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Judge Robert Chapman passes away

Posted: April 26, 2018 5:08 p.m.
Updated: April 27, 2018 1:00 a.m.
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Robert Chapman

Judge Robert Foster Chapman, a retired U.S. Appellate Court judge who was a part of the Camden and Kershaw County community for many years, passed away Wednesday, April 18.

“He was just a wonderful guy, a great friend -- he will be greatly missed,” Joe Sullivan said.

Known for a brilliant legal mind and deep integrity coupled with a down-to-earth demeanor and sharp sense of humor, Chapman practiced law for more than 20 years before a presidential appointment as a federal district court judge in 1971. He would ascend to the federal appellate court in 1981 and serve until electing senior status in 1991.

John Tatum, a Beaufort, S.C. attorney, formerly of Camden, was a law clerk for Chapman from 1981 to 1982.

“It was a great honor to work for him,” Tatum remembered.  “He was an admirable person possessed of an unusual intellect and deep integrity. I thoroughly enjoyed my time working with him. They just don’t make them like him anymore.”

Camden attorney Moultrie Burns agreed.

“I was lucky to be one of his law clerks,” Burns said. “He was a very smart man and a wonderful mentor to me and many others. He was a trial judge when I clerked for him and later he was appointed to the 4th circuit court of appeals. He once told me he liked being a trial judge best because he liked all the action, or as he put it to me, he ‘liked to see the monkey jump.’”

Attorney Woody Cleveland remembered how much Chapman seemed to enjoy trial work -- and just how good he was at trying a case.

“I had the privilege of first knowing him in 1971 when he had first become a federal district judge and I had first become a lawyer,” Cleveland said. “He was a brilliant trial judge -- he presided over his courtroom with an amazing grace, judicial command and intelligence, and in doing so he created an atmosphere of respect and civility for opposing lawyers and litigants. It’s no exaggeration to say he was so revered in the entire legal community of lawyers and judges – without seeking it -- he really was like royalty among lawyers and judges.”

Burns noted that, while others in similar positions might develop an overly high opinion of themselves, that was never the case with Judge Chapman. He maintained a very down-to-earth, “every man” demeanor with all people; he extended the same courtesy and genuine friendliness to everyone.

“I noticed, early on, when judges entered a courthouse, a lot of the staff were often on pins and needles, but Judge Chapman had a way with speaking and interacting with everybody the same way. I know they appreciated that about him because so many told me so, even years later.”

State Circuit Court Judge G. Thomas Cooper said Chapman was a role model as a judge and as a person.

“He was the epitome of what I always imagined a judge should be,” Cooper said. “He was a very gracious person. I could really say I loved the man -- he was my idol.”

Cooper said he was able to arrange a visit with the judge last fall during a break while Cooper was presiding over court in Spartanburg County. Chapman, of course, was 91 and in failing health, but his mind was still sharp and he enjoyed having visitors.

“When I came in the room, he was sitting in his chair, in his plaid shirt and camel hair jacket,” Cooper remembered. “Here it is, right before noon, he’s dressed for company and he says, ‘Come on in, can I offer you a drink?’”

Chapman is also remembered for his love of telling stories and his sharp sense of humor.

Burns said once, while still Chapman’s clerk, he was driving the judge to the office in Florence. The judge was poring over a case file, but he was also listening to an opera on the car’s stereo system. At one point, apropos of nothing, Chapman asked Burns a question about the music.

“He said, ‘so, Moultrie, how do you like Verdi,’” Burns said. “At the time, I had no idea who or what Verdi was, but I decided to take a stab at it, so I said, well, I think he has a pretty good voice.”

When the judge looked up and slowly set the case file down in his lap, Burns knew he had guessed wrong.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Moultrie, I cannot believe that a man who went to school at Sewanee doesn’t have any idea who Verdi is,’” Burns said, laughing at the memory.

The following Christmas, Chapman’s wife gave Burns a special gift: a small statue of Verdi.

“I still have it,” he said.

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