PALESTINE — Known for his strong faith and his wisdom on and off the bench, longtime Palestine attorney Melvin Whitaker was remembered by his colleagues and friends Monday.
Whitaker, 81, a former state district judge, district attorney and city council member, passed away Sunday morning after collapsing from heart failure as he prepared to lead a Sunday school Bible class at Evangelistic Temple.
“His death is a great loss to not only the church but to the whole community. He impacted a lot of people,” the Rev. Jason Harris, pastor of Evangelistic Temple told the Herald-Press Monday. “The man was highly respected in the community and in the church. His desire was to serve the Lord. He had the largest Sunday school class in the church. People admired his insight into the scriptures so much.”
Harris said he has personally leaned on Whitaker for advice throughout the years.
“He was someone I looked up to tremendously. He was known for his wisdom. He was a man full of grace. He would never say a bad word about anyone — even if there were words to be said. He always said something good about people,” Harris continued. “When I first became pastor, he was one of the first men I reached out to for advice. I valued his input that much.”
Whitaker was born Sept. 16, 1932, in Old Gulf, Matagorda County to George and Lenora Whitaker. They moved to Coahoma in Howard County shortly after he was born, later moving to Houston in 1943. He graduated from high school in 1951, attending Baylor University for one quarter before entering the United States Marine Corp, where he served during the Korean War from 1951 to 1953. After his discharge, he graduated from Baylor University in 1957 with a B.A. degree and a D.J. degree from Baylor Law School in 1958.
While attending Baylor, he met the love of his life, Emma Lee Moore. They married Dec. 1, 1956.
After his graduation from Baylor, the Whitakers moved to Beaumont where they lived from 1958 to 1965. Whitaker practiced law there, also serving as treasurer and secretary of the Jefferson County Bar Association and as the 2nd Congressional District Director of the Texas State Junior Bar.
After meeting the late Palestine attorney Jim Bob Paxton at a full gospel meeting in Beaumont, Paxton offered Whitaker a job with his firm in Palestine — a town he had never been to before, according to a family member.
In 1965, the family moved to Palestine where they have lived since, except for one year in Pensacola, Fla. followed by one year in Washington, D.C. (1968-70). Whitaker served as Counsel for Federal National Mortgage Association and later as Trial Counsel for the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C.
Upon their return to Texas, Whitaker resumed his trial practice in Palestine. He was a trial lawyer for most of his professional life. He was elected to the Palestine City Council and was serving as Finance Commissioner in 1973 when Texas Gov. Dolph Briscoe appointed him District Attorney for the 173rd Judicial District to which he was elected for three terms (1973-1984). This district covered Anderson, Henderson and Houston counties. In 1984, Texas Gov. Mark White appointed Whitaker as a judge of the 349th Judicial District Court for Anderson and Houston counties to which he was elected in November 1984. He was re-elected in 1988, without opposition.
He left the bench in Palestine around 1991 then served as visiting senior judge in the drug courts in Dallas. He and his son, Palestine attorney Stuart Whitaker, opened up their firm Whitaker & Whitaker in April 1994. At the time of his death, the senior Whitaker was still practicing law.
Palestine attorney Jim Parsons, a retired 3rd District Court Judge, had the highest respect for Whitaker.
“Melvin and I were partners for 10 years in law practice with Jim Bob Paxton. He was my mentor when I first started practicing in the 1970s, staying until around 1980,” Parsons told the Herald-Press Monday. “He was an outstanding lawyer, district attorney and judge. He was a great advocate for the state of Texas as a district attorney and a great advocate for his clients in civil cases and criminal cases.”
Whitaker was a role model for attorneys and those practicing law in Anderson County, Parsons said.
“He was one of the finest judges we had. I rank him alongside Judge Lawrence as one of the finest judges I've ever practiced with,” Parsons said. “Above all, if you knew Melvin, his faith was paramount in his life. He didn't just talk the talk, he walked the walk. He died in church. I know he would have wanted to go that way.”
369th District Court Judge Bascom W. Bentley III also respected Whitaker's dedication to law and his faith.
“He was a good, honest, decent, noble Christian man. He had a good legal mind as I've ever seen. More than once I relied on it. But he also was a devout Christian. He helped me with my faith more than once,” Bentley told the Herald-Press. “There are not words to describe how much I respected and loved that man.”
Bentley was serving as county attorney in the mid-'70s while Whitaker was serving in the District Attorney's office next to him.
“I took a lot of questions and problems to him to solve. And we were judges together. Melvin and I walked through the same doors at the courthouse many times,” Bentley said. “It was a honor and privilege to know him.”
Longtime friend Benny Burlison met Whitaker in 1966.
“We have been good, good friends ever since. He was a great influence in my life. I think he had great integrity and when he was a judge, he was a fair judge. He did a good job every where he went,” Burlison said.
Burlison is the pastor of Holy Ground Worship Center in Palestine and former pastor of Trinity Church, where at one time Whitaker attended church.
“He attended my church in the past years ago and he's preached at my church now a few times,” Burlison said. “The last few years on the church's birthday, he would come and preach.”
Whitaker leaves behind his wife of 57 years, Emma Lee Whitaker; son and law partner, Stuart Whitaker of Palestine; daughter, Karen Hardwick of Garland; six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Memorial services will be held at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 5 at Evangelistic Temple under the direction of Bailey & Foster Funeral Home of Palestine.