Kind Words From Both A Senator And A Drug Kingpin

By John J. Duncan Jr.

The people of East Tennessee have been very good to me over the years, and even now I am very grateful for the kind things people say to me about my service in Congress and about my book and about the columns I write for The Focus.

But I recently came across a letter that is more special to me today than when I received it more than 27 years ago.

I say “recently came across” because the Congress was in session right up to the last few days I was in office, and I came home with over 200 boxes filled with letters, speeches, columns, newspaper articles, bills, photos, books, and souvenirs from my 30 years in Congress.

I am a packrat, and I even still have most of the files from my very active law practice. Vickie says I save everything.

When she saw all the recent publicity about the boxes of top secret material that Presidents Trump and Biden had taken home, Vickie jokingly said she was going to call the FBI to try to get them to carry away many of my boxes – although there is no top secret material, I can assure you.

Many of my boxes have hundreds of pages haphazardly thrown together. The letters I discovered that this column is about is one dated January 29, 1997, from former Senator Howard Baker. I had completely forgotten this letter, and I am especially glad now that my staff saved it.

You can tell this is not a form letter, and in full, Sen. Baker wrote: “Dear Jimmy, I am genuinely sorry that I cannot be with you tonight as you receive the 1997 Distinguished Service Award from the Great Smoky Council of the Boy Scouts of America, but as you know, I am recovering from double knee replacement surgery.

“The Boy Scouts have long been an important part of each of our communities, and you may not know that my lifelong fascination with photography began as a Boy Scout project when I was twelve years old.

“I’ve told you many times of the close friendship that I enjoyed with your father, and what a remarkable member of Congress he was for many years, but I continue to believe that you are even better!”

I cannot find words that would adequately express how much I appreciate this letter from Sen. Baker. He was a great man and would have made a great president.

I regarded it as a high compliment when he asked me and his best friend and law partner, Bob Worthington, to be his two witnesses to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in favor of his nomination as ambassador to Japan.

I do honestly and sincerely know in my heart and in my mind that my father was a much better congressman than me – for many reasons.

It is a very long leap to go from words written by a great United States Senator to words spoken by a convicted drug kingpin, but here goes.

I guess that most people reading this column realize that between my law practice, my judgeship, and my career in politics, I have known a very wide variety of people, from the highest of the highs to the lowest of the lows.

There is truth to the old saying that there is some bad in the best of us and some good in the worst of us.

Don Walker was the first person in East Tennessee arrested under a new drug kingpin statute. This was the top of the front-page news at the time of my first campaign for Congress.

Don operated a nightclub and headed up a veteran’s group called the AmVets in a case involving the operation of illegal bingo games.

At the height of that campaign – mid-October of 1988 – I had to go before the 20 members of the Journal Editorial Board. They asked me questions on all the issues.

Then the editor, Gerald Garcia, pulled out a photo of me, Zane Daniel, Con Hunley and Don Walker at a charity event. Garcia said he understood I was friends with Don Walker.

I told him that yes, I was, and had represented him in the bingo case, but I had known nothing about his involvement with drugs. I went on to say that Don was one of the most popular men I knew and that if a widow needed a tree cut down or some kind of help, Don would see to it that he and his veterans got it done. I got their endorsement 18 to 2.

At any rate, after his arrest, I got a call from a law enforcement official who told me the FBI had interviewed Don and asked him about every judge and elected official in Knox County, because he knew them all.

The caller told me that when they asked Don about me, he told them “If there’s an honest man in the Knox County Courthouse, it’s Jimmy Duncan.”

Don served several years in prison, came back home, and was very active in his church when he passed away. I have always really appreciated Don’s kind words even if he was at one time a drug kingpin.