From growing up on a central Georgia farm to presiding over the highest court in the state, retired Georgia Supreme Court Justice Conley Ingram rose from humble beginnings to become one of the state’s most respected legal practitioners.
Ingram, 89, died Monday, after a long and celebrated legal career, announcing to the Cobb County Bar Association on Nov. 1 his intention to spend his last days at home in Marietta, surrounded by friends and family.
“I am sincerely grateful and appreciative of the opportunities I have had to serve the citizens of Cobb County and the state of Georgia,” Ingram wrote. “I look forward to watching and coaching others in our wonderful legal profession as they continue to carry on our Georgia Bar’s great tradition of zealously representing people of all walks of life.”
Ingram’s distinguished six-decade legal career included private practice in Marietta and Atlanta, serving as judge on the Cobb Juvenile and Superior courts and as justice of the Georgia Supreme Court.
“There’s no one more loved and admired and appreciated in the legal community than Judge Conley Ingram,” former U.S. Rep. Buddy Darden told the MDJ. “He was noted for his courtesy, his impeccable manners and his judicial demeanor was unparalleled. He was certainly a legendary and iconic figure in Cobb and he’ll be greatly missed.”
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who has known Ingram about 45 years, said the judge was “everything you’d look for” as a community citizen and a real “all-American.”
“Conley Ingram was truly the most well thought of attorney and citizen our community ever produced,” Isakson told the MDJ. “He was a kind human being, a good judge, a fair arbitrator and a philanthropist. I think he had probably the most successful law career, certainly in the judiciary and as a judge, of anyone in the state.”
Born in Dublin, Georgia, Ingram graduated from high school at age 14 and went to Georgia Military College for a year before enrolling at Emory University.
He graduated in 1949 with a psychology degree and attended Emory law school, graduating in 1951.
Ingram met his wife of 67 years, Sylvia Williams, on a trip from Atlanta to Chicago in 1951 when both were college students.
They wed the next year, on July 26, 1952, and had three children: Conley Jr., Nancy and Lark.
Ingram spent several years at a U.S. Army training school in Virginia before returning to Atlanta.
In Marietta he was part of the law firm Reed, Ingram & Flournoy, which later became Ingram, Flournoy, Downey & Cleveland.
The Ingrams settled in Marietta in 1957, moving next door to the Tumlin family.
Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin, who lives in his parents’ home, said he was about 13 years old when the Ingrams became neighbors.
“They were good friends with my parents and great neighbors,” Tumlin said. “Ingram was 10 or 12 years younger than my father and somebody you love to live next to. Even when you were young he would talk to you as if you were an adult, he was outgoing and friendly and he set a good example.”
Ingram had a “quick wit and a quick smile,” and was dedicated to his family as well as to his faith as a member of First United Methodist Church of Marietta, Tumlin said.
“He just made everyone around him feel important, he was very involved with his children, he and Sylvia were a true couple, and the church was a big part of their lives,” Tumlin said. “All the good things you heard about his professional life carried on to his personal life and I was privileged to see it, as were our fellow neighbors and church members.”
Ingram’s judicial career began in 1960 when he was appointed to the Cobb County Juvenile Court, and four years later he was appointed to the Cobb Superior Court.
“He had the most brilliant legal mind I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been practicing law for close to 50 years,” said former Gov. Roy Barnes. “On top of that he had a humble personality and the kindness that is just unequaled among folks that are very smart and hold high positions.”
Barnes, who first met Ingram as a young lawyer in Marietta, said Ingram’s dedication and hard work, coupled with an innate sense of justice, meant he was immediately able to get to the heart of any legal issue.
“I used to just sit in amazement of his focus,” Barnes said. “I think that’s something you’re born with and he honed it to a very fine point, practicing so much it became a piece of art. With politicians you say that those who are charismatic have the gift, and Conley was definitely born with the gift.”
In 1973, then-Gov. Jimmy Carter appointed Ingram as a justice on the Supreme Court of Georgia.
Ingram served four years on the state Supreme Court before stepping down to join the law firm Alston, Miller & Gaines in Atlanta, which later became Alston & Bird — one of the top law firms in Georgia.
Ingram retired from Alston & Bird in 1997 and returned to the Cobb Judicial Circuit as a senior judge in Superior Court, a position he held until his retirement earlier this month.
“I think Conley Ingram is going to be talked about for a long, long time as being the standard by which all judges are measured,” Barnes said. “He already has a great legacy and he’ll be long remembered.”
Outside work, Ingram loved to play tennis and did so regularly at the Marietta Country Club, where he started a tennis group about 25 years ago with Darden, the late Judge Harris Adams and local attorney Bob Silliman, Darden said.
They played at least 90 minutes of doubles every Saturday morning, later recruiting additional players including Thomas Thrash, the chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.
“We have a standing reservation at 10 a.m. every Saturday,” Darden said, adding that he was Ingram’s usual tennis partner until the judge stopped playing about a year ago. “There are no clear winners, it’s just something you look forward to every Saturday.”
In the church community, Ingram was a respected member of the First United Methodist Church of Marietta congregation, taking up his regular spot with Sylvia each Sunday, retired Senior Pastor Dr. Sam Matthews said.
“He was on the board of trustees, he chaired the administrative board, he was involved in everything. I’ve even seen him pick up bulletins after the service just to straighten up the sanctuary so it looked good,” Matthews said.
Ingram was also one of a handful of members trusted to be in charge of the church’s foundation when it was formed several years ago.
“He was a real role model for younger people, attorneys, families, men and women going into business,” Matthews said. “He was a marvelous example of character, of generosity and kindness. He was short, he was not tall, but you couldn’t convince anybody in this town that he was not taller than they are — he was eight feet tall, he was a giant in my mind.”
The Ingrams raised their three children in Marietta and saw all of them graduate from Emory University.
Both daughters followed Ingram’s example as attorneys, with Lark serving as a Cobb Superior Court judge since 1995.
Ingram was also active in the Cobb community, twice serving as chairman of the Cobb Chamber of Commerce and also as a trustee of the Cobb Community Foundation.
Ingram was named Cobb County Citizen of the Year in 1990.
“He was the quintessential professional in every respect,” Darden said. “He was highly regarded throughout the state.”
Cobb District Attorney Joyette Holmes, who first met Ingram as a private attorney, described his significant impact.
“My interactions with Judge Ingram have always been wonderful,” Holmes said. “We have lost a giant — a giant for his family, for this state, and for the legal profession.”
Visitation for Ingram is Thursday at Mayes Ward-Dobbins Funeral Home on Church Street between 4 and 7 p.m. The funeral service is 11 a.m. Friday at Marietta First United Methodist Church on Whitlock Avenue.