Portrait of Judge J. Randall Wyatt, Jr. Unveiled in Nashville

November 22, 2019

It was a packed house in the Division II courtroom of Nashville’s Justice A.A. Birch Building recently, as friends, family members, and former colleagues gathered for a portrait unveiling of retired Criminal Court Judge J. Randall Wyatt, Jr.

Judge Wyatt was the longest serving criminal court judge in Nashville history when he retired after 35 years on the bench in 2017. His judicial career numbered 43 years in all, counting his previous tenure as a general sessions court judge. He attended the unveiling alongside his wife, Kay, and their five children.

“Today’s ceremony is living proof that if you live long enough and keep your nose clean you might get your picture in the courthouse,” joked Ed Yarbrough, Judge Wyatt’s old friend, longtime Nashville trial attorney and former United States Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee.

Of course, not just any judge gets their portrait hung in the courtroom, and Judge Wyatt is most certainly not just any judge.

As Yarbrough pointed out, Judge Wyatt was born in Nashville on the same day in December 1937 that the iconic Metropolitan Courthouse first opened its doors. After attending Father Ryan High School, he joined the United States Marine Corps for four years. This was followed by a seven-year stint with the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department. By night, he was a police officer, and by day, he was a student at Middle Tennessee State University and then Vanderbilt University Law School. After receiving his law degree, Judge Wyatt became a special agent with the FBI in Detroit. When he returned to Nashville after three years, he became an assistant district attorney, a legal advisor to the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, and then a general sessions judge.

Referencing President John F. Kennedy’s famous call to “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” Yarbrough said about his dear friend, “If there’s anyone in this room or this county that has fulfilled that ultimatum, it is Randall Wyatt. He has served at every level, in every possible aspect you can think of.”

Judge Wyatt is not so beloved and respected just for the length and variety of his public service, though. It is also his personality and the nature of his service that has endeared him to so many.

“No matter who you were, no matter how long you had practiced, how experienced or inexperienced you were, you knew when you were in front of Judge Wyatt that you and your client were going to be treated with fairness,” Nashville attorney Jim Todd said at the event.

Todd was one of the main organizers of the drive to get a portrait of Judge Wyatt hung in the Division II courtroom.

“For 40-some-odd years, you’ve had the title of judge and Your Honor,” Todd said. “You take that title away, and you’re still the same man; a kind, gentle, caring, compassionate man and that’s why…all of these people contributed to” the portrait.

Acclaimed artist Michael Shane Neal was chosen to paint the portrait of Judge Wyatt. He had previously painted such notable figures as President George H.W. Bush, John Seigenthaler, and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, among many others.

Neal said that one of the great pleasures of his vocation is the process of getting to know his subjects, of attempting to capture their inner as well as their outer likeness.

“Judge Wyatt is everything you think he is,” Neal said. “Everything you see on the outside is even more special on the inside.”

Another dear friend of Judge Wyatt’s, Nashville attorney Hal Hardin, followed Neal and spoke warmly about his long relationship with the judge, which stretches back to at least 1974, when Hardin chaired Judge Wyatt’s first campaign.

“Thank you for giving me the honor of unveiling your portrait here,” he said. “Thank you for being my partner, and thank you for being my friend for so many years.”

A genial Judge Wyatt took the mic near the conclusion of the ceremony, looking around the room and singling out many of those in attendance with kind words and anecdotes.

He thanked Judge Angelita Blackshear Dalton for her service in his former Division II position.

He spoke movingly of his love for his wife, Kay. “I’ve been married to Kay for 56 years, and she’s the highlight of my life right there,” he said.

He recalled the birth of his twins, time spent with fellow judges, and the long arc of his career.

“All I know to say is that this has been a good ride,” he said.

When it was almost time for the ceremony to be over, Judge Wyatt looked around the room once more and told everyone how much they mean to him.

“I mean it from the heart,” he said. “I thank all of you for taking the time to come here today. It’s a nice moment for me, and I appreciate your friendship, all of you. Everybody in here is a friend, the way I look at things. I enjoyed being around here for 43 years. It’s a good place.”

A good place that his portrait and his legacy will be a part of for many years to come.