Photo credit to Henderson Franklin | Attorneys at Law.

Jim Franklin, Jr., and the venerable Fort Myers law firm bearing his family name were born just months apart in 1924. Smartly dressed and well- spoken, Franklin belies his age as he speaks in vivid detail about the events of his life, career and the business his father founded with Robert A. Henderson, Jr., 90 years ago this month. Henderson, Franklin, Starnes & Holt, P.A., is the oldest law firm in Southwest Florida. It opened in October 1924 when Jacksonville attorney James A. Franklin relocated his young family – including three-month-old James, Jr. – to Fort Myers to join established attorney Robert A. Henderson, Jr., in a partnership. They were later joined by attorneys P.E. Starnes and Parker Holt in 1942. All were Baptists and Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity brothers, spending the remainder of their careers in practice together.

Franklin moved his family of five into a home on Royal Palm Avenue. Henderson lived one block from the office on First Street, in the same house in which he was born in 1892, remaining there his entire life. Although both men were civic-minded and shared many philosophical beliefs, the younger Franklin remembers the firm’s founders as a case of “opposites attract.” “R.A. Henderson and Jim Franklin were about as different as day and night, winter and summer,” Franklin Jr. says. “They were partners for so many years, totally adored each other, but were perfect opposites.” “Henderson was such a different individual – very reserved – he never raised his voice that I ever heard,” Franklin recalls.


His father also was a calm and quiet man, yet the two partners were known to have sharp disagreements. Franklin remembers a time when his father and Henderson debated the proper pronunciation of “nomenclature” for 45 minutes. “That’s why they were so successful; they brought different ideas and views to things,” he says. Henderson and Franklin, Sr., were both instrumental in shaping the growth of Fort Myers. Henderson helped organize the Caloosahatchee River Bridge Company and started the Fort Myers Building and Loan Company, which later became First Federal Savings & Loan. He was also instrumental in bringing in the Atlantic Coastline Railroad and was president of the Chamber of Commerce. One famous client was advertising entrepreneur Barron Collier, whom Henderson helped to establish Collier County – broken off from Lee County in 1923.

Franklin, Sr., served in both world wars, was a three-term state senator, president of the Florida Bar Association and district governor of Rotary Club. On the same day he received his commission as a Major in the U.S. Army during World War II, he got a call from Florida Gov. Spessard Holland, saying he wanted to appoint Franklin to the U.S. Congress. “He had to make a decision, and he decided to go military,” his son recalls. He was promoted to Lt. Colonel and was awarded a Bronze Star and four campaign ribbons. He helped establish the military government in Frankfurt, Germany, and accepted the surrender of the Nazis there. These two civic-minded men were the foundation of what Henderson, Franklin, Starnes & Holt has become today – the largest, full-service law fi rm in the region, with headquarters in the heart of downtown Fort Myers and offices in Sanibel Island and Bonita Springs.

“We aspire to set the standard by which law is practiced in Southwest Florida,” says Managing Partner Denis Noah.


Following in his father’s footsteps, Jim Franklin, Jr., joined the fi rm in 1949, becoming its sixth lawyer and the 26th lawyer to be registered with the Lee County Bar, which had organized earlier that year. At age 90, he still comes to the office once a week. “From the time I first got here, he was saying he was going to retire, and it took him another 11 years,” recalls Noah. “He’s an amazing guy.” Franklin’s work ethic started early, undoubtedly influenced by his father. His first job was delivering the News-Press on a 14-mile bike route at age 10. At 13, he went to work for the Coca-Cola bottling plant, driving a delivery truck all the way from the Dade County line to Clewiston (driver’s licenses weren’t required in Florida until the 1940’s).

He played football at Fort Myers High and the University of Florida. During the war, he spent three years on a Navy destroyer in the Pacific. In law school, Franklin vividly remembers failing and repeating one course: Torts. “I guess I understand what it was all about because I spent the next 40 years prosecuting torts,” chuckles the seasoned lawyer. Two days after graduation, he came to work for his father’s firm. “I have issued a Royal typewriter when I first came to work,” he says of the treasured relic still in his office.

About the time Franklin, Jr., joined the firm, Parker Holt became the city attorney for Fort Myers, helping pull the city out of debt. That propelled the younger Franklin into the role of a trial lawyer, where he earned the nickname “Silver Fox.” Negligence law changed in the mid-1970’s, and Franklin tried the first case in the state under the trickier “comparative negligence” standard. “We made a mess of it,” he says, recalling the countersuits and appeals all the way to the Florida Supreme Court.

Another notable case was helping get ousted Lee County Sheriff Snag Thompson reinstated after a political scandal in 1967. Franklin remembers Snag would help the Clerk of Court select jurors from names in the wire-cage wheel. As he pulled out a prospective juror’s name, Snag usually proceeded to say something like, “He is still driving an old green Ford and his sister got a divorce.” He knew everything about everybody whose name was on that big wheel.

Much has changed in the 65 years since Franklin joined the firm. Now, young lawyers choose from dozens of legal fields rather than practicing general law. “There are areas of the law I would never have dreamed of,” Franklin says. Yet, he says the firm is still looking for the same type of lawyers: “Good sense, not wild, not necessarily straight As but obvious intelligence, interest in a future in law and growing up having participated in church activities, Boy Scouts or some other community service.”


Denis Noah was the firm’s 15th attorney, hired in 1980. He was promoted to Managing Attorney in 2006, and his colleagues estimate he spends 50 percent of his time in real estate practice, 50 percent in management and 50 percent in civic involvement – and yes, that equals 150 percent.

“If there’s a spare minute of the day, I can fill it with something,” he says. Noah is vice chair of the Horizon Council, with a mission to attract and retain quality businesses in Lee County. He also serves on the board of the Southwest Florida Economic Development Alliance. During his tenure, Noah has seen the county’s population explode, growing fivefold during the last 25 years. He worked on the West Bay Club development in Estero for years and was gratified to see it finally turned over to residents this year.

Noah particularly enjoys resolving title problems: “It’s like putting a puzzle together. You have to figure out why it happened and then take the steps to fi x it.” He strives to live by Abraham Lincoln’s motto: “Whatever you are, be a good one.


Don Thomson manages the Bonita Springs office, which opened in September 2003, serving clients in North Collier and south Lee counties. He is a familiar face in Estero and Bonita, serving on the board of directors for several civic organizations, including the Bonita Springs Chamber of Commerce, Center for the Arts of Bonita Springs and The Speakers Assembly of Southwest Florida.

f Southwest Florida. “You have to give back more than what you take,” he says. “Henderson Franklin not only encourages that, they require it.” Thomson concentrates his practice in civil, commercial and construction litigation and is a Certified Circuit Civil Mediator by the Florida Supreme Court. Although he takes his job seriously, he tries not to take himself too seriously.

“I always make sure there’s a hint of humor in whatever I do,” Thomson says. “We work with people during tough times in their lives and we get the opportunity to hopefully guide them through it, leading to better times. We don’t sleep, in order to help them sleep at night.”


John Noland joined the firm in 1974, marking his 40th anniversary in 2014. He was the 18th lawyer at Henderson Franklin, making partner in just four years. He now serves as chair of the Commercial Litigation practice area. “I’m never going to retire,” he laughs.

When Noland started, he had to share an office with attorney Kemp Logan for the first year as the firm scrambled to add offices to its building on Second Street. “We used to send real letters on paper with stamps and a carbon copy for the file,” he says of the early days.

Noland has served on the Board of Governors for the Florida Bar and is past president of the Florida Bar Foundation, which funds pro bono legal services throughout the state. He is a former Fort Myers Rotary Club president and is a member of the board of directors of the American Red Cross and the Advisory Board for the Salvation Army. “You just try to live your life the way you should and the way you were brought up,” he says. Noland’s best advice for young lawyers is: “Work hard and be honest.”


Beth Vogelsang is a recent addition to the firm, specializing in Marital and Family Law. She moved to Wildcat Run in 2010, a welcome change from the fast pace of Miami, where she practiced law for about 25 years.

“Back then, you were a trial lawyer; we didn’t have specialties,” she says of the mid-’80s when she joined her father’s law firm. Vogelsang was recently named the Best Lawyers in America 2015 Fort Myers Family Law Lawyer of the Year. She also made Florida Super Lawyers’ Top 50 Women in Law in 2014. During her years in Miami, she handled several high profile divorce cases, but she serves clients of all types.

“I have grown to like family law,” Vogelsang says. “People are hurting at that time. You provide a much- needed service, especially when you care and listen to your clients. Sometimes I represent the ‘bad boy or girl’ in a divorce case. I don’t judge; I just try to find solutions.” She also handles prenuptial and postnuptial agreements, which are growing in popularity. When she’s not working, Vogelsang can be found on the tennis courts at Wildcat Run or Grandezza.

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