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Home › About › Communications › NC Lawyer › 2006 NC Lawyer Editions › March/April 2006 › Judge Henry McKinnon: Faithful In All His Pursuits

Judge Henry McKinnon: Faithful In All His Pursuits

Article Date: Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Written By: Russell Rawlings

By Helen Sharpe

In 1970, visiting the Monastery of Monte Cassino on a mountaintop in the Apennines range southeast of Rome, Italy, Judge Henry Alexander (Sandy) McKinnon Jr. was putting handfuls of Italian lira into the offering box. Even though it took a quantity of lira to make a respectable dollar gift, this exuberant giving by her thrifty Scotsman made his wife, Martha, take notice.

“I’m so glad to be alive,” he said.

He was, indeed, lucky to be alive and physically unscathed, grateful for the opportunity to pursue an interesting and rewarding career as a lawyer, as a Superior Court judge for 34 years, thankful to spend time in the outdoors he loved so well, to do historical research and share his findings with others in speeches and articles, to enjoy family and friends.

During World War II, Sandy was watching with his fellows from a cave in the northern edge of the town of Cassino when the monastery was destroyed Feb. 15, 1944, by Allied bombs. By the time of his 1970 visit, the Abbey of Monte Cassino, which was founded by St. Benedict in the sixth century, had been reconstructed to the exact configuration that was before, using the same stones, many of which bear the scars of the shelling. The grounds contained a cemetery with graves of soldiers who died in the war. Sandy was more than willing to contribute to the funding.

During the war on the front line of battle he had seen many of his fellow soldiers mortally or severely wounded. He was literally touching Bud Langenfield as his body was hit with so much shrapnel it would take more than a year of hospitalization to recover. He had made his way through mine fields, taken two prisoners instead of being taken, and by chance had avoided striking the keys of a booby-trapped piano.

McKinnon had hoped to enroll in the Naval Academy, but was not accepted because mastoid surgery when he was age seven had damaged his hearing, plus he was somewhat color-blind. So after graduating from the 11th grade in Lumberton, at age 16 he enrolled in Duke University. With the war going on, in the summer of 1942, he decided his best option was to get a three-month deferment to graduate from Duke in January 1943, which counted as his first year of law school.

He expected to be trained for work more in keeping with his education, but the army needed infantrymen, so he landed in Italy in November 1943. En route his 100-man company sailed on a former French liner to North Africa and traveled eight days by rail in boxcars (the cars held 40 men or eight horses) to receive additional training near Bizerte before departing for Italy.

By November 1944, Sandy’s front-line experience was over. His only health problem had been a bout with trench mouth for which he was hospitalized for most of August.

He was assigned to regimental headquarters as a clerk to work primarily on court-martials. When the war ended in May 1945, he became regimental sergeant-major for 3,000 men. He was thankful throughout his service for the training he received in his high school typing class. Even on the front line he had typing jobs, or could write on his own when the kitchen of his company came near enough to his position. (A typewriter was part of the equipment.)

Youth

During his war experience, the days of his youth seemed almost like a dream. He was born in Maxton, the first of three sons of Henry A. and Margaret Borden McKinnon. He was the grandson of Alexander J. McKinnon, a prominent citizen of the county, who was known as Sandy, a traditional Scottish nickname for Alexander. A.J. McKinnon, a planter and president of the old Maxton, Alma and Southbound Railroad and the Alma Lumber Company, was credited with introducing cantaloupe and watermelon production to the Maxton area. His parents began calling their young son Sandy and the nickname has stuck ever since.

Sandy’s father and namesake served in World War I, was an attorney and had served as mayor of Maxton. In 1934 he moved the family to Lumberton. He believed being situated in the county seat would offer better prospects since Maxton was declining as a business center. McKinnon Sr. became county attorney and later state senator.

Young Sandy didn’t realize how devastating the Great Depression was to Robeson County, though he rarely had spending money provided by his parents. As a child he sold magazines, worked as a “counter” on a watermelon farm, and in high school worked as a clerk at Belk department store for 25 cents an hour.

He loved exploring along Lumber River. Sailing at White Lake or on the sounds at the coast was a favorite activity, an enjoyment that continued long into his mature years. At school he stayed out of trouble for the most part and studied hard.

After the war

Returning home from the war in November 1945, Sandy was back at Duke studying law in January. He earned his law degree, was admitted to the State Bar in 1947, and joined his father’s law firm, McKinnon and Seawell. He began dating Martha Bowman, the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. E.L. Bowman, and the two were married in November 1948.

Sandy was enjoying life with his wife and building a home on Lumber River, hunting and fishing whenever he could, listening to the tales often told by the older sportsmen about the river and characters of Robeson County. In the firm he was observing and learning intricacies of law and the civic duties of the senior partners. It had not occurred to Sandy to aspire to becoming a judge until there were rumors about the possibility of being appointed to the Superior Court bench.

The opportunity came when Malcom Seawell, who had been appointed resident Superior Court judge, was named state attorney general by Gov. Luther Hodges. Sandy was fishing on the riverbank behind his home, enjoying the quiet and arranging his thoughts, when he received a message that Gov. Hodges wanted to speak with him. He had never spoken with the governor, nor had he engaged in any campaign activities.

Gov. Hodges informed Sandy he would be considered for judge of the 16th District if he were interested. Sandy and a lawyer from Laurinburg were interviewed for the position. Encouraged by his father, who had developed colon cancer, Sandy accepted the appointment when it was offered a few days after the interview. McKinnon Sr. died a year later.

Sandy believes Malcom Seawell suggested him to Gov. Hodges, though Seawell never admitted it. The new judge took his work seriously, always doing his homework, and using all he had learned in practice with his father and Seawell. He appreciated Seawell giving him notebooks and material from his time as a judge.

Judge McKinnon

The state had been divided into four judicial districts and McKinnon spent much of his time on the road, working from Bladen County to Burlington in six-month rotations, spending only about three-eighths of his time at home while a sitting judge. Sometimes he commuted, and at other times lived in hotels or small apartments with his wife Martha to make things homey.

McKinnon became known statewide for his fairness and skill, following the letter of the law as he pored over it as diligently as possible in each case that came before him. Robeson County people took pride in him, and their respect and trust grew. His brother Arnold said of him that “he liked to cut through the chaff to get to the wheat.”

McKinnon presided over more than 25 capital murder cases in his years as a judge, 15 of which were tried when the death penalty was an automatic sentence in first-degree murder. He presided over the trial of Robeson County resident Margie Velma Barfield, who was convicted of poisoning her boyfriend. She confessed to poisoning three other people, including her mother. Another notorious case was that of a Raleigh mayor’s wife who was charged with receiving stolen goods and keeping them in caskets at a funeral home.

McKinnon says he does not regret any decision or ruling. In jury trials everything was based on “what the jury said and what the law said.” In non-jury trials, rulings were based on what the law said.

Sandy stayed on the bench until his retirement in 1980 after being elected five times without opposition. He served as an emergency judge until 1992.

The brothers
While Sandy’s reputation as a judge was growing statewide, his two younger brothers were building their credentials. Arnold McKinnon became chairman and chief executive officer of Norfolk Southern Railroad. John McKinnon became president of Sara Lee Corporation and later was dean of the Babcock Graduate School at Wake Forest University. People in the county admired the family, and that all three sons of Henry and Margaret McKinnon did so well, and continued to seem like regular “down-home folks.”

Throughout his career and after retirement, Sandy has been a faithful member of Chestnut Street Methodist Church in Lumberton, teaching Sunday school, and serving in other capacities. His judgment has been relied upon.

Sandy’s company, along with his wife Martha, has been sought by friends of their youth, friends they made through the years while he was judge, a member of the bar, and as he concentrated on historical research after retirement. His dry wit, when he let it come out, and his ability to observe interesting things going on around him, and to listen to other people’s stories have made him a sought after fishing and hunting companion. His two brothers and their families also have enjoyed being with Martha and Sandy. They all have friends across all socio-economic and racial lines.

Historian

In addition to having more time for family, hunting and fishing, Sandy’s retirement has been greatly enriched by his historic discoveries, which he has converted into articles. He is considered the county historian, although his research extends to the region and state. Growing up in a family that considered history important, Sandy read a good bit of history, but did not do research until he retired in 1980.

He became interested in the five name changes his native town of Maxton went through from 1873 to 1887, and in 1984 published in The State magazine an article chronicling the changes from Shoe Heel twice, to Quhele, Tilden and finally Maxton. It was the only article for which he ever received pay.

His curiosity was piqued when looking through a desk built in the 1800s and willed to his father in the 1950s by a woman grateful for legal services he performed for her. He found a 1775 land grant signed by Josiah Martin, the last royal governor of North Carolina. He traced that grant and found some Revolutionary War history. He’s been doing research along that line ever since, spending a lot of time among the files in his book-filled study on the lower floor of his home with windows looking toward the river. Many other hours have been spent at the local library, the county courthouse and the state library in Raleigh.

Through his research he’s unraveled many a puzzle about the early history and founding of Robeson County, and even the days when the area was still part of Bladen County. Sandy also has passed along stories and legends he’s heard from “old-timer” friends. His articles, usually first published in newspapers or magazines, can be found in books published under his name or in collections, as in “Robeson Remembers” or “Our Heritage Robeson County North Carolina 1748-2002.”

Editor’s Note: This article was compiled from a previous article by Helen Sharpe, articles by Stacy Peterson and Bob Horne, and from Sharpe’s knowledge gleaned as McKinnon’s neighbor for nearly 35 years. Article previously appeared in The Robesonian. Reprinted with permission.