Somberly reflecting on the life of a man many recalled as a good-hearted jokester with a penchant for telling it like it is, a stream of mourners flocked to Broussard’s on Jan. 3 to bask in the rays of jovial judge Thad Heartfield at least one more time through the vivid recollections of those close to the self-described “punk from Port Arthur.” Heartfield passed from this life on Dec. 27, but will live on in the hearts of those left to cherish him through the love he spread freely during his time on this earth.
At a memorial for Heartfield held on Jan. 3, son J. Thad read aloud love letters his dad wrote to family – always telling his wife and children: “I love you too much.”
The feeling was mutual, J. Thad shared.
“I thank God for my life with my family and everything else in the journey from life to death,” Heartfield expressed in his own words. “After the clatter and ups and downs,” Heartfield added, he held “deep gratitude for all the good people who embraced me through time, for all the unforeseen gifts sent my way by God and family.”
Heartfield dismayed that time and words could not sufficiently allow for the explanation of depth of love he felt for his betrothed – “and that really doesn’t really matter.
“It matters that I love you. I loved you then. I love you with the closing of this last door.
“I love you too much.”
September 10, 1940 – December 27, 2022
Thad Heartfield, 82, of Beaumont, passed away in the presence of his family on December 27, 2022 in Houston, Texas following complications from surgery. Before he died, and at his request, Father Michael Jamail anointed Thad with the Sacrament of the Sick, gave him Holy Communion and the Apostolic Blessing, to which Thad responded with full awareness.
Thad was born on September 10, 1940, in Port Arthur, Texas to Grace Linn Heartfield and Gilbert Bailey Heartfield. When Gilbert died five years later, the petite yet capable Grace was left with three rambunctious boys, Thad being the youngest. A devout Irish Catholic, Grace took the boys to mass each morning. Thad began his education at St. James Grammar School and graduated from Bishop Byrne High School in 1959. His sincere and life-long devotion to his Catholic faith took root in this environment.
Young Thad spent much of his free time outdoors with his brothers, Gilbert and Linn. He worked for his grandfather, Truman Edward Linn, at Linn Motor Company in Port Arthur, but he was not conferred preferential treatment as the owner’s grandson. His first job was sweeping floors. With bright and inquisitive minds, Thad and his brother Linn were soon rebuilding cars for fun (and just maybe to make them run a bit faster). The brothers shared a passion for cars, boats and motorcycles. So great was this interest that Thad delayed entering college for a year to drag-race cars, compete in off-road motorcycle competitions and ride bareback in West Texas scrub-brush rodeos. Central to Thad’s personality from an early age was his zest for life and love of adventure.
But Thad wisely decided to pursue a future beyond racetracks and rodeos. He enrolled at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, where he met the love of his life, Cornelia Bozada, on a blind date. Thad said fortune smiled on him when he and Cornie met. They married, beginning a 60-plus-year union marked by steadfast devotion, mutual respect and so much laughter. Thad obtained his law degree from St. Mary’s in 1965. He always said he had the very best motivation to take his legal studies seriously: His son J. Thad was born on Thad’s first day of law school, and he went straight from the hospital to the lecture hall.
Thad then returned to Southeast Texas with his young family and made a home in Beaumont. He was delighted when daughter Jennifer arrived, completing their family of four. Because Thad and Cornie were relatively young parents, Grandmother Grace (aka “Little Red Hen”) joked that J. Thad and Jenny did an exceptional job rearing them. But Thad gave Cornie all the credit for manning the home front in those early years when launching his career required long hours at work.
And work Thad did. After two years as a Jefferson County assistant district attorney, he was appointed attorney for the City of Beaumont. At age 28, Thad was the youngest person in Texas to hold the position. He eventually transitioned to private practice, specializing in civil, commercial and governmental law for the next 25 years. He was an accomplished, highly respected and well-liked trial lawyer – in other words, a unicorn. As the attorney for both Jefferson County and Drainage District 6, and later in two terms as director for the Lower Neches River Valley Authority, Thad was integral to the success of several projects vital to Southeast Texas’ economic prosperity.
Thad’s Depression-era childhood instilled in him an unparalleled work ethic and frugality. He was eventually able to spend more time away from the office with the people he most loved: Cornie, J. Thad (aka “Thad the Lad” or “Tad”) and Jenny. Although humble when it came to his own accomplishments, he took great pride in his children. His notes to them and Cornie usually ended with a tender message coined by a young J. Thad: “I love you too much.”
Thad’s adventurous, fun-loving nature flourished. He sailed the Atlantic with Linn. He discovered a love for SCUBA diving and took trips to Mexico with friends and family. As a child, he treasured spending time on Bolivar Peninsula with his family, and he was now able to share his love for the beach with J. Thad and Jenny.
In 1993, a new chapter in the Heartfields’ lives began on a Sabine Pass speckled trout fishing trip. Congressman Jack Brooks said he was traveling with President Bill Clinton on Air Force One the next day and planned to recommend Thad for appointment to the federal bench. Did Thad want to be a federal judge? The Congressman told Thad to talk with Cornie, think it over and take all the time he needed to consider this monumental life change – as long as he had an answer by 5:30 a.m. the next morning. But it was an easy decision for the Heartfields and the government. In the course of the extensive security clearance and background check into Thad’s life, the observation was made that “everything bad about Thad Heartfield could be written on the back of a matchbook cover.” The Senate Judiciary Committee – chaired by then-Senator Joe Biden – unanimously voted his nomination out of committee. On St. Patrick’s Day 1995, the Port Arthur boy of Irish descent was confirmed – again by unanimous vote – for a lifetime presidential appointment to the federal bench.
Thad would preside over thousands of civil and criminal cases as a federal judge in the next 27 years. Notable cases include a bellwether trial that led to the explosion of the patent docket in the Eastern District of Texas and a class action involving faulty computer drives that resulted in a $2.1 billion dollar settlement.
Thad was named chief judge for the Eastern District of Texas in 2003. He was at the helm when sequential hurricanes disrupted court operations. Under his guidance, the Eastern District became one of the first federal courts in the nation to implement online case management and electronic filing. During his tenure as chief judge, the district also secured congressional funding to create a new magistrate position and construct the Plano courthouse. A natural leader, Thad was admired by his fellow jurists for his expertise in forging compromise.
Thad maintained meaningful friendships with his staff and law clerks. There was a real sense of family in his chambers. He was devoid of ego or entitlement. He took the work of the court seriously, but not himself. He made working hard fun. He knew that having fun while doing good work is essential to happiness. Law clerk lore includes colorful stories involving chasing armadillos through bushes, the appropriation of a train, and many stories that are best left out of print. Once you worked for Thad, you didn’t want to leave. Longtime staff includes secretary Kristi Wernig (29 years), courtroom deputy Jill Veazey (27 years), and law clerk Mary Margaret Groves (22 years). All of his employees consider working for him a privilege for which they are deeply grateful.
It was not the significance of his cases or his accomplishments for the Eastern District that made Thad’s time on the bench so remarkable. What is extraordinary is that the robe did not change Thad. He continued to be the hardworking, humble man of integrity he had always been. He knew how to listen and connect with people, because he genuinely liked them. He was a gentleman who treated every person he encountered with respect—including criminal defendants. Thad had a unique ability to empathize with the lawyers appearing before him. He never forgot how difficult the life of a solo trial lawyer can be. (Because of this he was known to pick up unanswered calls to chambers. He never understood why the callers hung up when they heard a federal judge on the line.) He remembered what it felt like to be the underdog. He was merciful; before depriving any criminal defendant of their right to liberty, he scoured the record to ensure he reached a just and fair sentence.
Although he worked long hours, he continued to have fun. Thad and Cornie began taking annual trips to Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park. He looked forward to this extended vacation with Cornie all year. Thad embraced the invigorating challenges of hiking the trails of the Grand Teton. He and Cornie also took up fly-fishing, something he said she was quite good at. When Jenny visited her parents in Wyoming one year, she and her dad went paragliding together. He kept a video of that experience on his phone that he shared with delight. Thad traveled to France and Croatia with his brother Linn and went to Ireland with Cornie.
Thad also created adventures closer to home: chance encounters with alligators while walking Cattail Marsh, co-piloting a private plane flown by J. Thad, and fishing the Gulf of Mexico. Recently he and Cornie did NASCAR ride-alongs at the Texas Motor Speedway. In late November Thad flew to the Valley to celebrate his brother Gilbert’s 91st birthday.
Thad was a beloved member of his community whose wit and wisdom will be greatly missed. He reigned as King Neches of the Neches River Festival in 2011, and was a Gift of Life distinguished honoree. The members of his men’s weekly Bible study will miss his insightful contributions. Thad was a devout parishioner who enjoyed regular spiritual, legal and theological discussions with Father Jamail, for whom he had great respect and admiration.
But more than king, judge, “the honorable,” or “your honor,” the title Thad most cherished was being “Bop” to his eight extraordinary grandchildren. He placed their pictures under the glass on his desk so they were with him throughout his day. Their handwritten notes were tucked in places where he could see them. His eyes lit up when he spoke about his grandchildren, and they were a source of great joy to him. They are the legacy of which he is most proud.
Thad embodied the Prophet Micah’s biblical counsel: “To do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” That scripture was posted in his private quarters where he could see it each day. Those principles were central to his identity. In words borrowed from Hamlet, “We shall not look upon [a man of] his like again.” Although the legal community has lost an esteemed giant, it is Thad the husband, Thad the father, Thad the grandfather, and Thad the friend whose absence will be missed the most. There is no doubt that all the trumpets sounded as he passed to the other side.
Many are left to cherish the memory of this remarkable man. He is survived by his wife of over 60 years, Cornelia Bozada Heartfield; his son, J. Thad Heartfield, and wife Melanie, of Beaumont, Texas; and his daughter, Jennifer Heartfield Fleming, and husband Scott, of Heath, Texas. He leaves behind eight adored grandchildren: Hannah Grace Heartfield, Claire Heartfield, Bailey Heartfield, Aidan Heartfield, Patrick Fleming, Cole Fleming, Isabelle Fleming and Gracie Fleming. His older brother, Dr. Gilbert Bailey Heartfield and wife Yolanda of McAllen, Texas, also survive him, as do many nieces and nephews.
A gathering of Judge Heartfield’s family and friends was held Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, at Broussard’s, 2000 McFaddin Avenue, Beaumont. A Funeral Mass was held Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, at St. Anthony Cathedral Basilica, 700 Jefferson Street, Beaumont. His cremation arrangements will be handled through Broussard’s Crematorium, under the direction of Broussard’s, Beaumont.
In lieu of customary remembrances for those so desiring, memorial contributions can be made in Thad’s memory to Some Other Place, 590 Center Street, Beaumont, Texas 77701, or a charity of their choice.