Though both men forged long careers associated with the law, W. Stephen Nixon recalls his first meeting with Jack Gant occurred in the basketball gym at William Jewell College.
Fresh out of law school at the time, Nixon hadn't drummed up a ton of work and was a volunteer coach at Jewell, where Gant's daughter Marcy played for the Cardinals. Gant, by then a Jackson County Circuit Court judge, told Nixon he appreciated how the coach pushed his daughter to excel. Naturally, their conversations later turned to the law.
Soon after, Gant helped him get acquainted with many of the judges and top attorneys in the county
“He became a mentor to me … helped me out in a lot different ways,” said Nixon, who later succeeded Gant on the bench and now serves as Jackson County counselor. “We talked about his view of how people should treat each other.”
“I don't think there's anybody more important in my life than him besides by wife and family.”
Gant, a state senator from 1966 until his appointment to the bench, where he served 1977-98, died Sunday in his Independence home at age 90. He is presumed to be the only judge appointed by both parties, as he turned down Gov. Warren Hearns' appointment in 1972 before Gov. Christopher “Kit” Bond selected him four years later. After retiring, he assumed senior judge status, hearing hundreds of mediation and arbitration cases.
As politician and judge, he's being remembered for his civility and fairness, and his five children with wife Beverly remember him for his compassion and dedication.
“His word was always good, and he was concerned that everybody kept their dignity in things,” Nixon said.
Gant started working after school as a pre-teen to help his widowed mother with medical bills. A year after graduating from Northeast High School, he joined the U.S. Marines and served as a prison camp guard in Guam. After his service with the Marines ended in 1948, he earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Missouri in 1951 and his law degree from UMKC three years later. Gant started his law career as prosecuting attorney.
In 1965, he won election to the Missouri Senate. As a legislator, he helped open up the Little Blue Valley for future development in Independence and allow UMKC to have its own medical school. In 1976 he lost a three-way Democratic primary for Missouri's Fourth Congressional District (to Ike Skelton, who served 34 years), but by the end of the year Bond had tagged him for the bench in Jackson County.
In 1982, he started the court-appointed special advocate project (CASA) that continues present day in Jackson County. One case of note during his time as judge came when he dismissed a murder charge based on a battered-wife self defense.
“He always worried about when he sentenced people,” oldest daughter Carrie Olson said. “I know he thought long and hard on cases, to make the best decision possible.”
“He was the best father you could ever want – always supported us in anything we wanted to do and encouraged us. He was a model father.”
“He was always really, really busy,” son Larry added, “but no matter what he would always make time for us kids, attending our events.''
Another son, John, remembers tagging along as a youngster during the state legislator years.
“We were going down to the Senate to vote on a bill, and we were going a little fast,” he said. A state trooper pulled them over, and Gant explained who he was and that he was in a hurry and “don't have time to talk.” Instead of a ticket, the trooper provided an escort to the capital.
“I was a young, but that was fun,” John said.
Gant served as president or a member of numerous boards of directors or associations around the community and region, including:
• Advisory Board of Independence Neighborhood Councils.
• Tax Oversight Committee for Parks and Recreation in Independence.
• Community Services League.
• Jackson County 4-H Foundation.
• Independence Queen City Baseball Association.
• President of the UMKC Alumni Association.
• Chairman of Missouri Division of Youth Services State Advisory Committee.
For his distinguished professional career and years of volunteer service, Gant received myriad awards.
Olson said her father “loved trying to improve Independence” and recalls a particular quote he offered for “Independence Leaders Digest” well into his years on the bench.
“The real quality of life,” he wrote, “comes as you give it in service to others.”
Visitation for Gant will be 5 to 8 p.m. Jan. 4 at First Baptist Blue Springs, 4500 Little Blue Parkway, Independence. Services will be at 1 p.m. the next day at the same location.