J. Taylor Phillips’ chair sat empty during the breakfast rush at Jeneane’s Cafe.
His frequent companions reserved it out of respect for the longtime judge, who died early Friday morning.
Phillips, 90, was pronounced dead about 2:30 a.m. at The Medical Center of Central Georgia, Bibb County Coroner Leon Jones said.
Friends say he suffered a fall a month ago at a Methodist conference in Florida, broke a hip and had four surgeries since.
“Not only did I lose a great friend, I lost my hero,” said Jack Caldwell, who shared the table for four where Phillips always sat.
Caldwell recalled that while Phillips served in the Marine Corps during World War II, he shot and killed a Japanese soldier who was trying to get in a foxhole with him. The next morning they learned that dead soldier had killed several others before reaching Phillips.
In February, Bibb commissioners voted to name the courthouse in honor of Phillips, who has been a Bibb County judge since July 1, 1964.
He served as a full-time State Court judge from 1964 until 1998, when he became a senior judge. He remained a practicing senior judge in Bibb County State Court, but he has also served as a probate judge.
He officially retired from full-time service in 1998 but came into the courthouse most days, usually after eating a bowl of poached eggs, wheat toast and downing several cups of coffee with his friends at Jeneane’s.
“He was a special person,” said Macon-Bibb Fire Prevention Chief Larry Smallwood. “He’s the reason I like to come by here.”
Jeneane’s server Barbara McGahee has been waiting on him for about 40 years. He used to frequent McCullough’s restaurant, which her parents owned up the street in what is now Between the Bread.
“He was the most generous person I’d ever known, very kind and very funny,” McGahee said as she filled coffee cups at the table.
A few months ago, Smallwood and Phillips sat in the cafe discussing recent physical exams.
The 63-year-old chief who runs regularly was proud of his numbers until he realized that the 90-year-old judge showed even healthier results.
“He never let me forget it,” said Smallwood, who headed straight for the Mulberry Street restaurant when he heard the news on the radio.
Phillips’ friend Don Banks said the injury had taken its toll. No one at the table thought Phillips could have been happy if he couldn’t get out like he was used to.
“We thought he was going to make it, but when you’re 90 years old, your body starts slowing down,” Caldwell said. “Judge Phillips is an authentic Southern gentleman, pure and simple, and a Methodist to the bone.”
Bibb County Commissioner Joe Allen was fighting back tears as he talked about the man who was like a father to him.
The judge married Allen and his wife.
“We go back 40 years when my dad and him were good friends,” Allen said. “It’s like losing part of the family.”
Allen was upset the courthouse naming ceremony was still pending.
City Councilman Ed DeFore called Phillips a friend. “We’re all really upset. He was an honorable man,” he said.
Commissioner Lonzy Edwards remembered Phillips from Edwards’ beginnings as an attorney in Bibb County.
“When I came to the bar over 30 years ago, he was holding forth at the State Court,” Edwards said when commissioners voted to honor Phillips earlier this year. “I, along with a bunch of young lawyers, were scared to death of him. But I found out over the years he’s a really good guy, a really good judge.”
Phillips was a young lawyer during the sensational Anjette Lyles murder trial. He often ate at her restaurant and was interviewed for several documentaries and news stories about the case.
Over many years, Phillips arranged for early release shortly before Christmas for inmates deserving a second chance. Just 7 to 9 percent of participants became repeat offenders.
In 1985, Phillips preached to 22 men and two women, telling them to find a faith, get jobs and fix their lives.
“Nobody wants you to serve time, but nobody can make that decision but you. You can either abide by the law and stay out of jail or continue to violate it and stay in it,” Phillips told them.
When sworn in as a judge in 1964, Phillips said, “I look forward to the challenge and honor that this judicial office will afford, and I pledge my most sincere efforts to maintain a court of dignity and fairness.”
Before becoming a judge, Phillips served with the Marine Corps in World War II and the Korean War, receiving a Purple Heart. Phillips served as a state representative from 1959 to 1962 and as a state senator from 1963 to 1964, according to a biography at the courthouse.
Jones was 14 and working at Gene Hallman’s Shell Station at Pio Nono Avenue and Eisenhower Parkway when Phillips drove up in his ’68 Dodge Charger with a JTP license plate.
“He is one of the finest people I’ve ever met in Macon,” Jones said. “He was a great man of integrity, a great man of character and a firm man.”
Back at Jeneane’s, Caldwell was remembering Phillips’ many one-liners.
One of his most recent quips took on special meaning: “If you think you’re having a bad day, try missing one.”
Phillips ended his life of service by donating his body to Mercer Medical School, said a daughter, Susan.
A memorial service will begin at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Mulberry Street United Methodist Church, with visitation immediately following. Hart’s Mortuary is coordinating some of the arrangements.
Information from The Telegraph archives was used in this report.