Many Charlton County residents were shocked when they learned that J. S. Haddock, Jr. had died peacefully in his sleep Wednesday night, September 16, 2020. He was 93. Haddock is remembered for his 36 years of service to this county, first as Clerk of Court of Ordinary, and then as Probate Judge. He retired in 1996.
His relatives knew him as ‘Jennings.’ To acquaintances and friends, he was ‘J.S.’ His buddies called him ‘Squire’ while the general population of the county knew him in his official capacity as Judge Haddock. And thanks to the thousands of impatient Floridians who crossed the state line to get married (because of Florida’s waiting period), he became known in newspapers across the country as ‘the marrying judge.’
Haddock was born to Jennings S. Sr. (1899-1955) and Lennie V. Anderson Haddock (1901- 1997) on October 16, 1926 in Folkston. His years as a student at Folkston High School were overshadowed by the second world war and on his 18th birthday he registered for the draft. Kathryn Thompson, Registrar for the Local Draft Board in Folkston, recorded him as being 5’7” tall, weighing 115 pounds with blue eyes and blonde hair. She also recorded his place of birth as Patterson, Georgia.
This information came as quite a surprise at Whistling Dixie on Main Street as a group of locals sat around the table remembering their old friend. Linda Hannaford concluded that the registrar had simply made a mistake.
“J.S. was proud to claim he was born in Folkston,” she said.
“J.S. told me he would watch the planes fly overhead as they approached the landing strip near Dixie Lake,” Bill Allen recalled. “He said he would jump on his bike and pedal as fast as he could toward the airport. He was probably about 10 or 11 then, but THAT was when he fell in love with flying. His dream was to become a pilot one day.”
“When he tried to join the army, he was told he was too skinny, that he needed to fatten up,” Linda said. “The recruiter told him to come back when he had some weight on him. I don’t remember exactly what he said he ate, but he finally gained enough that the army accepted him.”
Haddock entered the United States Army on July 14, 1953, just shy of his 27th birthday. He was assigned to the Signal Corps and served in Korea at a 10-man communications outpost from October 1953, to May 1954. He was part of a unit whose single mission was to provide communication links between Army units operating in the field.
“J.S. said he was basically the telephone operator,” Bill Allen remembered. “Had to string telephone wire through some pretty rough country, install the telephone, maintain it, and then answer it. He said they did not get too many phone calls, but they had to work shifts and wait for the phone to ring. Someone had to be by that phone all hours, day and night.”
“He said it was freezing, FREEZING cold when he was there and that they couldn’t drink the water it was so bad,” Linda added. “You know what he said the Army gave them to drink instead of water? Beer! When they could not drink the local water and when their drinking water supply ran out, they had beer to drink.”
Haddock was honorably discharged on June 2, 1955. He was 29. Five years later he started his civil service career in the Charlton County Courthouse working as Clerk of the Court of Ordinary for Scott Johnson. In 1968, when Judge Johnson decided to retire, Haddock threw his hat into the ring and was elected Ordinary. (Over the course of his career, the US Constitution was officially amended to change the courts of ordinary to probate court, county ordinary to probate judge.)
Haddock’s first campaign advertisement in the Charlton County Herald read: “Vote for J. S. Haddock who has proved to the public, through seven years service as Clerk of the Court of Ordinary, to be dedicated to the Honest, Efficient and Impartial operation of the Office of Ordinary. There is no substitute for experience.”
Now living in Franklin, NC, Sarah Steeley who served as Judge Haddock’s clerk his entire career, described how devastated she was when a friend posted on Sarah’s Facebook page, “Thought you would like to know J.S. Haddock passed away.”
“I was so shocked!” She said. “He really loved Charlton County. He was sooo conscientious, a real perfectionist, always ready to serve, extremely professional and was very meticulous in his dress. But I do remember one time we were counting votes way into the night. He took off his coat and tie, laid them carefully on the back of a chair and then went back to counting.”
One election night, a hurricane raged while they were counting votes. When the power went out Judge Haddock had the county maintenance department come out into the storm and set up a generator. The counting continued until just before sunrise.
“He really took his job serious,” Sarah said. “He dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t’. And he really cared about the people he was serving. In traffic court he would counsel young reckless drivers who were brought before him. He would tell them they needed to change their dangerous ways before they had a serious accident.”
Sarah told of the Judge paying for some of the marriage licenses out of his own pocket. “If he knew the bride, you know, having watched her grow up, he would pay for the license as a wedding gift to her. He would then say to the new husband ‘Now, you take care of our girl.’”
“Some people used to think Mr. J.S. was a miser with money,” she continued, “but I knew him to be very generous. He was just smart and careful with his spending. That is just how he was – smart, careful, low key, quiet, mild-mannered and extremely polite.”
Two of Sarah Steeley’s favorite memories of her time clerking for Judge Haddock were “Bobby the Squirrel” and Folkston becoming “The Marriage Capital of The World”.
“There was this squirrel who would come up onto the window ledge in his office. The Judge would feed him pecans. He named it “Bobby” from the story that John Harris told the elementary school children when J.S. was little. It was about “Bobby the Squirrel.”
Donna Allen Nance also fondly remembered Bobby the Squirrel. “In 1971, I was working across the hall in the courthouse. I can still see J.S. putting a whole pecan out on the ledge for Bobby. That little bobtail squirrel would look it over and when he saw that it was still in the shell he would jump up and down, make a fuss, and then go away. J.S. would take the pecan, crack the shell, and put it back on the ledge. Bobby would run up and grab the pecan.”
With its location right on the border with the State of Florida, Folkston became the place to go for Floridians who did not want to wait out the three-day waiting period in Florida. Georgia had no waiting period. For decades Folkston was known as the Marriage Capital of the World and Judge J.S. Haddock was the “Marrying Judge of Folkston.” Newspapers across the country, from Vermont to California, wrote articles about Haddock and his small town, some going so far as to describe him as running a marriage mill.
“That implies we are doing something shady, on the outskirts of the law,” Haddock was quoted in The Times Argus, in Barre, Vermont in 1984. “It’s not like that at all. Helping people get married is an honorable thing.”
Sarah still laughs when she recalls the time the Judge was marrying a young couple from across the river.
“I don’t know if the bride was just nervous or didn’t understand what the Judge said but when she was suppose to repeat the vow ‘With all my worldly goods I Thee endow’, she said ‘With all my girly goods I do endow.’ The Judge never flinched, did not miss a beat. He was all about the ceremony. It was important to him that every ceremony was conducted properly.”
Haddock was elected to seven consecutive four-year terms as probate judge. Sarah said she decided to retire with him in 1996. They had worked together for 28 years.
“It had been just the two of us handling traffic court, elections, probate. He was the best.”
When it came time for Judge Haddock to retire, The Florida Times-Union sent a reporter to interview him. “It’s time to go home and do what old men do – sit on the porch, read the paper,” Haddock was quoted as saying. “I don’t know if I’ll enjoy it, but I’m going to try it.”
It will depend on who you ask as to what the Judge loved to do during his retirement years.
“Jennings loved cars,” Doris Johnson said of her late husband Harry’s cousin. “He loved race cars and going to the races. He would go to the races in Daytona every chance he got.”
David Glisson and Bill Allen talked about his years of flying.
“We both got our pilots licenses in the early sixties,” Glisson said recently as he showed the countless pictures of single engine airplanes he and Haddock flew or had caught their attention during their many trips to “Fun and Sun” air shows in Florida and Wisconsin.
According to Glisson they were part of the original group of Charlton men who established the airport that is still operating in Charlton County, and they built the first two hangers. Judge Haddock built his home next to the landing strip. The airport essentially became his back yard.
“I used to love to watch Mr. Haddock take off and land,” Dena Gowen Crews said. “Carla Bennett and I were about 12 years old and we’d ride our bikes out to the airport. Mr. Haddock would be about to take off and he would see us. He would open the door and ask us if we wanted to go up with him. Of course, we always said yes but that we would have to ask our moms. J.S. would give us each a dime and we would hurry into the hanger and use the payphone. He flew us all over the place.”
“He was flying thru his eighties,” Glisson remembered, “but when he made that perfect wheels up landing, he knew it was time to stop flying. He was extremely safety conscious.”
“J.S. was very meticulous in his flying,” Bill Allen recalled. “On that day he sorta bounced on landing so he decided to go around and do some practice landings. He took off and as he was flying over his property, he said he noticed that his lawn needed mowing. His wife, Sue, was watching him come in for a landing. On his approach, J.S. was still thinking about mowing the lawn and forgot to lower the landing gear. He skidded down the runway. He said he thought the alarm was telling him he had stalled but it was actually telling him the gear was still up.”
“It bent the propellor and scraped up the bottom,” Glisson said. “I think he got the Bryant boys to use their farm tractors to get his plane back to the hanger. That was when he quit flying. But” Glisson continued, “a short time later he comes riding up to my house on a motorcycle and says ‘I got mine. You need to get one.’ So, I bought myself a motorcycle and we started riding. It was less than a year ago that it got to where I would not let him ride out onto the highway but each week he would ride to the airport from his yard and then ride back. The last few months, he was starting to have problems with his memory. Then with the pandemic he was staying home, more to himself.”
According to Glisson, J.S. was a “straight shooter, what he told you, you could depend on. He was honest, generous, always paid more than his share. And he sure loved the airplanes he flew.”
“He worked for years on a 25-foot sailboat,” Randy Nance recalled. “He lived to sail. So, he and Ken Kriner bought this old sailboat, but it needed a complete restoration. J.S. had the time to work on it because he was not married yet. But, you know, I don’t think he ever put that boat in the water.”
Nance also reflected on Haddock’s love for collecting Native American pottery and flint arrow heads.
“A lot of times we’d go to Widow Lake off the Satilla. There had been a big Indian camp there. After Rayonier plowed the ground over and following a heavy rain, we would walk the beds and find a lot of relics. J.S. was big on collecting.”
Everyone said they thought J.S. Haddock was a confirmed bachelor, but he married Sue Harrell in 1985 and became a loving stepfather to her four children--Neal, Diane, Tina, and Sarah. They were happily married 31 years. Sue died in 2016 and during his remaining years, his stepchildren kept in touch.
On that Wednesday morning, J.S. had breakfast as usual at the Brickhouse Restaurant on Highway 301.
“He always sat at the same table and ordered the same thing. He always paid with cash and always had the exact change for his bill and a tip,” said Barbara Meadows who waited on him that day. “He said he wanted to be left alone to just eat his meal but that never happened, everyone would stop to speak to him when they saw him. He seemed touched that people still remembered him after all those years since being a judge. He was just a real nice person. He came in again for supper that evening and ordered spaghetti. He seemed fine. I remember he was wearing khaki pants and a plaid shirt. He was the sweetest man.”
Two of his stepdaughters Sarah Lewis and Diane Thompson live in Charlton County and would check on him daily. It was Sarah who was not able to get in touch with him the next morning and called to have someone do a welfare check. He was found lying in bed, in his pajamas, as if in a peaceful sleep.
“J.S. told me once,” Bill Allen remembered, “that he was afraid of dying. I guess you could say it was a blessing he went the way he did, in his sleep, with no suffering.”
Although he was 93, his friends insist he was in good health; even more reason his death came as such a great shock to everyone. Numerous people recalled that when they heard the news, to the person, their response was, “But I just saw him, and he was fine.”
There is a scene in that classic movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” where Clarence, the angel in training is talking to Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey.
“Strange, isn’t it?” Clarence said. “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he is not around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
Jennings Sherman “J.S.” Haddock, Jr. touched many lives and not just in Charlton County. There are thousands of Floridians who can still brag they were married by the Marrying Judge of Folkston. But, maybe, his old flying buddy David Glisson said it best when he said, “He was the best. I miss him already.”