Pioneer jurist was first black federal judge in BR
Hundreds of mourners, including elected officials and dozens of judges, gathered in First United Methodist Church on Saturday morning to reflect on and honor the life of Chief U.S. District Judge Ralph E. Tyson.
It was a funeral service filled with songs of praise, kind words and laughter as friends and family remembered the distinguished jurist.
“He was admired for this strength, commitment, faithfulness, and above all, that lost virtue of humility,” said the Rev. Freddie Henderson, who knew Tyson since the 1970s. “He set the bar high, at a level worth striving to reach.”
Tyson, the first black judge appointed to the federal bench in Baton Rouge, died early Monday at the age of 63.
Southern University Law Center Chancellor Freddie Pitcher, Tyson’s friend of 40 years, said Tyson rose from humble beginnings in south Baton Rouge to his position as a federal judge with unwavering integrity and values.
Pitcher and Tyson met in 1972 when Pitcher, a Southern University Law Center student, enrolled in summer classes at the Paul M. Hebert Law Center at LSU.
“Ralph was the only African- American student at the law school,” Pitcher said. “Together that summer, we made up a total diversity population of two.”
Tyson graduated from the Law School in 1973, he said. Tyson was honored in 2009 with the Distinguished Alumnus of the Year award from the Law School.
Pitcher shared his favorite memories of his friend, from their early days with the state Attorney General’s Office to Tyson’s sense of humor during “high teas” at their first practice on Plank Road.
“We took the road that, at the time, was less traveled by,” Pitcher said. “And it really did make all the difference.”
Pitcher said that early in Tyson’s career, he established a reputation for holding and protecting “the highest ideals of the legal profession.”
Tyson served as a City Court prosecutor before becoming that court’s judge.
Tyson served as Baton Rouge City Court judge from 1988 until 1993, when he won election to a judgeship on the state’s 19th Judicial District Court bench.
He served the 19th District until his federal appointment in 1998 by President Bill Clinton.
Tyson served as chief of the court’s nine-parish Middle District of Louisiana from 2005 until his death.
U.S. District Judge James J. Brady called Tyson his friend and mentor, who was never too busy to offer guidance, advice and, if need be, admonishment.
“He was a great person, melded into a great federal judge,” Brady said.
Tyson’s children also spoke at the service, saying Tyson was an amazing father, mentor and man.
“You’ve heard about his many great accomplishments from his career, but he came home every night to us,” Chris Tyson said. “He was there for every soccer game, every dance recital, every piano recital. We grew up with discipline, values and above all, unconditional love.”
Tyson had battled lung cancer since the late 1990s. The disease had progressed rapidly near the end, but Tyson never lost his grace, humor or compassion for others, Brady said.
Several speakers said that Tyson fought his cancer with a quiet determination, never once uttering a complaint about his prognosis or letting on to any pain he may have felt in the entire duration.
“When the days were darkest and we went to him to talk, we would leave feeling consoled by him,” Pitcher said.
Brady said that after he underwent surgery a few weeks back, he received a call from Tyson wanting to check on his well-being.
“He was on his way to get radiation chemotherapy, and he was calling to make sure I was OK,” Brady said. “What else can you ask for in a human being?”