Former colleagues remembered the impact on the legal community of Comer Donnell, who died last month nearly a year after he retired as Wilson County’s Public Defender.
Donnell, born in 1940, was Wilson County’s first Public Defender, a role he started in 1989. He also served as Lebanon City Attorney, Director of Petroleum Taxes for the State of Tennessee, Watertown City Attorney and Wilson County Attorney.
“He was a legend that you always heard about,” said Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto, who taught alongside Comer’s wife, Anne, while coaching at Lebanon High School. “As I got into the political side of the world, I heard about his legacy there. I really admired what he did for this county and the citizens of this county in the way he served. He served for many years, and was definitely a man of integrity that cared about people and making a difference in their lives.”
Wilson County Attorney Mike Jennings, who replaced Donnell in that role, said Donnell was a highly respected member of the 15th Judicial Bar Association. The district includes Wilson, Trousdale, Smith, Jackson and Macon counties.
“I got to work pretty closely during the transition. He’s someone I always considered a good mentor and a good friend,” Jennings said. “He had a laidback way of handling things and that always impressed me.”
Shelley Gardner replaced Donnell as Wilson County’s Public Defender and said Donnell was like a family member to her.
“He was a great leader. People would call him a gentle giant,” Gardner said. “He was very intelligent and very passionate about his work. I hope he continues, even after his passing, to give me the wisdom and direction I need to fulfill my role as his successor.”
Gardner said she continues to take many lessons from Donnell and his way of running the office.
“There are times I would sit back and question why does he handle situations this way, or why he ran the office that way. Now that I’m in this position, I look back and go, ‘Oh, my goodness. Now I know exactly why,’ ” she said.
Donnell was a graduate of Castle Heights Military Academy, Duke University and Vanderbilt University Law School.
His continued studies in law include Defense Advocacy at California Western School of Law; the National Death Penalty College at the University of Santa Clara and numerous national and state criminal defense seminars.
Donnell was a Paul Harris Fellow of Rotary International and a member of College Hills Church of Christ.