Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series of the life of James Foster Neal.
He was a farm boy from Oak Grove, a typical kid with a powerful mind, a star football player winning a college scholarship, but doing nothing extra in the classroom.
Yet, 30 years after graduating from high school in Portland, James Foster Neal would take his place among the most prominent attorneys in the United States after having successfully prosecuted the top aides of President Richard M. Nixon in the Watergate scandal and
become the go-to man for high-profile people in trouble with the law.
He also helped send Teamsters Union President Jimmy Hoffa to jail and defended Ford Motor Company, Exxon Valdez and the physician of Elvis Presley.
James Foster Neal was born on Sept. 7, 1929, to Robert Gus and Emma Clendenning Neal and grew up on a farm along Dobbins Pike.
His fellow student, James Wilkinson, remembers him as a “regular farm boy who would rather play sports than study hard. He was a popular guy.”
His parents did not have the advantage of a college education, but his sister, Lila Ligon, described them as “school wanters.”
“They admired people with education and Jimmy wound up being an attorney. Bobby served as
a U.S. Marine officer.”
In addition to running the family farm, they were active in the Oak Grove Presbyterian Church.
“My father and mother would take care of the preachers. They liked to sit around the table and talk with them,” she said. “None of the children were allowed to leave the table unless they
had a special purpose. They wanted to make the family look good.”
Though the folks didn't get to go to college, their kids did. The oldest, Lila, became a school teacher. The second born, Dorothy Boozer, became an industrial nurse.
His sister recalls Jim's grade school teachers bragging on him, “This little kid was smart,” they would say. “Other people said the same, but that didn’t impress Dad. He may have been jealous of him. He wanted Jimmy to love his work but could never sell Jimmy on farming. Dad was unhappy because Jimmy didn’t like farming.”
The Neals also took an interest in the wider world of Sumner County.
“His father, Gus Neal, love to talk and argue politics,” said Barry Ligon, nephew of James Neal.
“When going to Gallatin, he listened in on some of the trials at the courthouse. Jimmy went with him sometimes.”
Neal family life revolved around the fields.
“Dad didn't like to buy food at the store, so we got it from the farm,” says Lila. “We got our honey from the bees and tried to be self-sufficient. They didn’t want to go the store for
Young Jim didn’t like working on the farm, and that drove a wedge between him and his father.
“It caused him not to think as much of Jimmy as he should have,” his sister recalls. “He was very competitive with his own brother. They played Ping-Pong fiercely, making it like a boxing round. That had a lot to do with his success. He was never going to be a loser. Bobby was in better graces with father, and may have liked farming better.”