Part II: Public Defender Joe Atnip Retires After 32-Year Career
BY DAVID FISHER
We continue with part II of the Aug. 10 edition article, “Public Defender Joe Atnip Retires After 32-Year Career”, outlining his military career, plans for retirement, affiliation with civic clubs, awards, and honors.
Atnip, who decided not to seek another term of office, says he’s looking forward to retiring and enjoying the country life with his family.
After being elected public defender representing the 27th Judicial District in 1990, Atnip served four consecutive eight-year terms. He has the distinction of being the first attorney elected district public defender for Weakley and Obion Counties.
During his military career, Atnip served in the U.S. Navy from 1975-1978. He was a squad leader of the U.S. Presidential Honor Guard Drill Team at the White House, and has performed before domestic and foreign leaders at Arlington National Cemetery and before numerous civic and community organizations. Additionally, he has performed his rifle drill routine many times over the years at area schools and for other special patriotic events such as Veterans Day.
“I’m often asked how I got started doing my ‘performances’ with a rifle. It started in the Navy. I was fortunate to be recruited out of boot camp into the Navy Ceremonial Guard, and then to be put into the Drill Team Platoon shortly after I got to Washington, D.C.
“You’ve got to Google or look on Youtube under ‘U.S. Navy Drill Team in Norway’ to see an example of what I did for two years. In that video you will see four guys break off from the rest of the 16-man team and do what we called a four-man routine. I’m not in that video, but I was on the four-man squad back in the mid-70s. So, when I got real ‘short’, meaning I had very little time left in the Navy, I got together with one of the other four guys and we worked up a ‘two-man’ routine, because we thought the four-man routine was not quite exciting enough. One day, on the bus going to perform before a huge high school in Washington, I asked the platoon leader if my buddy and I could do the two-man that he and I had been practicing. The platoon leader said ‘no’. I told my buddy, Kid Cale, ‘Let’s do it anyway’. He said ‘no’, he couldn’t afford to disobey a direct order because he was not as short as I was.”
“But the 16-man routine that day was awful. We dropped two rifles. One of the guys got bayoneted in the arm and was bleeding. The high school audience looked bewildered, as if to say, ‘Is that the way it’s supposed to look?’ So, as we marched off the gym floor toward the exit, the kids were just sitting there, wondering whether to clap or laugh or exactly what to do. I did two right faces, slowly marched back to the center of the gym, and proceeded to do a one-man routine. The place erupted. Of course, if I had dropped the rifle, the Navy might have thrown me in the brig, but as it was, the brass never said a word to me. I’m probably wrong, but that may have been the first and only time any of the four military drill teams, Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines, had somebody do a one-man routine in front of an audience.”
“I made the mistake of bragging to my mom about it. Just a few days after I got home from the Navy, my mother asked me to speak to her elementary school class. Also, she said, ‘I want you to wear your uniform and I want you to spin a rifle.’ I protested that I didn’t have the right kind of rifle. I needed a military style rifle with a strap on it. “Your dad will find you one,” she said, and he did, at the army/navy store. It was fortunate that I had brought home several of my uniforms, both whites and blues. And so I began to speak and spin before elementary schools, high schools, rotary clubs, senior citizens’ centers, even churches. I didn’t do it for political purposes, but I guess it hasn’t hurt me politically. Roy Herron once told me, ‘Joe, you may be the first Tennessean since Davy Crockett to win an election because of your skill with a rifle.’”
“If it weren’t for the arthritis that set in on my wrist, I suppose I would still be doing it because I still get invitations. Paul Tinkle put up a short clip of me at the Sharon Senior Citizens Center on Facebook a few years ago, and I guess it’s still on the internet somewhere. I know it looks kind of funny to see an old gray-headed man spinning a rifle, but I hope what I said to the audiences somewhat made up for the lack of visual appeal.”
“I was raised near a big city. I wanted a job like lawyering that would allow me to live away from the city. I wanted to live on the farm my ancestors settled near Greenfield. We live way out in the country in the home built by my great-great grandfather.
“I have a few things to occupy my time after I retire. Kathy and I raise stuff on the small farm that surrounds my house. Here is a partial list: blueberries, blackberries, muscadines, peaches, apples, plums, pecans, mulberries, asparagus, and herbs. We have a raised bed garden that’s drip-irrigated and we have a field garden. The field garden grows things like purple potatoes, silver queen sweet corn, okra, and several varieties of squash.”
“The raised bed garden grows everything else, like pole beans, lettuce, Swiss chard, turnip greens, mustard greens, etc., and it’s in the raised beds that I grow my pride and joy, Tennessee Britches, an heirloom tomato that all of Weakley County can be proud of. Jack Buckley, from Dresden, originated the variety; or, at least, his ancestors did. Joe Terry, my amazing investigator for many years, used to grow the tomato, and he introduced it to me. Google the name ‘Tennessee Britches’ and you’ll find companies that sell the seed. It’s a big, dense, luscious, old-fashioned tasting tomato that is by far the best tomato I’ve ever tasted, and I’ve grown dozens of different heirloom varieties.”
“I have three hives of honeybees. Also, I have a pond from which we harvest bass and bream for the freezer, plus Kathy and I butcher two or three does every winter. I don’t go out in the cold and sit for hours. I just wake up and shoot them from an upstairs window and within a few minutes they’re hanging in my shed.”
“Kathy is truly a wonder. She was raised a town girl, but she can cook, sew, shuck corn, bait a hook, paint a house, butcher a deer, teach junior high math, put up every garden, vineyard and orchard product known to man and care for grandchildren at the same time. And do it all with a smile on her pretty face.”
“My dad, who, like Kathy, could do anything, introduced me to woodworking, and I built a dedicated woodshop just a couple of years ago. It’s an incredible place, and I can spend all day there, winter or summer, making things. Kim Hughey, our county clerk, asked me to build her a little table for her office, and so, next time you’re in there, ask her to point it out. By the way, I don’t buy the wood that I use. I use only what I cut down on my farm: sugar maple, oak, walnut, poplar, etc. I haul the logs to the sawmill to have them sawed into rough lumber, which I then dry myself and mill in the woodshop.”
Civic Clubs, Awards & Honors
Regarding his affiliation with civic clubs, professional organizations, and other honors, Atnip said, “I’m going to continue to be a Greenfield Rotarian, and I plan to continue to haunt the Dresden Rotary Club. He has also been a member of the American Legion.
“Kathy and I are members of the Greenfield Church of Christ. I was honored to serve as president of the Public Defenders Conference. I have been honored to argue cases before the Federal District Court, before the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals and before the Tennessee Supreme Court.”
When asked, “As you bring your career to a close, do you have any message you would like to tell the people who have elected you four times over the past 32 years?” Atnip said, “I first want to take this opportunity to thank every juror who has ever sat on one of my trials. Often, jurors have to have the courage to make unpopular decisions. I will always be grateful to the good people of these two counties who have taken time from their families, their farms, their classrooms, their businesses, to do their part on behalf of our judicial system. Our jury system makes America the envy of the world.”
“It has been a wonderful 32 years,” Atnip said. “I am deeply grateful for the support the people of Obion and Weakley counties have given to me and to this office.”