UNCLE HENRY'S PUBLIC LIFE
Chapter 17 in K. Westhues, ed., Where We Belong: Historical Essays for the Family of Olive Conran and John Westhues, Glasgow, Mo., privately published, 1997. Published on the web in 2003.
The most prominent of our Westhues ancestors was Dad's brother,
Henry (1888-1969), who reached the pinnacle of his career in 1961, when he was
elected Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court.
Following completion of his law degree from St. Louis University
in 1912, Uncle Henry was appointed city attorney of Jefferson City. He won election
as prosecuting attorney of Cole County in 1918, again in 1920, then was elected
circuit court judge in 1922 and 1928. He served as commissioner of the Supreme
Court from 1930 to 1954, when Governor Phil M. Donnelly appointed him as judge.
Under the Missouri plan, Uncle Henry had then to face the voters of the state
in the general election of 1956. He won a twelve-year term and served until
1963, when he reached the age of 75 and was required by law to retire.
My purpose here is to shed some light on the kind of jurist Uncle Henry was. That is hard, because I grew up seeing him in the context of family reunions and his trips to the farm once or twice a year for rabbit-hunting with Dad.
In our family, Uncle Henry was not placed on a pedestal. Dad used to say lawyers had to be a little crooked to succeed. In the culture of the Westhues family, judges ranked well below priests in respectability. The pedestals were reserved for Father Fritz, Father John, Father Joe, and Father Jack.
Even so, I was aware as a boy that Uncle Henry had some higher status. I could tell from his canvas hunting jacket, that had large pockets inside for holding rabbits, quail or other game that had been shot. Dad had no such store-bought hunting gear. For carrying dead game he used an old but sturdy gunny sack, slung across his shoulder with a length of leather harness.
When Uncle Henry came visiting, often with his son Father Jack, Mom made sure the house was tidy, and served dinner in the dining room as opposed to the kitchen, where we normally ate. Perhaps because Uncle Henry embodied the Germanic propriety with which Mom was never quite at ease, his presence in our home seemed to put her on edge. She was not and never wished to be an unassuming hausfrau like his wife, Aunt Helen, who defined her life in terms of faithful service in the home.
One morning in late summer of 1958, Mom left the house in something of a mess and drove me to Moberly, our purpose being to buy the new suit I needed for my impending enrollment at St. Thomas Seminary in Hannibal. I had just turned 14.
We were happy to get a good buy, paying $12 for exactly the blue gabardine suit I was looking for. Then we did some other shopping and headed home in high spirits.
As we turned into the farmhouse lane from Route V, Mom spied Uncle Henry's Chrysler in our driveway and burst into a laugh at the contrast between the mess in our house and his ideal of womanhood. "Oh, Kenny," Mom said, "let's just keep driving."
We did not do that, of course, instead arrived in the kitchen to find Dad frying a squirrel, Father Jack peeling potatoes, and Uncle Henry setting the kitchen table. All three were in good humor, and the occasion turned out to be fun.
Years later, after his retirement, Uncle Henry gave me copies of two retrospectives on his work as a judge. There was first an issue of the Saint Louis University Law Journal (Vol. 7, No. 3, spring 1963), which was dedicated to him and which included appraisals of his decisions by Orville Richardson, then president-elect of the Missouri Bar Association, by Supreme Court Judge Laurence Hyde, and by the law-school faculty. Second, Uncle Henry gave me the published transcript of the Supreme Court's proceedings of June 4, 1963, the day he retired, which included testimonials by Mr. Richardson, Cole County lawyer Henry Andrae, and Judge C. A. Leedy. It was in a manner of uncharacteristic shyness and vulnerability that Uncle Henry placed these items in my hands. Piecing together comments made therein with my own recollections, I offer this profile of the kind of judge he was.
He was a man of the people who saw himself on basically the same level as everybody else, except charged by the people with enforcing the people's laws. Chesterton referred in his book on Dickens to the latter's dislike of "a certain look on the face of a man when he looks down on another man." That look, Chesterton wrote, "is the only thing that we have really to fight between here and the fires of hell." Uncle Henry did not have that look.
Or in Uncle Henry's own words, responding to the testimonials:
I am not suggesting that he lacked ambition. On the contrary, he must have set his sights very high when he was very young. The story goes that four-year-old Henry went missing on the voyage to America, only to be found hours later asleep on the couch in the captain's cabin. Dad said Uncle Henry told him once that when he learned that the U. S. Constitution restricts the office of president to native-born citizens, he was unable to sleep that night.
Nor, to be sure, did his democratic commitments imply membership in the Democratic Party. Henry was a staunch Republican, an opponent of the welfare state, and a critic of the federal Supreme Court under Earl Warren, on account of its allowing government to intervene more in citizens' lives.
But Henry's brand of Republicanism was not the elite kind, and he did not cultivate social ties with the state's aristocracy. His Republicanism was more like Thomas Jefferson's, grounded in identification with small, independent business owners, and supportive of their freedom and rights. This political priority fit his background. His father and all his brothers except Father Joe were self-employed farmers. His sister Mary and her husband Joseph Flaspohler owned and operated a dairy. His sister Anna and her husband Jule Oidtman owned and operated a grocery store. Henry himself had gotten his start working as a teenager at Grove's Drug Store in Glasgow. He came from the class of small-scale capitalists and shared their vision of the world.
Henry's Republicanism was therefore much like that of our other famous relative, Abraham Lincoln. The comparison was not lost on observers:
Uncle Henry's rejection of an ethic of superiority appears in other aspects of the documents he gave me. In his comments at the retirement ceremony, for example, he answered a lawyer who complained that it was pointless to file motions for rehearing before Henry's Supreme Court, because the motions were never sustained.
Humility was also apparent in the profuse thanks he offered on this same occasion to the two women who had, between them, served as his secretary for 32 years:
Judge Henry's specialty was torts, civil wrongs in which one party treads upon another party's rights. His opinions were described as short, crisp, to the point, and strictly focussed on adjudicating the rights in dispute. He was said to be merciless toward underhandedness. In one of his more noted decisions, he ruled against 122 insurance companies that were illegally fixing rates, and levied some millions of dollars of fines against them.
|I conclude with perhaps the two most admirable of Uncle Henry's
qualities as judge, in the view of the commentators when his career was done.
First, he thought his decisions through independently, by his own logic, before
setting them down, instead of trying to reach a decision automatically, as it
were, by citation of accumulated precedents:
Finally was the highest compliment anyone trained in the law, or maybe anyone at all, can receive—especially in light of Dad's comments about lawyers needing to be crooked to succeed.
There is no denying that Uncle Henry had faults, in his private as in his public life. His devotion to Catholicism was no less dogmatic than Dad's, and this caused pain in his family. It may be that his image of America as a Jeffersonian democracy was out of date. Still, on balance, I cannot imagine a jurist-uncle in whom we could take greater pride.
Dated 1912, this photo shows Harry Grove (seated), proprietor of Grove's Drug Store in Glasgow, Missouri. With him are two local boys whom he employed as clerks, both of whom became prominent in later life. The boy at left is Grove's nephew, Harry Hawkins Vaughan, then a freshman at Westminster College in Fulton. He went on to become a Major General in the U.S. Army and is best known as President Harry Truman's friend, aide, and drinking buddy. The boy in the center of the photo is Henry Westhues, then newly graduated from St. Louis University Law School. The photo is reproduced here from the original in the Glasgow Historical Museum, thanks to J. Y. Miller and Ron Westhues, 2022.