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John H. Hannah Jr.

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John H. Hannah Jr., an East Texas Democrat who grew up in tiny Diboll, rose to prominence in Texas politics and became a respected U.S. district judge, died Thursday morning of a heart attack. He was 64.

Hannah, chief judge for the U.S. Eastern District of Texas, was attending a judicial conference in West Palm Beach, Fla., when he was stricken in his hotel room. His wife, U.S. Magistrate Judith Guthrie, was with Hannah when he died.

"Simply put, what John Hannah was, what he stood for in his personal life and professional life, was to figure out what the right thing was and do it, work hard at it, and don't give a damn what people think about it," said Lufkin lawyer Claude Welch, who had been friends with Hannah since the two were second-graders. "Usually, it wasn't too difficult for John to figure out what the right thing was."

Before he was elevated to the federal bench in 1994 by then-President Clinton, Hannah had served as a state legislator, public interest lawyer, district attorney, federal prosecutor and Texas secretary of state.

The outpouring of testaments from lawyers, judges and politicians after news of his death echoed with themes of Hannah's evenhanded jurisprudence and zeal for public service.

"I never worked for a man who put more stock in ethics and integrity in government," said Democratic political consultant Harold Cook, who worked for Hannah at the secretary of state's office in the early 1990s. "He lived every day in public service never forgetting that those in the people's government should be honest brokers, square dealers and plain talkers."

Born and raised in Diboll, Hannah served in the U.S. Navy before attending Sam Houston State College. He was elected to the state House in 1967 for the first of three terms, and earned a law degree from South Texas College of Law while serving in the Legislature.

As a state lawmaker, Hannah was a member of the so-called Dirty 30, a group of reformist Democrats who helped force out Speaker Gus Mutscher in the Sharpstown stock-fraud scandal.

Welch recalled how Hannah drew fire as a representative when he publicly supported the re-election bid of a black legislator from Houston.

"That caused a little bit of a row up here in the Piney Woods, and John got calls," Welch said. "He was being criticized by some of his opponents. John's answer was, `The only reason you're calling me is because he's black, so why are we talking about it? He's my friend.' "

After a stint in private law practice, Hannah was elected Angelina County district attorney in 1973, then served as legal counsel for the public interest group Common Cause.

In 1977, then-President Carter appointed Hannah U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Texas, a post he held for four years. In 1982, Hannah waged an unsuccessful bid for state attorney general.

In 1991, Hannah was appointed secretary of state by then-Gov. Ann Richards, a post he held until he was tapped by Clinton for the federal bench.

Cook remembered Hannah's dismay when he went to tour his federal courtroom and saw a metal detector outside the door. Hannah ordered the bailiff to have it removed, saying "this government should be about protecting people, not about protecting itself," Cook said.

The metal detector stayed.

Hannah became chief judge of the district in 2001, and sat alternately in both Lufkin and Tyler.

President Bush will appoint a replacement for Hannah.

Both as secretary of state and federal judge, Hannah often was involved in the state's redistricting battles. In 2001, he was one of three federal judges who drafted the current Texas congressional districts after the Legislature failed to come up with a map.

A court hearing on challenges to a new Republican-drawn congressional map passed this year was to have been Monday, but it will be delayed for Hannah's funeral.

Hannah's funeral will be at 10 a.m. Monday at First Baptist Church in Tyler. In addition to his wife, Hannah is survived by father John Hannah Sr. of Diboll; son John Hannah III of Austin; brother James Hannah, a Texas A&M professor; and granddaughter Rebecca of Austin.

Sometime soon, Welch said, Hannah's friends and fellow judges will gather for a less formal memorial that Hannah himself requested.

"The most enjoyable thing he did, short of being with his granddaughter, was sitting around a table smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey with his buddies," Welch said.

Often, those sessions took place at a watering hole on the square in Tyler, Welch said, and Hannah had told his secretary that he wanted people to gather there upon his death.

"We'll do it," Welch said.

This article contains material from The Associated Press.

Published in Austin American-Statesman on Dec. 5, 2003
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