Platte County began its 175th year by naming its 147-year-old courthouse after longtime judge Owens Lee Hull Jr.
For its last official act of 2013 the Platte County Commission met on the courthouse steps amid 30-degree temperatures on Dec. 31. Before about 150 citizens and a large birthday cake, commissioners voted to change the name of the Platte County Courthouse to the Owens Lee Hull Jr. Justice Center.
Platte County was officially organized on Dec. 31, 1838, as the first county recognized within the land of the Platte County Purchase, said Pat Medill, chairman of the 175th commemoration events. The courthouse, built in 1866, replaced a wooden courthouse that northern troops burned during the Civil War.
Many celebrations are planned this year to follow the kick-off last week.
Hull’s close friend and fellow judge Abe Shafer said Hull was a man who “decided his life was going to stand for justice and doing the right thing.” Schafer had suggested the name change.
“Lee has often said what is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always what is right,” Shafer told the crowd.
Commissioners Duane Soper and Beverlee Roper voted for the name change. Presiding Commissioner Jason Brown abstained from the vote. He gave no reason and attempts to reach him later were unsuccessful.
“Lee Hull represents integrity,” said Roper. “He obviously is very intelligent. He is a very good judge in the county. He has a marvelous reputation. I’ve never heard anything but praise for Judge Hull and how he handles himself and the courtroom.”
Hull, 70, thanked the Platte County Commission for the honor.
“I’ve spent half my life in this courthouse,” he said at the celebration. “And before I was a judge I was here about two to three days a week. If you can have a second home that’s not on the beach, mine’s been the Platte County Courthouse.”
Some citizens don’t approve of the name change.
“A statement was made when the courthouse was built,” said Shirley Kimsey, a Platte City businesswoman and historian. “It said they had bought that block and were building the courthouse of the people. I think it should stay the courthouse of the people.”
Bill Brown, a retired Platte City businessman who considers Hull a longtime friend, agrees with Kimsey. “I just as soon it would be as it has been since it was built — Platte County Courthouse — along with the Jackson County Courthouse, Clay County Courthouse and all the other courthouses in Missouri.
“It should be like it always was. There’s no reason to change.”
Kimsey said Guy Brasfield Park, who served as Missouri governor from 1933 to 1937, is commemorated at the courthouse only with a plaque on the lawn. “That was good enough for him, so let’s keep it that way. Don’t start putting people’s names up on the courthouse.”
The courthouse isn’t the first Platte County building to be named for someone. In 1998 a new jail and sheriff’s department was named after retired sheriff Tom Thomas. The Tom Thomas Law Enforcement Center is attached to the back of the courthouse.
Hull grew up in Weston, attended the University of Missouri, Columbia.
His family had been in the tobacco business and his first paying job as a youth was in the tobacco fields. His father never attended college but wanted his son to. He also encouraged him to study law.
“He said, ‘It can give you options and freedom that I don’t have and haven’t had and that can be a good thing,’ ” recalls Hull.
He graduated from law school in 1968 and was drafted into the Army that December. His first visit to the Platte County Courthouse was to the draft board office in the building’s attic.
At Fort Jackson, S.C., Hull was a clerk at courts martial. In 1970, he was sent to Vietnam where pulled guard duty and was a clerk in the U.S. Judge Advocate General Corps. He returned to Missouri in 1971 and worked in Jefferson City in the public service commission and the office of aging.
In 1973 Hull returned to Platte County as an assistant prosecuting attorney and practiced law. He was elected Platte County prosecutor in 1975 and again in 1977. In 1978 he was appointed a magistrate judge and became an associate circuit judge the next year. He became a circuit judge in 1998 and the next year became the presiding circuit court judge for the 6th Judicial Circuit.
He retired as presiding judge in September but still serves as a senior judge in Platte County.
Early in his career Hull was impressed by Judge Glennon McFarland in Clay County.
“He was basically the finest judge I was ever in front of,” Hull said. “I admired how he handled himself and he was still a ‘normal guy.’ He was courteous, and he was professional, and he was prepared, and you got a fair shake. Trials aren’t perfect usually, but they ought to be fair and that’s the way he ran it.”
Hull has learned lessons from the people he has served.
“When you think you know it all you don’t know it all. When you think you’ve seen it all you haven’t seen it all,” Hull said. “As a judge you certainly get educated. You see people at their worst, and you also see people at their best and it is a continuous learning experience, or it has been for me.”
Shafer praised for his childhood friend and colleague.
“I felt like the name Lee Hull makes a statement for justice in Platte County and I believe he’ll be long remembered. And when anybody asks 30 years down the road “who is Owens Lee Hull Jr. there will be somebody around to tell them he was a former prosecutor, a former judge, and he stood for justice for his entire 40 year professional career in Platte County,” said Shafer.