By Jan Skutch, as published in the Savannah Morning News
Savannah attorney John Tatum has spent his career tackling complex business-related issues with two of the most influential law firms in the region.
But Tatum’s legacy also flows through his efforts to assist some of Savannah’s least fortunate citizens through his work with nonprofits.
That combination earned him the label of “servant leader” from law partner Wade Herring and on Thursday night earned him the Savannah Bar Association’s Frank Cheatham Professionalism Award.
The annual award, named after the late Chatham County Superior Court Chief Judge Frank S. Cheatham Jr., is reserved for those attorneys whose efforts place them at the head of the class among their peers.
Last year the award went to attorney William Franklin Jr.
Often the award surprises the recipient, but Tatum admits he was tipped off.
“They didn’t think they could keep it a secret,” he said.
Tatum, 72, has practiced law in Savannah since July 1968, the same year he took and passed the bar examination.
He practiced with a firm that became Miller, Simpson and Tatum before they merged with HunterMaclean in 1997. There, Tatum was managing partner for nine years and remains as senior partner.
He modestly concedes his skills as a lawyer overlap those needed for his community work and credits his faith and his church, First Presbyterian Church, as central to his efforts.
“He’s always been either in complex litigation or complex business matters someone that everybody turns to,” said attorney Jim Pannell, who is a former Cheatham award winner.
But Pannell also noted Tatum’s activity for Hope House, Parent & Child and how he led the effort to keep Union Mission Inc. solvent several years ago while he was board chair of the homeless advocacy group.
Pannell said Tatum was a former partner with attorneys John Miller and John Simpson and presented Miller with the Cheatham award in 2006.
Tatum, he said, has shown the same activism in community affairs as his former law partners. That firm merged with HunterMaclean. Senior U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Lamar Davis Jr. said Thursday in introducing Tatum for the award that Tatum, with whom he formerly practiced, “is a consummate professional. He is an accomplished litigator, a gifted counselor and trusted adviser and mentor.
“He always labors to advance the interest of his clients while maintaining civility with his adversaries and candor with the court.”
Davis also praised Tatum’s work with community efforts, especially Union Mission as “a tangible legacy for this community and a shining example of professionalism at its best.”
Law partner Herring said Tatum “has always been about the organization he serves or the client he represents. It’s not about himself.”
Herring said community service is expected of lawyers, pointing out that in any community organization lawyers will be among the leaders. He called it “an obligation to give something back and John exemplifies that.”