A tribute to International First Vice President Judge Haynes Townsend

In the fall of 2019, the video team at Lions Clubs International headquarters sat down with First Vice President Judge Haynes Townsend to begin capturing footage for his presidential videos. We interviewed the Judge, his family, and those who knew him well. On December 17, 2019, VP Townsend passed away unexpectedly. What follows is a portrait of the man as was recorded by his family, friends, and himself during these interviews. He will be greatly missed by his family and by his extended Lions family.

As a Judge in the Whitfield County Magistrate court in Georgia, Haynes Townsend, 64, often saw people on their worst days. People being evicted from their homes or charged with stealing food. He knew these were not bad people, but people in bad circumstances. One day he was faced with a young woman in her early twenties with three children in tow, ranging in age from 3 or 4 down to an infant in her arms. She had been charged with shoplifting from Walmart.

“I’d like to plead guilty,” she said. He asked her what she had shoplifted. “Baby food and diapers,” she responded. She had just moved to the area from Kentucky and her husband left her shortly after they arrived. She couldn’t afford childcare, which meant she couldn’t get a job. So, she had no money.

Judge Townsend dismissed the charges against her and asked her to wait for him in back until he was finished with court that day. He then contacted local shelters, which gave her a place to stay and food to eat.

It’s what he loved about the job—being able to help people solve their problems. He became good at knowing who was telling the truth and who was leaving something out. But regardless, his motto was always to lead with compassion.

“I knew it wasn’t going to do any good to put her in jail,” he said. “If you can’t put yourself in someone else’s shoes, then you can’t be an effective judge.”

Before becoming a judge, Townsend had helped run a hardware store with his mother in Dalton, Georgia, where she instilled in him the importance of working hard. But Townsend never seemed to find life very hard.

“Growing up in Dalton was a lesson in small town culture,” he said of his hometown, which sits at the base of the Appalachian Trail.

As the only child of Clifford and Evelyn Townsend, he was doted on. His father, a pilot and former flight instructor during World War II, taught Townsend to fly at a very young age. “I actually soloed when I was 10 years old. They don’t generally let you do that anymore,” he said.

When he wasn’t flying with his father or helping his mother at the hardware store, his playmates were the diverse group of neighborhood kids who, like him, lived on the “wrong side of the tracks.” If they wanted to play baseball, they’d find a vacant lot, mark off some lines, and play. They didn’t have umpires, and nobody fussed about the rules. “Everybody recognized when they were out,” he says. “It was that kind of experience that taught us how to get along with each other, and how to trust each other.”

His friends crossed racial and cultural divides, and he credits that for teaching him how to get along with all kinds of people, which has served him well in his career as a Lion.

“Diversity can be termed in many different ways, and it's not all about color, it's not all about religion, it's not all about what country you come from,” he said. “A lot of it is just about ideas that you have about some of these other cultures around the world, and how you react to those, and we have to be willing to accept those ideas, because that's how we grow as a species, and how we turn into better human beings.”

After graduating high school, Townsend attended Young Harris College, a small junior college in the mountains of northeast Georgia, where he met his wife, Donna. He sat next to her at a showing of “Night of the Living Dead” at a theater on campus. “I had bubble gum in my mouth, and I was blowing bubbles,” said Donna. “And I had the biggest bubble and Haynes reached over and he popped that thing. It went all over my face. And I thought, ‘Okay, this relationship is over with.’”

But it wasn’t. It was the beginning of a 40-year marriage. “We’ve been partners ever since,” said Townsend. Donna describes a man who loved to joke around, but who also loved to take long, quiet drives in the country. “Sometimes we would just get in the car and drive through the mountains for three or four hours, and we didn't even have to say anything,” she said. He loved photography and reading and seemed to be an infinite well of knowledge. She was certain there weren’t too many folks like him.

A young Haynes blows out some birthday candles while sporting what would become his signature look—a tidy, hand-tied bow tie.

The couple had two daughters, Morgan, 36, and Madison, 32, who learned the importance of kindness from watching their father.

Townsend’s mother worked at the hardware store for 52 years, instilling in Haynes the importance of working hard.

Madison recalls a time when she was young and the family was going to out to eat. There was a man outside asking for help and her father asked the man to join them for lunch. “I was just kind of in shock,” she said, but she was also in admiration of him. “Every time I see something like that – somebody needing some food or just help – I think back to that day.”

Townsend’s father was a pilot and former WWII flight instructor. He taught Haynes to fly when he was just 7 years old.

Morgan remembers when her cousin had her first child and her father went to the hospital to see her and the new baby. “She is a brand new mother and my dad was carrying this tiny little baby around, helping to change its diaper, because she didn't know what she was doing yet.”

Not only did he show kindness to others, but to his daughters, too. He supported them in all their endeavors, teaching them to go after whatever they wanted, and to go at it full force, with open arms and a humble heart.

Kindness was something he lived. He truly believed the world could be a better place if people were kind to one another. “That's what we have the ability to do as Lions,” he said. “Unleash that kindness onto the world.”

Townsend joined the Dalton Noon Lions Club in his hometown shortly after he and Donna were married, and Donna began attending events shortly thereafter. “I thought, ‘I'm never going to see this guy if I don't get out there and go with him,’” she said. He sponsored her when women were legally allowed to join, and she has never looked back. “Haynes took me from a quiet little town in Dalton, Georgia, with a population of 35,000, to millions and millions and billions of people around the world. Who gets to do that?”

In addition to being a Lion, Townsend was also part of Dalton First United Methodist Church, the Downtown Dalton Development Authority, and the Dalton Christmas parade. Most recently, he was nominated for Judge of the Year by the state of Georgia. “If you go around town anywhere, they know dad,” said Madison. “He'll see somebody walking down the street when they're going out to get lunch or going out to the grocery store and he'll take five, 10 minutes out of his day just to catch up with a friend he hasn't seen in forever,” she said. He made time for people. It was his way of showing he cared.

The Judge’s daughters adored their father and liked to honor him by dressing up in his clothes for Father’s Day.

“My dad has never known a stranger,” said Morgan. “If he meets someone, they're friends forever.” He loved to be a part of the community.

The Late Judge Townsend and his wife, Donna, were married for more than 40 years.

But he was truly passionate about the mission of Lions. And more importantly, he believed in Lions themselves.

He urged Lions to invite prospective members to service events, not to meetings. “The millennials and the new folks out there don't really want to come to a club meeting that's boring and sit around in there for an hour and a half or two hours and listen to old stories,” he said. “They want to do something. They want to get out there and have interaction in the communities and feel like they're helping somebody.”

He knew that people came to Lions from all walks of life, and that made the organization stronger. “I think that's the best thing we can do – be willing to accept what they're willing to give, and know their glass may not be 100 percent full of Lionism. But if it's 50 percent full, we need to drink of that.”

Townsend spent more than 40 years as a Lion. And he would have made an exceptional International President.

“He picks up phone calls when you need him, no matter what time, what country you are in, he is there if you need him,” said Morgan. “And I know that he cares about every single person that is a part of this association, because we see it.”

The influence he has had on others is reflected in the love they give back. As he struggled through illness over the past year, Lions all over the world reached out. The entire organization has been shaken by his sudden loss. But the fact that he is gone doesn’t diminish the impact he has made, and can continue to have, through others who follow the example he set.

Saying goodbye to a friend is never easy. Maybe it might help to think of him as always just a phone call away.

In his own words: “Lions, it's been a privilege having served up until this point…I hope that any time you think you need something, whatever it is, feel free to call…It might be awhile before I can call you back, depending on which part of the world I’m in, but keep up the kindness, keep doing great things. God bless you all.”

“Rosalynn and I are saddened to learn of the passing of our friend Judge Haynes Townsend. His kindness and generosity were evident in his passion for the Lions clubs and its partnership with The Carter Center. His legacy will certainly live on in our hearts. We offer our deepest condolences to Haynes’ wife, Donna, their daughters, and the global Lions Clubs International family.” – Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter