Longtime local judge, community leader dies

BRADENTON — A bench legend.

A community leader.

A shining star.

Former 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Robert E. Hensley died Wednesday.

“Judge Hensley will be remembered for his unwavering integrity and honest and fair treatment of the litigants who came before him,” said 12th Circuit Spokesman Dennis Menendez. “He will be greatly missed by his friends and colleagues of the Twelfth Circuit.”

He is survived by his wife, Mavis, a retired Manatee High School teacher, and their five children and grandchildren.

“All the judges who have the pleasure of working with him or in front of him as lawyers had the greatest respect for him in his intelligence, demeanor and fair rulings,” said Lee Haworth, chief judge of the 12th Judicial Circuit. “He was a shining star not just in our circuit, but across the state.”

Circuit Judge Marc Gilner, who knew Hensley for 30 years, called him a bar legend.

“His temperament and respect for people was extraordinary,” Gilner said. “He should be the role model for every judge. He was a true gentleman and an active member of the community. He will be greatly missed.”

Hensley was born in Johnson City, Tenn., on Jan. 3, 1923.

When he was young, his parents moved to Florida and he graduated high school here in 1943.

He then enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in World War II. He served in combat with the 1st Armored Division of the 11th Infantry in Italy. After the war, he received his undergraduate and law degree from Stetson University, where he met his wife. He graduated in 1950 and was admitted to the Florida Bar that same year.

He began his legal career with the law firm of Goodrich and Willis and later opened his own law firm in the same office as George Harrison.

In 1955, Gov. Leroy Collins appointed Hensley as a county judge for Manatee. He was re-elected for this position twice and served on the bench in all three counties of the 12th Circuit — Manatee, Sarasota and Desoto.

In 1959, Collins appointed him as a circuit judge of the 12th Circuit. He served unopposed as a circuit judge with distinction until his retirement in 1985 and later as a senior judge.

He received the Manatee County Fair Board’s Distinguished Citizen of the Year award in 1991 and the former county jail in downtown Bradenton was named for Hensley before it opened in 1984.

In 1999, the Manatee County Florida Bar Association awarded Hensley its first annual Lifetime Achievement Award as he had been a member more then 50 years.

When the Manatee County Judicial Center was built last year, a wing was dedicated in his honor.

Recently elected Circuit Judge Gilbert Smith Jr. said he was blessed to have Hensley attend his investiture Jan. 16.

“He honored me when he came, even though he was ill,” Smith said. “He was a mentor and role model ... a leader in the community.”

Smith’s father, former 12th Circuit Judge Gilbert Smith Sr., served on the bench with Hensley for 14 years. They were close friends. He could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.

In addition to serving on the bench, he volunteered 25 years of service to the Salvation Army and 30 years of service to the Boy Scouts of America Council. He was also a member of the Bradenton Kiwanis and helped establish the Rubonia Day Care Center for migrant farm workers’ children.

He was a member of the First Baptist Church in Bradenton, where he taught Sunday school.