That book changed his life.
“I was teaching in Maryland and got drafted,” Tenth District Attorney General Steve Bebb recalls. “I went to get my physical — this was during the early stages of Vietnam — and I passed the mental just fine, but the physical showed I had toenails taken off and kidney stones.”
The doctor told Bebb he had marked he was in fine health.
“I am,” Bebb said he replied. “I’ve done everything I wanted to do.”
But, he was categorized as “1Y” and that ended the military option, although “I wanted to go somewhere.”
With that, he applied for the Peace Corps and spent two years in Cameroon, a country in the west central region of Africa.
“While I was there, the Peace Corps gave you a box with shelves in it and about 250 books,” he said. “Because you’re there, and at night you have nothing else to do, I read everyone of them.”
There was one book out of those many that spurred his interest in the law.
It was “Yankee From Olympus” by Catherine Drinker Bowen. It is the biography of the legendary U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.
“Not that I ever had any ambition to be an Oliver Wendell Holmes, it did interest me in the practice of law,” Bebb said.
That practice, which has extended through almost four decades comes to an end Tuesday when Bebb takes leave of his current position in the district attorney general’s office.
Boxes are packed, pictures are off the wall and Bebb has a very laid back, almost joyful attitude about leaving the pressures of the job behind.
He is also sentimental in recalling the events and the people who have dotted his legal pathways.
Bebb said when he returned from the Peace Corps he also returned to teaching in a Maryland middle school setting before he got the call to be basketball coach at TMI in Sweetwater.
“My father had been basketball coach and athletic director there years before,” Bebb said. “I then decided I wanted to go to law school.”
At the same time, he received an offer to be an assistant basketball coach at Middle Tennessee State University.
“I chose to go to law school instead. I’m not sure I made the right choice,” he said with a laugh.”
Bebb said having the experience in being a teacher was a plus as he entered a courtroom.
“Anytime you are arguing before a jury, you’re trying to teach them,” he said. “I think there is a correlation between the two occupations.”
He remembers his first case in Knoxville, which he described as “no case at all.”
“And, got beat!” he said, again with a laugh.
Bebb came back to the area and called then-DAG Richard Fisher and asked for a job.
“I wanted to come back to Sweetwater where I lived,” he said. “I called Fisher and asked him for a job and he said, ‘No.’”
Bebb then opened a practice in Sweetwater and while in court happened to run into Fisher.
“He asked if I still wanted the job. I told him yes and he said I would start on Monday,” Bebb said.
Bebb went to Ducktown and was sworn in by Judge James Witt.
“I was told to be in Cleveland on Monday to meet everybody,” Bebb said.
“I got to the courthouse. I see Fisher and he hands me a file and says I am going to try the case,” he recalled.
“I walked in the courtroom and Judge (Earl) Murphy was on the bench, Jimmy Logan was defending the case, the jury was in the box and the judge was sitting up there.
“I introduced myself to Judge Murphy. I really didn’t know much about criminal law. The judge said they had already questioned the jurors and have a jury.
“I asked the judge if we could have a little break before we started the trial and he said yes. We went into chambers and I asked him and Logan, ‘What do I do next?’ That’s when they told me the order of proof and all of that.
“I said I didn’t know if I had any witnesses there or not. I didn’t know anything. They gave me a few minutes and I went out and found one officer who was there. He was the only witness. It was a break-in case of a drug store in Charleston.”
Bebb said he had not really paid much attention to the defendant for a period of time, but when he did noticed something very familiar.
“I finally realized I had coached him at TMI in football,” he said. “But, he had been caught red-handed in that drug store and the jury convicted him in no time at all. I remember thinking, ‘Boy, this is easy!’”
“But, it got harder,” Bebb said.
He spent five or six years off and on working at the DA’s office.
“I loved Richard, but we didn’t see eye to eye. I’d quit and he’d call and I’d go back. It was a good relationship, though,” he said.
Then came the decision to run for Criminal Court judge.
“I knew Curwood Witt was running and I remember coming down here and talking to someone in Bradley County about running. They said I should run as a Democrat, because Curwood’s got the Republican nomination tied up,” he said.
Bebb went home and told his mother — “a die-hard Republican” — he was going to run as a Democrat.
“She said she’d help me all she could. And she did,” he said. “In fact the Knoxville paper the day after the election had the headline, ‘GOP Mom, Demo Son Wins Judgeship.’”
He recalls his mother as being “a remarkable, remarkable woman.”
She and Sue Tallent were the leaders of the Republican Party and Bebb said, with a grin, “she got in trouble.”
He said everybody told him he couldn’t win,
“But someway, we did. I think my mother had more to do with it than I did — and, my father. My father had been a principal, coach and teacher and was very well respected. I think the respect they had bled over on me. That’s why I could never do anything wrong and just be honest.”
“But I probably never won without a lot of Republican votes,” Bebb said. “It fits in with me, because I don’t care anything about politics.”
He said his only interest has been in the judicial system and its efficient operation.
“And, I want it to operately justly. That’s always been my aim,” Bebb said.
“Regardless of what the state legislature thinks,” he adds, as a quick shot toward a number who made his final years as AG not so pleasant. “In all my career, I never had any complaints until this bunch....”
Back to his judgeship years, he said being a judge was “a great experience.”
“Twenty-three years, four months and two days,” he recalled. “I should have finished my term and probably should have run for one more term instead of running for DA, because I never had any headaches as a judge.”
He said it was “a lot of fun,” but it took some time to feel comfortable in the judicial robes.
“I promised I would only run three times and I kept that promise until people started pushing me to run for DA,” Bebb said.
He said sitting on the bench there are many times when a difficult decision is reached.
“My mother took me aside after I won and told me, ‘Honey, I have to tell you something. You’re not as smart as any of those people you beat. But, if you will listen and study and, regardless of anything, just do the right thing, you’ll have a great career,’” a quote recalled with a quiver of the voice.
“I always looked back at that when I had a difficult decision — always do the right thing,” Bebb said.
When asked if there were ever a moment in the courtroom that decorum kept him from laughing, Bebb replied, “Decorum never prevented me.
“I always told lawyers and the jurors that the courtroom ought to be a microcosm of life in spite of all the rules we have,” Bebb said. “So if something is funny, laugh. If something is sad, cry. It doesn’t bother me at all.”
He said he did some things while on the bench some might call “strange.”
“I often got up and walked around during a trial,” he said. “I always thought it was important that I could see the witness testifying. I could see what was going on in the courtroom. Sometimes people do things they’re not supposed to be doing in there. It’d make them a little nervous if they thought I was back there.”
Bebb admits to perhaps being somewhat unorthodox as a judge.
He said he was once told the staff of the Court of Appeal “would rather read your transcripts than anyone else’s in the state.”
“I told them when I came in here, ‘I want you to work hard. I want you to try to do justice. But, I want you to have a good time,’” he said adding, “I guess that’s why the last couple of years here have not been as much fun along the way.”
He said he embraced the rules of judicial conduct as if it were the Bible.
“I see it’s not happening a lot of times anymore and it bothers me,” Bebb said. “It really bothers me.”
It then came time to move to the other side of the bench — as district attorney general.
(Part two of Steve Bebb’s story will appear in Monday’s edition of the Daily Banner.)