Dugger and Cole law firm set to close after 57 years

John Thompson • Jun 18, 2019 at 9:08 PM

ELIZABETHTON — One of the oldest and most respected law firms in Carter County will soon be going out of business.

The Dugger and Cole law firm, 625 E. Elk Ave., was founded in 1962 by two young attorneys — George Dugger Jr. and Rondal Cole — who were not only partners but also lifelong friends. With the death of the two founders, the law firm continued under the leadership of two of Dugger’s children, Kathryn Dugger-Edwards and Mark Dugger. Dugger-Edwards died of cancer last year and Mark is giving up his law practice because of his continuing struggle with Parkinson’s disease.

The law firm traces its roots back nearly a century, to the law practice of George Dugger Jr.’s father, George Dugger Sr. He was a graduate of the University of Georgia and was a combat officer in the Army during World War II. He began practicing law in Elizabethton around 1925 and would become the plant attorney for the American Glanzstoff Rayon plant. During the Great Depression, he became a referee in bankruptcy court. He later became well known for his lawsuit against an urban renewal plan that would have removed the Veterans Monument in the Courthouse Circle. He was successful in that lawsuit, allowing the monument to continue standing.

George Dugger Jr. followed his father into the practice of law. George Jr. had one other great influence in his life, his best friend Rondal Cole. The two men went to Milligan College together, then enlisted in the Army together. Not only did they enlist together, they managed to stay together in their various Army assignments. The two men even served together during the open air testing of nuclear bombs in the Nevada desert in the early 1950s.

After their military careers, the two continued along a shared trajectory, attending the University of Tennessee Law School. After law school, the men would separate for the only time in their lives. While Dugger returned to Elizabethton, Cole would head to Nashville, where he would work in the U.S. District Court.

It was during this time that Cole would get involved with the most famous person either man ever worked with, Jimmy Hoffa, the head of the Teamsters Union. Hoffa was facing federal charges and the government was attempting to try him in Tennessee, far from his home and power base in Michigan. Cole filed motions to have the trial moved to Michigan.

Circumstances beyond Cole’s control would also bring him back home to form his law partnership with his close friend. The circumstance that set everything in motion was the 1960 presidential election between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

Mark Dugger said that back in those days political patronage in the justice system was strong. So strong that when a Democrat won the presidency, it meant that Republican Cole was out of a job. It was only natural that he would return to Elizabethton, and in 1962 the two friends opened up their new law firm. It proved to be a great partnership. Cole had a talent as a defense attorney in Sessions Court and Criminal Court. Dugger was more comfortable with the contract, real estate and business law in Chancery and Circuit Court. Both the attorneys developed solid reputations.

One of the longest-serving county executives in Carter County history was Truman Clark and for much of his 20-year career Dugger served as the county attorney. Dugger became the unquestioned legal authority for the county executive and also for the County Commission. When he finally retired, the commission appointed his daughter, Dugger-Edwards, to the position.

Cole’s reputation was made defending clients in criminal cases. His services were much in demand. Mark Dugger recalled that he had several high profile cases, including one of the defendants in the Ben Tester murder trail

Both were also seen as generous and kind men who had deep feelings of community spirit and loyalty. Dugger was always proud to say he was a descendant of Julius C. Dugger, the first justice of peace in Carter County, appointed in 1797. Cole was proud of his brother, Ralph Cole, who represented the county in the Tennessee House of Representatives for several years.

Many of today’s long established attorneys in Elizabethton remember Cole’s kindness and encouragement to them when they were just starting out.

“He was always generous with me and other young lawyers,” said Bill Byrd, who was not only just starting his legal career, but had been the football teammate and law school roommate of Mark Dugger..

Bill Hampton also said he found Cole to be a caring and helpful friend. “He was very kind to young lawyers. He was a wise adviser for me.”

But Hampton said his kindness went well beyond lawyers. “He was very kind to poor people.” Hampton said he often charged his poorest clients fees that were well below the standard rates.

Mark Dugger said even those low rates were sometimes overlooked by Dugger and Cole. He is currently going through all of their old files in preparation for closing the law firm and said he found many invoices that were simply left uncollected. Mark Duger said Cole was also the regular baby sitter. When he and Kathryn were young, Cole would come over to babysit whenever Mark’s father and mother were out.

One other thing that Byrd, Hampton and Mark Dugger agreed on was that Cole gave the appearance in court of an old-fashioned country lawyer, but he was effective and was very knowledgable of the law and well prepared. Byrd said his style was right for a small county court. Dugger said he was up to date on changes to the law and often used that knowledge to good effect. Hampton said three things that made him effective was that he was “courteous, he was ethical, and he was kind to poor people.”

Mark Dugger said Cole died in 1996 while undergoing surgery to repair an aneurysm. He said his father suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and died on Feb. 13, 2011.

Mark and Kathryn would lead the law firm into the new century. Both graduated from the University of Tennessee. Although he was not a lawyer, Kathryn’s husband, Keith Edwards, would prove to the quite an asset. He was a retired detective for the British West Mercia Constabulary. He also had old world craftsmanship skills, which he used in his retirement to turn the old building of Dugger and Cole into a showplace.

Mark said Kathryn died of pancreatic cancer on Sept. 14, 2018. Her husband had been struggling to help her through her illness, but he was suffering from bladder cancer. Finally, he was placed in a hospital roof one floor above his wife’s room. Keith died of his cancer on Nov. 14, 2018. Kathryn is buried in Happy Valley Cemetery, near her father and grandfather. Mark said that even though Keith spent most of his working life in England as a law enforcement officer, he had come to love America and chose to have his ashes placed on top of Roan Mountain.

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