Savannah Attorney John Tatum Matches Success With Need

February 13, 2012

Published in the Savannah Morning News (February 13, 2012)

By Jan Skutch

John Tatum is a successful partner in the state’s largest firm outside of Atlanta.

Beyond his gleaming law offices on Reynolds Square, many of Savannah’s homeless gather each weekday to await breakfast at the Emmaus House.

So it is no surprise that when he’s not practicing law, Tatum heads the leadership team at Union Mission Inc., one of the largest homeless advocates in Chatham County.

Tatum, 68, recalls 14 years ago when the Rev. Micheal Elliott, then Union Mission head, and Ben Barnes, a Union Mission board member and longtime homeless activist, approached him about joining.

Their hour-and-a-half-long pitch covering the entire project was “very impressive,” Tatun recalls, prompting him to join their ranks.

He is now in his second term as board president, a service commitment he calls “very satisfying just seeing the successful work Union Mission does. … Just what the people we help are saying about us.”

That agency provides emergency housing, life skills including GEDs, teaches the homeless how to get jobs and provides job training, as well as permanent housing and help with mental health and other health issues, he said.

Tatum, a military child who says he’s from Texas and France, recalls being recruited to Savannah by attorney John Miller, a longtime Savannah attorney, for his firm of Hitch, Miller, Beckmann and Simpson.

Tatum had never been to Savannah before, he said, but when he got out of his car on Bull Street, the affection was immediate.

“Man, this is one of the most beautiful places I had ever been in,” he recalls thinking.

So Tatum stuck around, and when his firm merged with the HunterMaclean group, he stayed.

Today, he finds himself handling some of the most challenging, interesting and biggest cases of his career.

“As long as that continues, I’m going to stay and practice law,” Tatum said, adding his wife, Ann, is “perfectly happy to have me go to work.”

But outside of the shining law offices and courthouses, Tatum remains active in serving the needs of some of Savannah’s most challenged — her homeless.

He concedes there have been frustrations along the way.

In late 2009 into 2010, Union Mission fell victim to the high costs of the Savannah Area Behavorial Health Collaborative run out of the J.C. Lewis Health Center on Fahm Street.

When Union Mission and her collaborative partners were unable to keep the funding flow needed to operate the program, Union Mission found itself with a huge debt, Tatum said.

Tatum and his team had to rely on the Chatham County Commission for help, selling off two of its core properties in return for financial aid, most recently a $2.6 million bond for the Lewis Health Center.

Even with the county funds, the nonprofit agency had to commit about $600,000 a year from private donations.

“We can do that,” Tatum said.

In addition, Union Mission had to commit to raising $700,000 from community solicitations, he said.

“We haven’t had to reduce our services.”

But it did mean returning to its core mission, severing the health-care piece.

“We have to change the fundamental way we provide services,” Tatum said.

Through it all, he said, his volunteer board remains among the most active in the region.

“I doubt if there’s a board anywhere that’s more engaged.”

At the end of the current term, Tatum will have to leave the board — but not his passion — behind.

It all goes back to the meeting 14 years ago.

“They made such a compelling case for the needs in this community,” he said, “that I became concerned, and still am.”

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