Finding alumni of Nashville School of Law who do not recall Luther E. “Pete” Cantrell, Jr. would be a fool’s errand. The 1961 graduate has been a stalwart of the School for 57 years, despite a somewhat rocky start.
Cantrell first enrolled at the YMCA Night Law School in 1960, but due to the unexpected withdrawal of a job offer, he had to sit out a year. He quickly secured employment, re-enrolled, and soon started working in the bookstore for a reduction in tuition. Fifty-seven years later, he is diligently manning the post that now bears his name.
Cantrell was born in Nashville in 1933 to Hattie Cassity Cantrell and Luther Cantrell, Sr. He began his service to community and nation at the age of 19 after being drafted into the Army in 1953. Fully anticipating being deployed to the Korean War, Cantrell completed his training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Recognizing his kinship with music — particularly the clarinet — the Army redirected him to band school.
With the 32nd Army Band in England, Cantrell quickly earned the moniker, ‘Reb,’ due to his thick, southern brogue. After two years of active duty, he returned to Tennessee to complete the remainder of his six-year reserve obligation and earned his undergraduate degree in finance and economics from the University of Tennessee (UT).
While at UT, Cantrell met his lifelong partner-in-crime and wife, Barbara Ann Richardson Cantrell. When asked how long they have been married, he replied, grinning, “forever.” Together they raised three sons, Lee (Luther E. Cantrell III), Tim, and Chris, and have seven grandchildren.
During his first year of law school, Cantrell was presented with the opportunity to interview with the notorious Judge Byrd Douglas, whose brother, Lee, was a founding member of the School. Douglas hired Cantrell as his court officer, where he worked until his graduation in 1965. Cantrell credits much of his professional success in the courtroom to his prior work experiences under Douglas.
Cantrell graduated with about 36 others, including close friend and state Senator Joe Haynes and Tennessee Speaker of the House Ed Murray. After passing the bar exam, Cantrell received his first job offer within two weeks—$350 a month working with Thomas O.H. Smith and Associates. Cantrell was initially earning less as an attorney than he had as a court officer.
His second day on the job brought a call from Smith, who summoned him to the courthouse. When Cantrell arrived, Smith introduced him to his first client and notified him that his trial would begin in a few moments. Cantrell’s client perjured himself on the witness stand and was sentenced to confinement for failure to pay child support and perjury.
Cantrell practiced law for 38 years, with many NSL graduates alongside him. Cantrell once found himself trying a case in which he, his client, two opposing counsel, and the presiding judge all were NSL graduates.
The last firm that Cantrell worked with was Davies, Cantrell, Humphreys, and McCoy. By 2005, he had retired from practicing law in both heart and mind. Cantrell specialized in trial work; civil defense litigation, personal injury, and products liability. With nearly 60 years in the legal field, Cantrell is a treasure trove of valuable knowledge and advice.
To first-year law students, Cantrell suggests they always take economic, family, and personal commitments into consideration when planning for their future. As for career advice, he suggests newly minted lawyers find a job that devotes time to the courtroom. Cantrell also emphasizes the importance of finding mentors who can assist with the nuances of the discipline.
For the seasoned attorney, Cantrell advises they evaluate their satisfaction with their work. If for some reason they are left unfulfilled, he strongly encourages finding something satisfying—only they can decide if practicing law is right for them.
Cantrell enjoyed every moment of law practice and was happiest trying cases in court. He relished being prepared for trial to present an argument before the court and delighted in always doing his best for his clients.
Presented with the opportunity for a mulligan in life, Cantrell said he would only do one thing differently— he would have started practicing law 10 years earlier.
While working at the School’s bookstore over the last 57 years, Cantrell has seen many changes within the institution, including three deans, multiple new facilities, growth in class sizes, and sweeping changes in curriculum.
“There is only one bad thing about NSL. Once people come here to work, they don’t want to leave. It isn’t the great pay that keeps them coming back; it’s the environment and the students,” he said. “We like getting involved with the students, telling jokes, making fun. We become a part of the students, in a sense, and we encourage them to continue what they have started with their legal education.”
Cantrell is quick to attribute his many successes and triumphs in life to the opportunities provided by the law school. The School honored Cantrell at the 1996 Recognition Dinner with the School’s annual alumni award.
His favorite thing about NSL is that it provides an opportunity for a legal education to those who are unable to attend a full-time law school.
“No other law school in the state of Tennessee can provide the flexibility that NSL offers to its students,” he said.
Today, Cantrell stays busy with the local Shriners, Masons, and Scottish Rite. Both he and his wife play in bands. Cantrell plays saxophone with the Shrine Band and Nashville Community Concert Band.
He’s often found arriving early to work at the NSL bookstore, reading World War II literature.
Cantrell said of his past and legacy, “I want people to look back on me when I’m gone and say nothing better than he was an honest lawyer.”
William Williford, a second-year student at Nashville School of Law, authored this piece about Luther “Pete” Cantrell.