John Onion Jr. loved telling stories, and after 56 years as a judge at almost every level in Texas, the Austin man had a lot to say about the law he loved and the larger-than-life personalities he had met in the courtroom.
Onion died Sunday at age 93, surrounded by family members at home, after proudly living eight or nine months longer than his cancer doctors’ prognosis. Stories about the story-telling judge began circulating around the state as word of his death spread Tuesday.
Chris Harrison, Onion’s briefing attorney in 1976, began writing those stories down about two years ago, impressed by Onion’s uncanny ability to recall names, dates and conversations that were decades old. Those memories quickly filled 100 pages.
“He looked at it and said, ‘I’ve got a lot more stories.’ It’s now over 260 pages, and we’re still revising it. He was telling me stories as of two weeks ago,” Harrison said. “These are the stories he could tell that no one else knows. They are stories of colorful governors, judges, some of the outstanding defense attorneys and prosecutors of the state — and he knew them all.”
Harrison said his year as Onion’s briefing attorney provided an education in criminal law that far exceeded what he learned in law school, setting him on a 25-year legal career before he retired to become a Presbyterian minister 18 years ago.
On Friday, Harrison will lead Onion’s memorial service at Westlake Hills Presbyterian Church, 7127 Bee Cave Road, at 2 p.m. He will be buried at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin during a private ceremony.
Known as Jack to his family and friends, Onion graduated from the University of Texas School of Law in 1950 and was elected as a Bexar County justice of the peace four years later.
After also serving as a district judge, Onion was elected to the Court of Criminal Appeals in 1966, and four years later — after voters approved a change to the Texas Constitution — he became the first person elected presiding judge of the state’s highest criminal court.
He would win three six-year terms as the appeals court’s top judge and retired at the end of 1988 — only to serve as a visiting judge in trial and appeals courts across Texas for more than two decades.
Onion became a go-to judge for controversial cases, including the 1994 trial of then-U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who was accused of having misused her office when she was state treasurer. Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle declined to present his case after the trial began, saying Onion signaled that key evidence might not be admitted, and Hutchison was acquitted.
Onion stopped working when he was 85, his mind still sharp but his eyesight failing, said his son, David Onion of Austin.
“My father truly loved the law,” David Onion said. “He was just passionate about it, and really to his last dying days, he was still discussing cases from yesterday as well as cases that were taking place. If he hadn’t lost his eyesight a few years back, I tell you he still would be on the bench somewhere.”