Retired District Judge Thomas H. Alford was remembered Wednesday as a "true public servant," a "giant" among his peers, and a "great artist" by those who worked with and knew him as a friend.
Muskogee County Sheriff Terry Freeman said Alford, 70, was found dead at about 6 p.m. Tuesday by deputies who found him at his home while conducting a welfare check. Freeman, who described Alford as a "very fair and a very honest man," said the medical examiner was notified but "everything they saw leads us to believe it was natural causes."
Alford, a 1968 graduate of Muskogee Central High School, earned his bachelor's degree in business administration at Oklahoma University before earning his law degree at the law school there in 1976. He returned to his hometown, where he practiced law as an assistant district attorney and in the private sector before he was appointed in 1985 to the bench as a special judge in Muskogee County.
Gov. George Nigh selected Alford from a field of three candidates later that year to serve as an associate district judge. He was elected in 1998 as district judge and was re-elected four times before retiring in January 2019.
District Judge Bret Smith, who succeeded Alford after being elected in 2018, said his predecessor "set a high bar" for other judges. He said Alford was as "kind and generous and thoughtful as any judge I have known."
Smith recalled how Alford stepped up to fill in after District Judge Mike Norman died. Smith said Alford, who had retired just weeks earlier after 34 years of service on the bench, volunteered several more months of his time "for absolutely no personal financial benefit."
"That was his sense of duty and obligation …, and that speaks volumes about his character and about who he was," Smith said. "He was just as kind and generous and thoughtful as any judge I've ever appeared before or had to chance to work with on either side of the bench."
Alford was lauded as an advocate for youth and families who appeared before him on the juvenile docket at the Muskogee County Courthouse. Smith said while "there's no doubt that docket took its toll on him over the years," Alford "realized it was the most important docket in that courthouse."
"As a lawyer or a judge you could scratch that surface and realize he didn't just go in there, move on and forget about it," Smith said. "It stuck with him, but that just speaks to the sort of person he was — we're going to miss him."
Dr. Mike Stratton, a pediatrician who treated — or advocated on behalf of — some of children whose cases were on the juvenile docket, said Alford "was always fair, and you could always depend on him." Stratton, also a friend, said Alford "was considered a very fair and wonderful person" by the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth, "a well-respected agency" with which both men were involved.
Stratton, sharing a story about Jack, a chocolate Labrador puppy he gave the judge years ago, said Alford was a "caring and giving" person and cared a lot about the children who became entangled in the legal system and the outcomes of their cases. Stratton's story about Alford and Jack — "a super dog" that was neutered without the judge's knowledge while he was out of town — was symbolic of that level of caring.
"We all laughed and joked about it, but Tom was quite disappointed and upset that happened, as I recall," Stratton said. "I always knew then, that when a child was in his courtroom that they would get the best they could get — Tom was fair, honest and trustworthy."
Stratton also remembered Alford as a "great artist" who knew a lot about birds and nature. Alford donated some of his paintings to Ducks Unlimited and painted banners for the Azalea Festival banners.
Stuart "Doc" Woods, a biology professor at Connors State College, said he was "friends a little bit in high school" with Alford "but much better friends afterwards." Woods said he and Alford shared an interest in the outdoors, nature and the environment.
"His relationship with nature — I don't know exactly how to how to explain what that was, but Tom had a unique outlook on wildlife and the North American conservation model, of which he was a very strong supporter," Woods said, noting Alford's strong support for agriculture, too. "He was an intelligent man and, therefore, he was able to assist a lot of people in a lot of different ways."
Woods described Alford as more than "a judge ..., he was just a good guy, he was fun to be with." Woods said Alford always was "kind of quiet ..., but when he threw something out there it was something hilarious or something important — one or the other."
"He was just genuinely a good guy," Woods said.
Services are pending with Bradley Funeral Home.