Jim Hawkins, the Gallatin attorney and Sumner County School Board member who was known for his dedication to the community and helping those less fortunate, died Friday, Dec. 6 following a months-long battle with cancer. He was 63.

“Jim had empathy for those who were struggling, and he cared about everybody,” Gallatin Mayor Paige Brown recalled. “He did so much to make our city better and honestly make a lot of us better.

“There were not a lot of people in Gallatin that didn’t know him or were in some way positively impacted by him.”

A 1974 graduate of Gallatin High School, Hawkins went on to attend Centre College where he majored in government and became certified as a high school teacher. He then received his master’s degree in educational policy studies from Peabody College and his law degree from Duke University in 1982. 

After working as an in-house attorney and business unit leader for BellSouth for 14 years, Hawkins and his family returned to his hometown in 2002. In the years that followed he became even more widely known throughout the community for his dedicated support of many area nonprofits and organizations along with his prolific positive presence on social media.

“You were his brother, or you were his sister – that’s the way he treated everybody in the world,” said James Johnson, senior pastor of Gallatin First United Methodist Church where Hawkins was a lifelong member. “He showed unconditional love. Everybody mattered.”

Dedicated public servant

Prior to opening his own law practice in downtown Gallatin, Hawkins spent six years working as a managing attorney for the Gallatin office of the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands, representing countless low income and vulnerable families in various types of civil cases. 

His support of the state’s largest nonprofit law firm continued even after his departure and included volunteer work at legal clinics as well as taking cases without compensation.

In the courtroom, Sumner County Circuit Court Judge Joe Thompson described Hawkins as a “true professional” who was always prepared, on time and “exceedingly fair” to all sides in litigation he was involved with. 

“Jim loved practicing law, and I think it’s because he genuinely liked people, wanted to hear their stories and wanted to do well by them,” Thompson said. “Practicing law was just another way for Jim to do what he really loved and that was helping people.”

Hawkins also shared his legal knowledge with the community through the more than 400 popular “Tennessee Legal” newspaper columns that he wrote on various topics throughout the years. 

Outside of the courtroom, Hawkins was also an engaged citizen and dedicated volunteer that was involved with numerous organizations across the community including Habitat for Humanity of Sumner County, Boy Scout Troop 407, Children Are People, United Way of Sumner County, Gallatin Rotary Club and the Sumner County Adult Education Advisory Council. He also had served as a member of the Sumner County School Board since 2016.

“He arbitrated our laws, and his life, under the umbrella of the two unassailable laws - to love God and to love one another,” Hawkins’ longtime friend Hugh Love said. “His whole life, he never strayed from these simple guiding principles, for he knew other laws were superfluous if these were followed. Jim didn’t become Jim, he was born that way. I will deeply miss my lifelong friend and brother.”

Last month, Hawkins was named the 2019 Gallatin Citizen of the Year by the Gallatin News for his selfless dedication to the community. 

At the time, Hawkins attributed his desire to helping others to his late parents and the support of his family. He added that “we are called to show God’s love and care for us through our love and care for others.”

At home, Hawkins was the same as he was in public, according to his wife Betsy.

“There was not some other person that turned off when he came through the door,” Betsy Hawkins said. “He was just always kind and always wanting to help people feel good about themselves.

“He valued every person.”

In one example of the compassion he had towards others, Johnson recalled how Hawkins helped a homeless woman who was hungry and had come to the church one Wednesday evening just before choir practice was set to begin.

“Jim was not satisfied with buying her dinner at Wendy’s,” Johnson said. “He also went to the grocery store and he bought everything you could imagine as though this person who was homeless was his sister. He was so thoughtful about the things that he bought her.”

‘His faith was strong’

In July, Hawkins was forced to abruptly step back from his community involvement in order to focus on his health after being unexpectedly diagnosed with “double-hit” lymphoma – an aggressive and constantly evolving form of cancer. 

As a result of the chemotherapy treatments, Hawkins became more susceptible to illness and thus was forced to become isolated for the first time in his very public life, according to his family.

“He felt this disease pulled him away from the people he loved, from his community, but they reached out to him,” Betsy Hawkins said. “That reaching out meant the world to him. It was really heartwarming. We felt like we weren’t in this alone.” 

However, despite undergoing the most aggressive treatments available, Hawkins and his family learned last month that it had not been enough. The cancer had spread to his brain where the chemotherapy was unable to reach. 

“I never saw him get angry,” Betsy Hawkins said. “If he was feeling despair, he didn’t show it.

“There was some sadness of course… but his faith was strong. He never felt fear that I saw.”

Lasting legacy

Even while undergoing treatments, Hawkins maintained a presence on social media and continued to participate in Sumner County School Board meetings by telephone.  

“He had a passion for the improvement of our schools and the kids,” Sumner County School Board Chairman Tim Brewer said about Hawkins. “Every vote he weighed out carefully to make sure that it was going to be the right thing for the students, principals, teachers and staff. There was a lot of research in what he did.”

Every decision Hawkins made was “always rooted in what he believed was best for students and the community,” added Del Phillips, director of Sumner County Schools.

“He loved Gallatin, Sumner County and Sumner County Schools; and he loved public service,” Phillips said. “Our entire school community mourns his loss along with his family.”

After learning about his diagnosis this summer, Gallatin residents Glenn and Jerri Hughes created the “Fill in for Jim Hawkins” group on Facebook to help document and share information about local events which Hawkins was known for doing before his illness.

Hawkins told the Gallatin News last month that he tried to focus his social media posts on the “quality of our schools, the strengthening of the core parts of our community and the welcoming of residents and future neighbors.”

“In dealing with social media, it is my style and goal to seek out the positive and focus on the good that is happening all around us,” Hawkins said. “It’s satisfying for me to share my personal perspective on the people and places that I see around town, plus it’s fun for me to capture people’s smiles and photograph the joy of these events.”

Hawkins, an avid runner who enjoyed participating in local 5K races, was also known for the happy birthday Facebooks posts he would send each year to others that always ended with “(This wish is good for 7 days.)”

Brown described Hawkins as “Gallatin’s best friend and greatest advocate” while adding that his positive attitude and kind words set an example for others that will continue have a lasting impact on the community. 

“I know it’s made me certainly pay more attention to the things I say and do because of the impact I’ve watched Jim have by always being positive and kind and trying to find the good in people,” Brown said. “Jim always wanted people to be their best and have what they wanted in life. 

“I think a lot of people feel the value of trying to be more like him.” 

Hawkins is survived by his wife of 32 years, Betsy Rogers Hawkins; his children, Rachel of Watertown, Mass.; Jimmy of White House, Tenn.; and Caryn of Memphis, Tenn.; his brothers and their spouses, Bob and Cheryl Hawkins of Madison, Ala.; Chuck Hawkins of Queens, N.Y.; Drs. Andy and Diane Hawkins of Abingdon, Va.; his all-but-adopted brother, Raj Sivananthan of Phoenix, Ariz.; six nephews; eight nieces; his uncle, Dr. James W. Langston and his wife Elizabeth of Eugene, Ore.; his aunt, Ann Langston of Larkspur, Calif.; and many longtime friends.

A funeral service in celebration of his life and faith was held Wednesday at the Gallatin First United Methodist Church. In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts may be made to the church or to a non-profit charitable organization of your choice.  

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