Judson Landers Erwin Jr. (1909–1968)
Judson Landers (J. L.) Erwin Jr. served as the county judge of Desha County from 1947 to his death in 1968. He was never opposed for reelection. During his time in the position, he was a strong supporter of libraries and brought many improvements to the county.
J. L. Erwin was born on August 11, 1909, in McGehee (Desha County), son of Judson L. Erwin Sr., who was a railroad engineer, and Batie Rhodes Erwin. He had three younger sisters, one of whom died in childhood. His father died when Erwin was seventeen. The family got by with only his after-school earnings and money from renting out rooms in the house; this experience shaped the lifelong frugal financial policies by which he lived and worked. In McGehee High School, he excelled in football, basketball, and track.
Erwin graduated from the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), where he captained the Razorback football team in 1932. Teammates gave him the nickname “Bull Erwin.” He graduated from the University of Arkansas School of Law in 1934 and returned to McGehee to practice. In 1939, he married Mary Effie Nations of Prairie Grove (Washington County), with whom he had four children.
With the Depression at its height, lawyers’ earnings were minimal. He accepted the city attorney position, and to supplement his income, he began part-time work as a railroad engineer for the Missouri Pacific Railroad, as his father had been; the company had a large operation in McGehee. Physical tests disqualified him for World War II military service, but he contributed to the war effort by taking military supply trains to New Orleans, Louisiana.
Erwin ran for state representative and served in the Arkansas General Assembly for eight years. He was then elected county judge in 1946. He eliminated the large county debt within four years and still managed to set aside funds for future projects. In 1949, he aided establishment of a county hospital in Dumas (Desha County). He established the first library in McGehee in 1957, a museum in Arkansas City (Desha County) in 1958, a library in Dumas in 1960, and a hospital in McGehee in 1965. The new McGehee library was dedicated in his honor in 1970.
Erwin was an important influence in the promotion and funding for libraries throughout Arkansas as well as in Desha County. He was the strongest supporter of the Arkansas Library Commission (now the Arkansas State Library) and obtained support for libraries from other county judges.
He also became a history expert with specific interest of the Civil War. As a teen, he had traveled by train to Little Rock (Pulaski County) to hear stories from his paternal grandfather, a Civil War veteran who lived in the Arkansas Confederate Home. Erwin was a member of the Arkansas Civil War Centennial Commission (1964)—which promoted commemorations in Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama—as well as the New Orleans Civil War Round Table. He also served as a president of the Arkansas History Commission (now called the Arkansas State Archives) and the County Judges Association.
As county judge, he was responsible for maintenance and improvements on county roads. To better understand the road-building machines and the men who drove them, he learned to operate the large equipment. He was offered a legal position with the Caterpillar corporation, but he declined it, along with an offer to head the Arkansas Workmen’s Compensation Commission in Little Rock. He also declined to serve as a lawyer at the Nazi trials in Nuremberg, Germany, after World War II; he was asked because he had a reading knowledge of the German language.
Erwin was a lifelong member of the McGehee Presbyterian Church. He died suddenly of a heart aneurysm in his office at the Desha County Courthouse in Arkansas City on September 4, 1968. He is buried in the McGehee cemetery beneath a marker bearing the inscription, “Reading Maketh a Full Man.”
For additional information:
“J. L. Erwin, Desha’s Judge, Dies. ” McGehee Times, September 11, 1968, p. 1.
“J. L. Erwin, a Razorback Fan, an Intellectual, and Frugal, Too.” Pine Bluff Commercial, April 8, 1970, p. 9.
“Judson Erwin, County Judge of Desha, Dies.” Arkansas Gazette, September 5, 1968, p. 2A.
“A Man of Integrity. ” Congressional Record, September 18, 1968.
Ann Erwin Burski
Last Updated: 02/27/2021