Thursday, May 1, 2003

90-year-old lawyer retiring after 65 years in court



By Allen Howard
The Cincinnati Enquirer

For the first time in 65 years, William A. McClain is not starting his workday thinking about legal briefs, petitions, lawsuits, dockets, judges, courts and juries.

Today, the 90-year-old jurist is retiring. Since 1938 he has worked as a trial lawyer, assistant city solicitor, chief city solicitor, acting city manager, Common Pleas judge and corporate lawyer.

He cleaned out his desk this week at the law firm of Manley Burke & Lipton downtown, where he has practiced law since 1980. He took time to autograph several hundred speeches he has made across the country.

"He is an outstanding municipal lawyer and is known all over the country," said Bob Manley, chairman of Manley Burke. "When I wrote my first brief as a young lawyer back in the 1960s, he was on the other side as an assistant city solicitor."

McClain won an academic scholarship to Wittenberg University in Springfield in 1930. He said he was the only black student on the campus among 630 students.

"I couldn't eat or sleep on campus because I was black," he said. "We were too poor to buy books. The North Street African Methodist Episcopal Church paid for my books."

He had made up his mind he wanted to be a lawyer when he went to Wittenberg, but said he had problems with stuttering. He enrolled in speech classes to help with his speech impediment.

After getting all A's in speech classes he asked to get on the debate team, but was denied. In his junior year, his speech teacher helped him to get on the team.

"I was told I had to write a speech on racism," he said. His speech, "Our Scroll of Destiny," brought him first place at the Ohio State Intercollegiate Oratorical Association competition and at the National Interstate Oratorical Association competition in 1934.

After delivering his speech, a scorching chastisement of race relations, McClain closed with: "I believe in the black man's destiny - that somewhere, sometime in this land of ours, though black-skinned and kinky-haired, he shall climb the mountains of life, hand in hand with his white brother, and emerge above the clouds of blackness into the sunlight of freedom and social justice."

He said winning the national contest was a defining moment in his life.

"I felt then that I could do anything I wanted to do. ... From that day on, I decided that my life was going to be controlled by me defining myself, not my color, not blackness nor poverty," he said.

McClain received his law degree from University of Michigan Law School in 1937.

McClain served as an assistant city solicitor in Cincinnati, deputy city solicitor and became the first African-American to serve as city solicitor of a major city in 1963.

He was an acting city manager in 1968 and again in 1972. He has been an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati Law School and Salmon P. Chase Law School, and a faculty member at the Ohio Legal Center Institute, Toledo.

He was the first African-American Common Pleas judge in Hamilton County and also served as law director for the village of Lincoln Heights.

"I have spent most of career trying to improve respect for black lawyers in the courtrooms of this city," McClain said.

"He is my mentor," said Sharon Zealey, an attorney with Blank and Rome, downtown. Zealey is a former U.S. attorney in Cincinnati.

"Mr. McClain is the most positive thinker I know, and this has helped him to achieve all of his accomplishments. I just hope I can achieve half as much as he has."

He has been married to Roberta White McClain for 59 years. She is a retired supervisor of social services for the Hamilton County Human Services Department. They have no children.

He said his only hobby after retirement will be learning how to operate a computer he has.

E-mail ahoward@enquirer.com




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