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Federal courthouse in Gainesville named for Judge Sidney O. Smith Jr.
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Family and friends of Sidney O. Smith Jr. have a photo taken Monday morning Nov. 27, 2017, during a naming ceremony of what is now the Sidney O. Smith Jr. Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse. - photo by Scott Rogers

Judges, lawyers and members of the U.S. Congress on Monday honored former Judge Sidney O. Smith Jr., who served on the bench with a “calm hand” during a tumultuous time in American history.

Smith’s name now stands on the front of the federal courthouse on Spring Street in Gainesville.

“For those of us who want to make a difference, you need heroes. You need role models. Nobody is perfect, but when someone gives an example that you can follow, you honor that,” U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, said during the naming ceremony.

Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue were also in attendance.

President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Smith to the bench as a U.S. District Court judge in 1965.

He was the fourth generation in his family to serve on the Brenau Board of Trustees, acting on the board for 35 years. Smith died in 2012.

Philip Wilheit Sr., who read a letter on behalf of Brenau President Ed Schrader, said the judge “walked through life with a quiet elegance and a sophisticated sense of humor.”

Smith served on the U.S. District Court bench until 1974, returning to private practice.

At times issuing controversial orders during the civil rights era, Smith “knew that he was compelled to follow the mandate of the Supreme Court and to follow his oath of office,” attorney Bobby Lee Cook said.

“He had too much respect for the law and for the processes of the law to ever take advantage of the situation … His strength was to bring people together, parties together and make the thing work,” Smith’s law partner Ron Reid said.

Reid recalled an old-fashioned, wooden hand plane on Smith’s desk given by his father.

“He never told me what it symbolized, but I think what it symbolized was that justice was handmade. It wasn’t mass-produced. It was made by people, for people,” Reid said.

Senior Circuit Judge J.L. Edmondson, who clerked for Smith in the early 1970s, considered the judge “the finest teacher” who left each of his clerks with a defining experience.

Sidney O. Smith III, the judge’s son, said his mother convinced the judge to return and stay in Gainesville.

Smith said his father described justice as a “blind man trying to feel his way to the top of a mountain.”

“Those words always stayed with me, and now five years after my father’s died, I think my father was describing his inner light, as an officer of the court,” Smith said.

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