Judge Jesse H. Willson
December 31, 1901 - April 13, 1992
After its first years in existence as the Polk County American Inn of Court, a number of the Masters of the Inn sought to name the Inn after a prominent local legal scholar whose career exemplified the objectives of the Inn of Court movement. A number of suggestions were made and upon vote of the Masters of the Inn, the Inn received its new name, Willson American Inn of Court, in honor of the late Judge Jesse Howard Willson, Circuit Judge in Polk County, Florida for 12 years.
Judge Willson was born in Arcola, Illinois to a Methodist minister. He attended the University of Illinois for a year before his family moved to Alturas in 1921 to operate their 10-acre grove. Jesse Willson's father suffered a heart attack and the judge returned home to help with the business and was forced to cease his college studies. However, his love for the law was ever present and he became acquainted with Edwin Walker, a lawyer from Bartow. Mr. Walker had a real estate and collection practice. He suggested to young Jesse Willson that he could help with the collection work at his office and study the law there too. Opportunity had knocked and Jesse eagerly accepted the challenge. In 1927 he took and passed the Florida Bar exam at a time when a law degree was not required. In 1942, he moved from Alturas to Bartow and was active in Bartow's First United Methodist Church.
Jesse Willson held many public offices: Bartow City Commissioner in the 1950s; Assistant County Solicitor during World War II (1943-45); County Solicitor (1958-60); and City Attorney for the City of Eagle Lake. Then, he became a Municipal Judge in Bartow before his appointment by Governor Leroy Collins in 1960 as Circuit Judge. At the time of his appointment, Judge Jesse Willson was one of the state's last judges without a law degree.
Upon his death in 1992 at the age of 90, the Florida Conference of Circuit Judges passed a memorial resolution honoring Judge Willson saying, "he exemplified the ideal judicial character traits of wisdom, dignity, integrity, patience, fairness, courage, courtesy, and compassion." Judge Willson was "feared by some; respected by all," recalled his wife, Mary Esther. Yet, Judge Jesse Willson is remembered by his peers as very humble.
Judge Willson taught many through his words and, more importantly, his actions. Judge Campbell of the Second District Court of Appeal recalled advice he received as a young attorney from Judge Willson. At that time, Judge Campbell was handling cases ranging from traffic incidents to felonies. Judge Willson stated, "though these people may have been charged with crimes, they are not guilty. They are human beings and address them as Mr. or Mrs." He insisted on this, and he was right. This Judge Campbell has carried with him through the years.
Judge Oliver Green, Jr., one of the charter members of the Willson Inn, saw Jesse Willson as a role model: "Never in this world has a grander person lived; he was superb; he was forever dignified and had a sense of humor." When Judge Willson retired in 1972, he was followed by now-retired Circuit Judge John Dewell, who stated that, "he had the best judicial temperament of any man I ever knew, and he was so keen and alert."
The Willson American Inn of Court was named in honor of Judge Jesse H. Willson in recognition of his lifelong commitment to legal scholarship, recognizing that he epitomized the qualities of competence, collegiality, and commitment to justice that are at the heart of the Inn's mission.