky, and finally gave in to the emotion of the moment was Dr. Robert Wright, who, like Allen, grew up in a segregated Columbus and achieved great personal and professional success.
“I cried with him,” said Wright, six years older than Allen. “We grew up in the same neighborhoods. I know how far he came. Listening to him brought tears to my eyes. We both came up with the same difficulties to get where we are today.”
Allen, 70, will leave the Superior Court bench Thursday after more than 20 years. Prior to his appointment to that job, he was a State Court judge.
One of the most moving stories came from Allen’s college classmate at Tuskegee Institute, Robert Benham, now a Georgia Supreme Court justice. The two men have known each other for a half century, dating back to when Allen was over Benham in ROTC.
“He looked like an officer then, and he looks like an officer now,” Benham said.
The justice then told a story of what his father told him it would take to be a member of the Benham family.
“He said you had to serve God, sacrifice for your family, share with your neighbor, and, if found deserving, offer yourself for public service,” Benham said.
“He said if you were called upon, you had to be willing to lay down your life for your country. John Allen has done all of these.”
Superior Court Judge Bobby Peters, who with Allen formed the city’s first integrated law firm in the 1970s, was not surprised to see Allen struggle with emotion.
“A lot of people look at John as this tough judge, and he is,” Peters said. “But he is really a soft-hearted guy.”
Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson noted the people who came to wish Allen well in retirement. Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Hugh P. Thompson led a contingent of three Supreme Court justices and three from state Court of Appeals. There were more than 30 judges, past and present, in the room.
“This speaks to the esteem citizen we are honoring here tonight,” Tomlinson said. “He has touched more lives than you can count.”
In addition to his Superior Court job, Allen spent seven years as a member and then chairman of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, a state agency that oversees judicial conduct. During Allen’s tenure, more than 40 judges across Georgia were removed or resigned while under investigation.
It was Benham who thanked Allen for race well run.
“For the state’s 45,000 lawyers, 1,500 judges, 10 million people, tens of thousands Tuskegee graduates everywhere,” Benham said, “we hold you up as an example of what a Georgian should be and what an American should be.”