In Memory of James O. Bass, Sr.

May 23, 2019
Firm Announcement

It is with great sorrow that Bass, Berry & Sims PLC announces the passing of respected member James O. Bass, Sr. Mr. Bass passed away on May 22, 2019 at the age of 108.  With the passing of Mr. Bass we have lost a dear friend and inspiring mentor. His example will forever be the foundation of our law firm and an inspiration to so many in a city that still benefits from his civic and charitable contributions.

A native Nashvillian, Mr. Bass practiced law at Bass, Berry & Sims, the firm his father co-founded in 1922, from 1934 until his retirement. Although he formally retired many years ago, Mr. Bass continued to come to the office several days a week until very recently and acted as mentor and sounding board to many attorneys throughout the firm. He will be remembered for his unwavering loyalty and devotion to family, friends and colleagues and his deep dedication to the legal profession, city and country. In addition to his general legal practice, Mr. Bass served as a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives from 1936-1938, as a State Senator from 1940-1942 and in the U.S. Army during World War II.

Mr. Bass is a graduate of the University of the South (1931) and Harvard Law School (1934).

Mr. Bass was preceded in death by his wife, Susanne Warner Bass, brother Francis M. Bass, Jr., and sister Mary Blackman Bass Phillips.  He is survived by children James Orin Bass, Jr., (Liz), Edwin Warner Bass, (Madge), Francis M. Bass, II (Allison), and Susan Richardson Bass Bowen; 11 grandchildren, 27 great grandchildren and one great, great grandchild.

“With the passing of James O. Bass Sr., we have lost a dear friend and inspiring mentor. His example will forever be the foundation of our law firm and an inspiration to so many in a city that still benefits from his civic and charitable contributions,” said Todd Rolapp, managing partner of Bass, Berry & Sims. “Even up to his passing at the age of 108, Mr. Bass continued to come to our offices. Words can’t adequately express our gratitude for the time we had with him and the opportunity to work with him as a colleague. We will miss him very much.”

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that memorial contributions be made to Friends of Warner Parks, 50 Vaughn Road, Nashville, TN 37221; Montgomery Bell Academy, 4001 Harding Road, Nashville, TN 37205; University of the South, 735 University Avenue, Sewanee, TN 37383; First Presbyterian Church, 4815 Franklin Pike, Nashville, TN 37220.

Our prayers and sympathy are with his family and friends. If you’d like to send condolences or memories that the firm will share with the family, please email tributes@bassberry.com.

Media Coverage

Local media has covered Mr. Bass’ impact in the Nashville community in the following articles:

Personal Remembrances

Below are some remembrances from current and former individuals at the firm that had the pleasure to work alongside Mr. Bass:

Mr. Bass was an extraordinary leader not only of our firm but also of the Nashville Bar for over 80 years. His presence was majestic and deeply felt in the firm as he always exhibited the highest sense of professional competence and integrity. The firm’s success has been built on his shoulders and he never wavered in his phenomenal support and contributions to its success.

– James Cheek, Member

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My first year with Bass, Berry & Sims (13 years ago) as an Office Services Assistant, I found a quote from Mr. Bass that one of the departing attorneys had left in their office.  It talked about how important every single person in the office, including staff, is to the service of our clients.  This was right before his birthday.  While I was hesitant, I copied it and rolled it up with a red ribbon around it and gave to his legal assistant Betty with a birthday wish for Mr. Bass.

Later that afternoon, Mr. Bass called me – was I ever nervous when I saw his name on the caller ID!  What a humbling experience.  He wanted to thank me and he was able to tell me which speech he had made to what group and on what day that included the quote.  I will never forget that phone call and his graciousness.  It was quite a lesson in “treating the janitor with the same respect as the CEO.”  He has been missed around the office these past months and we will continue to miss him and remember him.

– Cheryl Smith, Facilities Supervisor

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I came to Bass Berry in 1968. Mr. Bass was thirty years my senior. He was a perfect gentleman and excellent lawyer across all areas of practice. More importantly, to me and to a host of other lawyers, he was a wonderful teacher of the profession of law—both by constant example and by instruction that was always ‘straight to the point’.  I will miss him dearly.

– Bob Walker, Former Member

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One hot Friday afternoon in August, when our office was still at the Deaderick building, I found myself on the elevator with a 98 year old Mr. Bass.  We were both leaving for the day and exchanged pleasantries. I inquired about his Friday afternoon plans and if he had anything exciting planned for the rest of the weekend.  He responded, “Oh, no, not really.  I just have to get home to mow the grass before it gets dark.”  Remember, he was 98 years old.  He never ceased to amaze and was kind to everyone, no matter their social status or position.  He listened to everyone and took a true joy in interacting with people.  I will miss him and his humility.

– Tanya Touchstone, Legal Assistant

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In 1989, after contentious pre-trial proceedings, Bob Walker, Robert Cooper and I took a suit against First American National Bank to a multi-week trial.  Despite dispositive defenses, the case was submitted to the jury, which then returned a multi-million dollar plaintiff’s verdict.  We were all surprised and a bit shaken.  Immediately thereafter, Bob and I had to break the news to Mr. Bass, then a member of the bank’s board of directors.  Leaning back in his chair, Mr. Bass listened intently to Bob’s narration of the case and the verdict.  After Bob finished, Mr. Bass paused, then calmly and reassuringly said simply, “Bob, it will be alright”.  That demonstration of Mr. Bass’s professional and personal wisdom and concern for his partners has stayed with me for nearly 30 years.  [Oh, and he was right — the Court of Appeals eventually reversed the verdict and dismissed the case.]

– Tony McFarland, Member

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I remember when I first started at Bass, on October 1, 2010, one of the first things I did was take a trip with Wally Dietz up to visit with Mr. Bass. I figured that Mr. Bass, being retired (at least officially), might not be too terribly interested in the New Guy. This assumption helped ease somewhat my apprehension in meeting such a titan of our profession and community in Nashville.

My assumption was entirely unwarranted. Mr. Bass was extremely engaged, peppering me with numerous questions-all very collegial. I greatly appreciated the personal interest. The interest shown through several months later when an article authored by Judge Echols and me was featured as the cover story in the Tennessee Bar Journal. Mr. Bass sent me a very considerate note regarding the article, saying that he had read it with interest and  praising its educational value. I recall thinking at the time that if I were 100 as he was, I would be on the beach and not reading Eli Richardson’s articles. Not Mr. Bass. Even after hitting the century mark, and after so many decades as an attorney, he clearly loved the law as well as the vibe, and the goings-on, at his eponymous law firm

May the twinkle in his eye, portrayed so wonderfully in his striking portrait, continue to inspire those who walk the hallways at Bass, Berry & Sims.

– Eli Richardson, Former Member

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Mr. Bass was a wonderful mentor.  Not only was he a brilliant lawyer, he also set the standard for those like me who wanted to combine private practice and public service.  His door was always open, and he welcomed visits, even from the greenest of associates.

– Bob Cooper, Member

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Today was different.  For the first time in my professional life, I was undertaking to engage in the practice of law without my senior partner.  What is unusual is that at age 64, I am 5 years younger today than was Mr. Bass the day I began with the firm 39 years ago.

Such an observation might imply that Mr. Bass’s most remarkable achievement was longevity, but that is far too narrow a way to view a man who was remarkable in so many ways.

Service—to country, to community, to clients, to partners and to many others—was an important element of Mr. Bass’s life.  He volunteered for Army duty and served overseas in the 104th Infantry Division during World War II even though it took him away from his family and his law practice.  He served in the Tennessee General Assembly and was a trusted advisor to numerous business and community leaders. One of my favorite anecdotes illustrating Big Jim’s selflessness goes back to the time when our long-time managing partner Keith Simmons was completing his summer clerkship.  Keith often rode in with James Gooch so that Kay could have their car for the day.  On the Friday of Keith’s last week, he realized that he’d need a little more time to finish a project and asked James to pick him up on Monday morning.  Gooch of course forgot, so Keith called what he thought was James’s number but instead was the firm’s.  Mr. Bass, as was typical, was the first in the office, and he answered the phone.  As soon as the words, “James, are you coming to get me?” were out of Keith’s mouth, he realized his error.  Nevertheless, the Chief* simply inquired, “Well, Keith, where are you?”  I’m sure he would have been perfectly happy to go get the second-year law clerk if Keith hadn’t suddenly realized that he shouldn’t come in because he wasn’t feeling well.

Mr. Bass was a fine lawyer and an equally fine mentor.  I didn’t have much first-hand opportunity to watch him practice his craft, but I do recall a time early in my career when we were both examining the question of whether a bank could charge interest on overdue interest.  His memorandum of law was better than mine.

By setting high standards for himself, he led by example and made all of us better.  I will never forget his admonition that “you should never send out anything that is not your best work.”  Make no mistake: while Mr. Bass universally treated others with courtesy, dignity and respect, he didn’t like to lose.  Whether in the courtroom or on the golf course, you were going to get his best.

I always appreciated Big Jim’s clever wit, usually evidenced by a twinkle in the eye.  There is the perhaps apocryphal story of the client who came to Mr. Bass’s office to sign the will Mr. Bass had prepared for him.  The client flipped through the document and said, “Jimmy, are all of these pages really necessary?” He replied simply, “No, just tear off any you don’t want to use”.

Mr. Bass was devoted to his family, and he loved the law firm as if it were his family, too.  From my earliest days as a callow first-year associate through the last time I visited with him, the Chief always made me feel like he was glad to see me, and it was genuine.  He had come to know my wife, Anne, as the firm’s first paralegal, and throughout my career he would invariably ask about her whenever I saw him.

So I have come to the end of this first day without the Chief as a part of my professional life.  By word and deed, he made me a better man.  As we celebrate Mr. Bass’s long and well-lived life and his legacy of professional excellence, honor, integrity, wisdom and love, I am reminded of an observation once made by a friend of mine: “When a great steward passes, we know all too well what we have lost.  But what we must believe is that if we watch and emulate that great steward, grief will yield to inspiration.”

*I am unsure of the origin of this nickname for Mr. Bass, but I attribute it to Russ Morris—perhaps because it seemed to me that Russ used it with the greatest frequency.

– Jim Tate, Member

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Bass, Berry & Sims would not be the institution that it is today without Mr. Bass.  His consummate professionalism, his attention to detail, his eloquence, his commitment to excellence and his abhorrence of internal competitiveness permeates the firm and serves as the standard that everyone strives for and hopes to meet.  I ran into one of our fine young partners today who lamented to me that he and his peers never had the chance to interact with Mr. Bass as my generation did.  He wished he could have known him as we all did.  I responded by saying you do know him.  He is everywhere within this law firm.  His spirit, his love of the profession, and his caring for people is embedded in all of us, even this bright, successful young partner who never sat in his office and felt his warmth and support as I did, but who will carry on his legacy for another generation.

– Keith Simmons, Retired Member

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It was with great sorrow that I learned of Mr. Bass’ passing. I knew him as a valued mentor, partner and friend for 50 years. He was an outstanding lawyer admired by his partners and associates, adversaries and the judges before whom he appeared. He set a great example for all members of the firm and the broader bar. He was the consummate gentleman in every sense of the word. I valued my visits with him well past his 100th birthday. He was fortunate to be well aware of events in the firm and the country and was always interested in  discussing them. He will be greatly missed. Ann and I extend our deepest sympathy to Jim and Liz, Warner and Madge, Frank and Allison, Suzie and his many grandchildren and great grandchildren.

– Bill Ozier, Retired Member