Decades of political reporting complemented with a legal education produced a legendary career for Nashville School of Law alumnus Thomas Edward Humphrey, III, who was recognized in August by the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame.
Humphrey, one of four journalists inducted into the hall of fame last year, made his name as a seasoned reporter of politics as the Knoxville News Sentinel’s bureau chief in Nashville.
Born in Columbia, Humphrey graduated from Maury County’s Central High School in 1956 before entering David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). It was there that he first discovered journalism.
“At Lipscomb, I went by the campus newspaper office one day out of curiosity and wound up writing a couple of articles,” he recalled. “At the time, I had zero notion of how to make a living. I thought about it and journalism struck me as pretty entertaining. I decided ‘what the heck, I’d make that my major.’”
Lipscomb lacked a major in journalism, so Humphrey transferred to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. There, he worked for the school’s newspaper, The Daily Beacon, an experience he describes as “overwhelmingly interesting and entertaining.” For example, he was the paper’s night editor when civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in April 1968. His coverage of the tragedy earned the paper many awards.
After college, he continued as a journalist with United Press International (UPI) with stops in Knoxville, Raleigh (N.C.), and Nashville. Through the years he covered everything – crime, violence, sports, business, and what he loved most: politics.
While working at UPI, Humphrey thought about pursuing a law degree. His father, Thomas Edward Humphrey, Jr., was a respected attorney in Columbia. He also considered the idea of shifting careers. His natural choice was Nashville School of Law, which offered the most affordable legal training and night classes.
He enjoyed his time at NSL, particularly the criminal law class taught by then-District Attorney Tom Shriver, and civil procedure by Doug Fisher, who later became a member of the NSL Board of Trust.
“Both were extremely knowledgeable practitioners in their arena of expertise and gifted communicators,” Humphrey said.
He also recalled the study groups with friends.
“We’d form study groups, meet for hours at a time to review textbooks, case law, old tests, and wind up commiserating on personal matters and telling jokes at the same time,” he said.
Upon his graduation from the School in 1983, Humphrey passed the Tennessee bar exam and considered going into law practice, but instead continued his journalism career. In 1984, he left UPI and took a job as the Nashville correspondent for the Knoxville News Sentinel, where he established himself as the go-to journalist on Capitol Hill in Nashville.
“Tom is Capitol Hill,” said award-winning investigative journalist Jamie Satterfield of the Knoxville News Sentinel. “No one knows more about the sausage that is the making of our government than Tom. He is one of those rare types of journalists who had the courage to unmask the wrongs while treating the wrongdoers with courtesy and fairness. He has a way of writing sometimes-complicated issues in a style that simplifies and enlightens, a real storyteller.”
“Tom Humphrey worked for many years as the Knoxville News Sentinel’s state capitol bureau chief. He established a reputation as one of the most knowledgeable and trustworthy journalists in the state,” said Jack McElroy, editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel. “For many years he was the dean of the statehouse press corps. His intelligence and integrity earned him the respect of those he covered and those he competed against, as well as the readers and citizens he represented.”
Humphrey said his legal training “gave me an understanding of the law and legal principles, which sometimes can be very helpful when dealing with people who make laws.” He also tried to live up to the motto one of his journalism professors taught him – FAFF for fair, accurate, fearless, and factual.
His popular blog Humphrey on the Hill was a must-read for Tennesseans who cared about politics. Even though he retired from his Capitol Hill beat in 2014, Humphrey has continued his prolific blog while writing for The Tennessee Journal.
“When blogging emerged as a journalistic platform, Humphrey on the Hill became a daily must-read for anyone who wanted to keep up with what was really happening in state government,” said McElroy.
Through the years, Humphrey shined a light on Capitol Hill politics, including the impact of lobbying. He said he is proud of spending time on examining the influence of lobbying during his career. As his many awards attest, Humphrey was a true credit to journalism and a voice for the people in his storied career.