Distinguished Alumnus: Carlton Tarkington '63

by Grace Renshaw Carlton Tarkington

Carlton Tarkington was a senior at George Peabody College when he was approached by an old family friend and mentor, Judge Benson Trimble of Davidson County's Fourth Circuit Court. When Judge Trimble asked Tarkington what he was planning to do after college, Tarkington mentioned that he was considering a career as a teacher. Judge Trimble had a different vision for Tarkington's future: He suggested that Tarkington consider applying to Vanderbilt Law School and offered to be his "sponsor and guide" there. Tarkington was not only admitted, but was also awarded a scholarship.

If Tarkington's story sounds a bit like a Horatio Alger tale, the comparison is apt. Despite his father's death at age seven, Tarkington managed, through a combination of savvy, pluck, luck, hard work and a number of mentors who stepped in to offer fatherly advice and assistance, to earn both his undergraduate and law degrees from Vanderbilt, build an extremely successful sales career, and then found a boutique investment firm from which he has yet to retire.

Tarkington's successes are a direct result of two traits for which he is well-known: a strong sense of personal integrity and an almost uncanny ability to recognize excellent opportunities and take full advantage of them. He actually started his career before graduating from law school; as a law student, he recalls looking over a list of 13 candidates for the Metro Council seat representing his West Nashville district and realizing "nobody on that list was very well-qualified, so I decided to run."

Although Tarkington credits much of his success to “being in the right place at the right time,” he also credits his law degree at Vanderbilt with helping him get to the right place.

Tarkington chose to launch his campaign at a critical juncture in Nashville history. The city's mayor, Ben West, was shepherding Nashville's city government and Davidson County's government through the innovative consolidation process that created Metro Nashville as a single government entity and needed the help of capable Metro Council members. However, Mayor West was one of Tarkington's mentors and paid him a visit hoping to dissuade him from what the mayor feared would be a futile and time-consuming campaign. "Carlton," Mayor West told him bluntly, "you can't get elected to the Council, because you don't have any money to run a campaign." When Tarkington affirmed his intention to stay in the race despite the odds against a victory, the mayor offered some sage advice. "He told me to shake hands with everyone in my district and go to every event I possibly could," Tarkington said, "and I did." Tarkington won the election and met a number of people who became lifelong friends and supporters.

After earning his law degree in 1963, Tarkington set up a law office in West Nashville, "passed the bar exam on the first go-round," and balanced his time between establishing a legal practice and serving on the Metro Council. Then another friend, M.A. McAlister, a successful sales representative for West Publishing, suggested Tarkington consider applying for his position with West. "Mac was moving to a new territory in Florida," Tarkington recalls. "He invited me in for a glass of iced tea and asked me, 'Ever think about working for West Publishing?'" Tarkington hadn't; he had sold Bibles for the Southwestern Company during summers to pay college expenses, and he recalls a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the idea of a long-term career as a book salesman. "I thought, 'I didn't go to law school to sell books,'" he said. "Then Mac showed me his W-2 forms for the last three years, and he had made more money than I could make with any law firm anywhere." Tarkington learned that West required that all members of its sales force be law graduates who could read and understand its legal volumes. "West had more lawyers employed than anyone except for the federal government," he said. The company's sales force was well-educated, well-paid and well-respected.

Tarkington bought a new suit and flew to St. Paul, Minnesota, where the company was headquartered, for the interview. On a whim, he also decided to wear a hat. "Hats were part of a lawyer's business uniform at that time, but I had only worn that hat on maybe two occasions in my life before that," Tarkington said. "When I walked in, the executive sales manager, Herbert Adrian, said, 'I've always liked a man who wears a hat, and anyone who can sell Bibles can sell law libraries. You have the job.'"

Tarkington proved to have a knack for sales; he relished the opportunity to help law schools, law offices and judicial chambers assemble the reference libraries they needed to operate, essentially functioning as a consultant. "West was the largest publisher of law books in the world, and I called on lawyers and judges and professors all over the state," Tarkington recalled. "My job was to be as well-informed as the lawyers in knowing whether they really needed one of our publications to support their practice. It was just as important not to sell people books they didn't need as it was to make sure they had the books they needed. I considered it not just a job, but a career. On the back of my business card was West's corporate motto, 'Forever associated with the practice of law.' I've kept that in mind ever since, because I knew that whatever I did throughout my life, I wanted to be associated with the practice of law."

Tarkington's sales benefited from Bounds v. Smith, a 1977 Supreme Court case that resulted in a federal mandate requiring prisons to furnish adequate law libraries to their inmates. "I remember getting a call from the warden at Brushy Mountain saying, 'I have to furnish a law library, and I don't know what to buy,'" Tarkington said. "There was also a program that gave new judges funding to acquire a basic law library." Tarkington became so skilled in working with judges, law offices and other professionals to develop law libraries tailored to meet specific needs that he was occasionally dispatched to parts of the country where West's sales were flagging. On one such assignment, he had the good fortune to meet the chancellor of Southern Illinois University just days before the state approved the development of a new law school. "He had $100,000 in his budget he wanted to spend on books for the university's library before the end of the fiscal year," Tarkington recalled. While Tarkington was working with the chancellor to make sure the order was fulfilled in a matter of days, the chancellor informed him that his institution had just received approval from the state to start a new law school. "It so happened that the books I had recommended for his university library were also good for a law library," Tarkington said. "But I told him, 'You're going to need a lot more books.'" Tarkington ultimately sold the institution most of the books required to establish a library for the new law school.

He recalls another sales triumph when he was promoting the new Westlaw legal research service at Nashville's Crowne Plaza Hotel in a head-to-head competition with LexisNexis. Representatives from both companies were demonstrating their systems' capabilities to a panel of justices from the Tennessee Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice Joseph Henry. Intent on purchasing the best electronic system for use by state courts, Judge Henry had chosen to test each system's search capabilities with an unusual East Tennessee case involving the handling of poisonous rattlesnakes for religious purposes. "Judge Henry made the search parameters very complicated, and the LexisNexis representative was literally sweating," Tarkington recalled with a smile. "He had given him the search terms, including evidence, civil procedure and torts, and put together a search that was totally unworkable. I suggested we simplify the search, and we entered the word 'rattlesnakes' in Westlaw. Two cases popped up that Judge Henry had never even seen. He said, 'That's amazing; we've got to have that!' That made the sale right there." Tarkington's career with West ended only with the company's sale to Thomson Reuters in 1996. After 33 years of service to the Tennessee bench and bar, he retired.

The late 1990s were a turbulent time for Tarkington. His wife, Rebecca, fell ill while their son, Bruce, was earning his undergraduate degree at Vanderbilt and died in 1995. Having retired from his job and lost his wife within a relatively short time, Tarkington took Bruce on a leisurely Caribbean cruise after Bruce earned his undergraduate degree in 1998. "We needed to get away and reconnect," Tarkington recalled.

But neither Tarkington is the retiring type. Bruce entered Vanderbilt Law School in fall 1998, and, in fairly short order, Carlton had helped found two local banks and a boutique investment company, Edinburgh Investments, all while taking a significant role in the law school's renovation and expansion, which he helped plan while serving on the Alumni Building Committee and supported with a generous gift. The renovation project lasted throughout Bruce's years in law school, and after graduating in 2001, he joined Carlton at Edinburgh Investments. The two have worked together since. Tarkington met his second wife, Jane Duncan Tarkington, at church; she is a retired educator whose daughter, Jill Baltz, and son-in-law, Chris Baltz, both earned their undergraduate degrees at Vanderbilt in 1992, and are now dedicated career Vanderbilt employees working in the university's Development and Alumni Relations department. "We have many ties to Vanderbilt," Tarkington said.

Tarkington was honored at the Founders Circle Dinner April 8 for both his career accomplishments and for his philanthropy, which includes his significant contribution to the law school's building—the Tarkington Suite, a library study area that includes a computer lab, computer classroom, a reading room and a study lounge—and the Tarkington Chair of Teaching Excellence, a three-year chair appointment that celebrates faculty who are renowned teachers. Tarkington created the chair in memory of his law professors at Vanderbilt and to honor current Vanderbilt faculty; renowned First Amendment scholar and teacher Tom McCoy was named the chair's first recipient. "I have a lifelong love of teaching," Tarkington explained when he endowed the chair. "In my sales career with West Publishing, my best efforts were in teaching others how to use our products. Though I never taught in the classroom, I enjoyed educating my clients and people at conventions and meetings in the applications of our products. And Tom McCoy was an obvious choice as the first recipient of the chair. He had the reputation, and justifiably so, as being the best teacher in the law school. His students loved his classes and always hold him in fond memory when they get together and reminisce about their law school experiences. Tom McCoy truly mastered the art of teaching."

The second Tarkington chair holder, the late Richard Nagareda, won numerous Hall-Hartman Awards for his upper-division classes on complex litigation. The chair was awarded to its third recipient, environmental law expert Michael Vandenbergh, in fall 2010; Vandenbergh is renowned for his courses in environmental and property law, and worked with students to found a new annual journal, the Environmental Law and Policy Review (ELPAR), which presents the year's best legal and policy solutions to environmental issues along with commentary in an annual compendium. He won the 2011 Hall-Hartman Outstanding Teaching Award for first-year Section A.

Although Tarkington credits much of his success to "being in the right place at the right time," he also credits his law degree at Vanderbilt with helping him get to the right place. "I always had a step up or an advantage over my competitors, because I'd earned my law degree at Vanderbilt," he said in accepting the law school's Distinguished Alumnus Award. "Everybody respected Vanderbilt, and my legal education here was a real advantage to me." Over the years, Tarkington has served the law school as a Class Agent and a member of the Board of Advisors (formerly the National Council) as well as a major benefactor who helped plan and fund the law school's major addition/renovation a decade ago. "I believe supporting the law school is a duty," he said. "Education is a debt the present generation owes to the future generation. I've always felt that we graduates are reaping the success of our degree and owe the law school our lifelong support."

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