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History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
Thomas David Watkins

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[This information is from Vol. III, pp. 757-760 of History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925). It is in the Reference collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at R 974.7 G81h. This online edition includes lists of portraits, maps and illustrations. As noted by Paul Keesler in his article, "The Much Maligned Mr. Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

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Thomas David Watkins was an attorney of Utica who gained well-merited distinction as one of the leading representatives of the legal profession in central New York. The period of his professional career covered only about two decades, for he departed this life on December 25, 1912, at the comparatively early age of forty-two years. He was born in Plainfield, Otsego county, New York, on the 4th of September, 1870, his parents being John and Ellen (James) Watkins, natives of Wales.

Thomas David Watkins supplemented his public school education by a course of study in the West Winfield Academy and subsequently, having won a free scholarship in Cornell University, attended the law department of the latter institution, from which he was graduated in 1892. While at Cornell he won the oratory prize in debate. He pursued a postgraduate course at Cornell University and received the degree of LL. M. in 1893. Mr. Watkins began the practice of law in Utica, where he was first associated with Josiah Perry and later became a partner of A. T. Wilkinson. He was corporation counsel of Utica in 1896 and 1897, under Mayor John G. Gibson, and his capable handling of the complicated and difficult affairs of that office brought him into marked prominence in legal circles. He established a standard in the city's legal department such as it had never known before. During his incumbency he handled many important cases with ability and dispatch, notably the settlement of claims for the Genesee Street canal, in which he saved the city about one hundred thousand dollars. His gift of oratory, which he had demonstrated at Cornell, was pronounced, and behind it was a very thorough knowledge of the law, a flashlike quickness of perception and a keen business acumen. Upon the expiration of his term as corporation counsel Mr. Watkins formed a partnership with William E. Lewis and the new firm handled the law business of the West Shore Railroad as well as of many other important interests. Later Charles T. Titus was admitted and the name became Lewis, Watkins & Titus. About this time the firm secured the local law business of the New York Central Railroad. So great was the confidence reposed in Mr. Watkins' ability by the officials of the New York Central that he was intrusted with important business transactions that did not come strictly within the jurisdiction of his firm. He represented the New York Central before the public service commission in opposition to the building of a parallel road by the Buffalo, Rochester & Eastern Railway Company and his arguments won this important case for his clients. He also had charge of the legal affairs connected with the enlargement of the freight yards and the building of a new depot at Utica. In 1909 Abram G. Senior became a member of the firm, and three years later Mr. Lewis retired from the firm, which was afterward known as Watkins & Titus. Mr. Watkins was a member of the New York State Bar Association and the Oneida County Bar Association.

On the 14th of September, 1898, Mr. Watkins was united in marriage to Miss Corinne L. Wheeler, daughter of Eber Osborne Wheeler of Auburn, New York. Mr. and Mrs. Watkins became the parents of four children, as follows: John Wheeler; Winnifred C., deceased; Thomas David, Jr.; and Wheeler. Mr. Watkins was deeply interested in religious work. As a member of the Presbyterian church he taught a men's Bible class in Sunday school and later he was the first president of the Utica Young Men's Christian Association. Fraternally he was identified with the Knights of Pythias and the Royal Arcanum and he also held membership in the Fort Schuyler Club, the Yahnundasis Golf Club, the Rome Club, the Republican Club and the Cornell Club of New York city.

"Mr. Watkins", said the Utica Observer, "had a most courteous manner, and a cordiality of nature that won and held for him many friendships. There were few professional men in the city who worked as hard as he, but in spite of this fact he found time to mingle with his fellowmen, to take part in public affairs and to give cheerful greeting to all persons whom he knew. He had a wide acquaintance throughout and beyond the county. He was respected by all those who knew him, for 'Tom' Watkins was a loyal friend, a zealous attorney for all clients, whether their cases were small or large, and a good citizen in the best sense of the word."

Frederick M. Davenport offered the following at a meeting of the board of directors of the Progressive Club of Oneida county, with respect to the death of Hon. Thomas D. Watkins of Utica:

"Thomas D. Watkins was first of all a man of splendid ability and character. He was the peer of any man in his profession in central New York, in intellectual calibre, in power of will, in executive energy. His judgment and insight were trusted to an extraordinary degree by the New York Central Corporation, which was one of his clients. He was a corporation lawyer who taught public utility corporations the value of following the public conscience and of submitting to a just public control. His whole attitude of mind and of sympathy and of practice took all the old taint out of the term corporation lawyer. The public interest and the corporate interest were both safe in his hands.

"Thomas D. Watkins was a great citizen. He loved his city and his county and his state and his nation with the same sort of devotion with which he loved his family and his friends. He was just winning the heights of influence and of usefulness in the community in which he dwelt, and the community itself perhaps does not yet fully appreciate the extent of its loss. There was just ripening a power of leadership and of service that would soon have proved of such benefit to the city of Utica and the county of Oneida that all men would have been compelled to recognize it as proceeding from a citizen of the first rank in accomplishment and helpfulness.

"Thomas D. Watkins was a distinguished progressive. Although this was incidental to his position as a man and as a citizen, it is worthy of note because it was characteristic of the kind of man he was. Nobody knew better than he the condition which had prevailed under the old machine system in the politics of the country. Nobody knew better than he how little the rights of great classes of people had been properly safeguarded in the law and the government of the land; and it was precisely characteristic of his courageous and foresighted nature that he should go to the front for a cause which promised an orderly and not a revolutionary progress toward the better day. For these great qualities of mind and heart all who knew Thomas D. Watkins respected and loved him, and his fellow progressives in deep sorrow, but with honest pride in his name and fame, desire to enter as the first minute upon the record of the Progressive Club of Oneida county this resolution and testimony of our appreciation of what he was and our gratitude that he was one of us.

"The above 'Resolution and Testimony' was unanimously adopted by the board of directors of the Progressive Club of Oneida county at a specially called meeting held Tuesday evening, January 14, 1913. Hugh R. Jones, Acting Secretary."

At a meeting of the session of the First Presbyterian church held on the 26th day of December, 1912, the following minute was adopted:

"The session of this church learns with sorrow that Thomas D. Watkins, one of its members, departed this life on the 25th day of December, 1912. The session desires to record its recognition of the high Christian character and the earnest devotion to duty of the member whose earthly career has thus closed, unfinished to our finite minds, but in accordance with the wisdom of the Father of all. This church sustains the loss of one whose wish and purpose were that Christian thought and effort make an impression broad and deep on the lives of men and whose personal influence and endeavor contributed to that end in marked degree. His word of encouragement and his activity in the work of the church will be sorely missed. And the session, on behalf of the members of this church, desires to convey to the family, sorrowing under the loss of a husband and father, their sincere sympathy in this hour of mourning.

"Richard R. Martin,
"Edward D. Ibbotson,
"Carl A. Evans,
"Edward L. Wells,
"Committee of the Session.
December 25, 1912."

"Donald McIntyre, Clerk.

The following editorial appeared in the Utica Press under date of December 26, 1912:

"Seldom has the uncertainty of human life been more startlingly exemplified than in the untimely taking off of Thomas David Watkins. Only a few days since he was at his work, and as far as the world knew, as well as ever, and none who met him thought for a moment that they were seeing him for the last time. It is not so many years ago that he came to Utica, and not often has a man forged to the front as rapidly as he did, and his friends believed that he had not even yet reached the limit of his professional prominence. What brought him first to public notice was his appointment as corporation counsel, and so well did he discharge its duties that his ability was promptly recognized, and soon thereafter he became one of the leading trial lawyers of this locality. Some exceedingly large litigations were successfully conducted by him, and he enjoyed the confidence and respect of a splendid clientage. He won his way on his merits and by hard work.

"Mr. Watkins was a public-spirited, enterprising Utican, and so long as the city stands those who know the facts will remember that this is a bigger and a better place because of his interest and residence here. He supplemented ambition by ability and industry. There is no royal road to success as a lawyer, and the prizes for the most part go to those who work hardest and most efficiently. He prepared his cases carefully and was not easily surprised by the shrewdest opponents, either as to the law or the facts. He had a good grasp of his profession and its principles and was a hard fighter, but he fought fair, and even his adversaries respected and admired him. Few young men achieve as much as he did at his age. His mind was alert and he was always looking for information which one day might serve a useful purpose. He was a good citizen, honorable and upright, and the community is saddened to know he is gone. Personally Mr. Watkins was a most agreeable gentleman and had a large acquaintance, not only locally but throughout the state. He was devoted to his family and his friends and lived a life that those who loved him can always remember with pride. Why a man of his years and promise, with so much of activity and usefulness apparently before him, should be taken is one of the things which humanity can neither explain nor understand. He will be missed and mourned sincerely in this city, and to the family thus suddenly bereaved there are hundreds who extend their heartfelt sympathy."

The following tribute came from the Oneida County Bar Association:

"The bar of Oneida county is again called upon to mourn the loss of one of its distinguished members. On Christmas day in the year 1912 Thomas David Watkins was taken away at the meridian of his life. He was one of the leading lawyers of central New York. He was an indefatigable worker and thoroughly mastered every subject connected with his client's cause. Whether trying a question of fact before a jury or presenting matters of law to a court, he was forceful but courteous and was respected and admired by the judges. In his relations with his fellow attorneys he was fair and upright and his association with them was most pleasant and agreeable. Mr. Watkins possessed a keen analytical mind. He was a close observer of men and possessed a thorough knowledge of human nature. He had for many years been counsel in this and adjoining counties for the New York Central Railroad Company and he met with remarkable success in serving this great corporation. He was one of our best public speakers and knew how to appeal to the people with telling effect. He was a public-spirited citizen and did much to advance the interests and prosperity of the city in which he lived. He was a charter member of this association, was active in its formation and at all times did much to further its interests. We deeply deplore his untimely death and believe that had he lived the allotted time of man, his fame which was now so great would have been much greater. We tender to the members of Mr. Watkins' family our deepest sympathy. We direct the secretary of this association to spread this memorial upon its minutes and that a copy be presented to the supreme court with a request that it be entered upon its minutes."

Hon. James K. O'Connor said:

"Gazing in retrospect, it seems but yesterday that this fair-haired, bright-faced lad came into our midst and straightway won a place in all our hearts. It is but twenty years all told — years that have passed all too soon — and in the brief space of time Thomas D. Watkins won for himself a name and a station which most of us could envy and only a few hope to attain even with lives extended far beyond the ordinary length. He was a marvelous man. Manhood and character were his chiefest assets, and these he possessed in plethora. There was a deep religious tinge to the man, and his religion was of the soul, not that of affectation. It is often repeated that corporations have no souls and the attorneys who represent them are quite likely to be charged with being soulless, too, but this one had a soul, as was proved in much of his work. Mr. Watkins was big and broad. We know that in large measure he was self-made, and yet he never forgot any little kindnesses that had been shown him along the road when at first the struggle was hard and bitter. Most men believe themselves self-made and but few are willing to allow credit for assistance to any other source. There was no task too gigantic for him to undertake, no burden too heavy to bear. And it was because of that capacity for work — too great for the physical constitution with which nature had endowed him — and the overpowering energy which consumed his frail body that we are now compelled to mourn his loss."

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