A Brief Early History of the Law Firm

“Mr. Waller gave Mr. Whitlow a Martindale form to complete, saw him stewing over it a long time and asked the problem.  ‘It asks my birth place.   I was born at Sand Ridge but the popular name is Monkey’s Eyebrow.   The Post Office address was Oscar, but that Post Office has closed.’   Mr. Waller said, ‘Put down Ballard County.’”



Tom Waller was graduated by Yale Law School in 1914, and returned to his home town of Morganfield, Kentucky to practice.   A law school class mate was General Counsel of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, and told Mr. Waller that the railroad needed someone to do its work in Paducah, so with that client promised, Mr. Waller moved to Paducah in the summer of 1929.   In fact, the L&N had little work here.   I remember in the 1960's I verified McCracken County tax rates once a year, and Henry defended one right of way fire case.

Mr. Waller’s cousin, Tom Threlkeld, had been graduated by Vanderbilt Law School in 1929 and came with Mr. Waller.  In October 1929, Mr. Threlkeld said that the City Revenue Officer told him after six months that his license fee would be the greater of $25.00 or a percentage of income.  Tom said that he had not grossed $25.00.

Mr. Waller’s partner in Morganfield had been Judge Clem Nunn.  Judge Nunn was an expert in flourspar mining, and traveled the world sharing his expertise.   Judge Nunn maintained an office in Morganfield or Marion, Kentucky, and came to Paducah one to three days a week.   He was killed in a motor vehicle accident in the 1930's.

The first firm name was Nunn & Waller.  After that it was Waller & Threlkeld.  I do not know if it ever was Nunn, Waller & Threlkeld.

Mr Waller was an extrovert, quick-witted, and funny.   He soon became a featured master of ceremonies and after dinner speaker at civic and church functions.  This was in the early days of radio, before television, and personal entertainment was popular.  He became well-known.

Tom Threlkeld was more quiet, and developed a reputation as analytical and dependable, and was very active in Jaycee’s and Rotary. 

During the Depression, Mr. Waller, educated by Vanderbilt University and Yale University, was concerned that area youth could not afford college.  He and several other civic leaders founded Paducah Junior College, now West Kentucky Technical and Vocational School.   They were able to recruit jobless, well-qualified professors to teach for tuition charges.  

Henry Whitlow was graduated by U.K. Law in 1937, had his own office for a short time, and was asked to join the firm.   Mr. Waller gave Mr. Whitlow a Martindale form to complete, saw him stewing over it a long time and asked the problem.  “It asks my birth place.   I was born at Sand Ridge but the popular name is Monkey’s Eyebrow.   The Post Office address was Oscar, but that Post Office has closed.”   Mr. Waller said, “Put down Ballard County.”

Mr. Waller chaired the American Red Cross’s relief work in Paducah after the 1937 flood.   One challenge resulted from the rumor that if Paducah’s Afro-American citizens moved from the Chicago Heights area around North 32nd Street, which was fast flooding, they would not be allowed to return.   Mr. Waller put on the line his reputation and guaranteed that they would be allowed to return after the flood.

Henry soon was active in Jaycees and Broadway Methodist Church.

December 7, 1941.  Tom Threlkeld and Henry Whitlow were drafted.   Mr. Waller said that until their return he just walked around with a bucket of water and a dipper, extinguishing the most urgent flames.   The Soldiers and Sailors’ Relief Act retarded legal work.

After the war, the firm became Waller, Threlkeld and Whitlow.  In addition to Jaycees and Rotary, Mr. Whitlow became very active in the Chamber of Commerce, and was its president.  Two notable campaigns involved the building of the chemical complex at Calvert City and Paducah’s purchase of the city electrical utility from Kentucky Utilities.

Having General Aniline & Film build a plant at Calvert City was the key to other plants’ building there because GAF made beginning product for other plants.  GAF had been German owned, and was seized by the U.S. Government during World War II under the Trading With the Enemy Act.  Its former owners promised Senator Dirkson to build a new plant in Illinois if he would have GAF’s assets returned to them.   Mr. Whitlow successfully mounted a campaign against this on fronts as varied as the U.S. Senate and reporting by the Nashville Banner.

Acquisition of KU’s electrical facilities required the City’s issuing bonds to pay KU for the facilities, and had to be approved by voters.   The campaign issue was lower cost of electrical power.  Mr. Whitlow said that the real issue was good government.   KU spent lots of money on local elections to elect officials safe for KU.   Often these officials had personal agendas.

The firm became Waller, Threlkeld, Whitlow & Byrd in the 1950's.   Mr. Byrd went on his own in 1962, and I went to work for Waller, Threlkeld and Whitlow in 1962.  In the late 60's, the firm became Waller, Threlkeld, Whitlow & Roberts.   In the meantime, Gary Houston (Vanderbilt) and Tom Russell (UK) had joined the firm.   When Mr. Waller died in 1975, the name became Threlkeld, Whitlow & Roberts.   When Mr. Threlkeld died in 1985, it became Whitlow, Roberts, Houston & Russell.   When Tom Russell was made U.S. District Judge, the present name of Whitlow, Roberts, Houston & Straub was adopted.


Richard C. Roberts