Fred Weisgal mourned as defender of underdog

June 20, 1991|By Elisha King | Elisha King,Evening Sun Staff

Outside Beth Am Synagogue, where Freddy Weisgal's friends were gathering, a woman and her son watched curiously as hundreds of mourners paraded by.

"They're going to a funeral," the mother explained to her young son.

"Somebody died?" he asked, looking at the line of cars extending down Eutaw Place.

"Yeah, some mister Wise-gull. I never heard of him, but he must be somebody important."

To the thousands of Baltimoreans and Israelis he touched, Fred E. Weisgal was indeed important. He was a civil rights attorney with careers in two countries who fought for minorities, religious dissidents, Vietnam War protesters, poor people and almost any underdog who needed help advancing a worthy cause, his friends recalled.

Weisgal, who died Monday at age 71, was remembered yesterday by more than 200 people during a service in the Eutaw Place synagogue in Reservoir Hill where he once sang in the choir, and where his father served as cantor.

Friends and family members remembered the lawyer who argued many cases for free simply because the underdog deserved justice; the musician whose fingers on a piano created music that could soothe any listener; and an inveterate wisecracker whose jokes brought joy to his friends.

"He would make you throw your head back and laugh a resounding belly laugh, which is good to have in these times," remembered Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Marshall A. Levin, who first met Weisgal when they were both 5 years old.

While employed by the American Civil Liberties Union in Baltimore, Weisgal successfully argued to have blacks granted scholarships at the Maryland Institute's College of Art.

He also represented the Rev. Philip Berrigan, a Vietnam War dissenter who splashed blood on Baltimore draft records and who used homemade napalm to burn two trash cans full of draft records.

He started another famous case involving Baltimore atheist Madeline Murray O'Hare, who protested prayer in the public school her son attended. The case later prompted a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against prayer in the schools.

In 1969, Weisgal and his family emigrated to Israel, where he hoped to use his experience as a constitutional lawyer to help the Israeli government write a constitution.

The Israelis still haven't gotten around to that, but for 20 years, Weisgal worked for Israel's Ministry of Justice, earning only a fraction of the money he made in the United States. He struggled with the language, sold his book and art collections to pay for his house, and worked to set up a legal aid system for the poor.

"I have to tell you this because I have to tell you the truth," Weisgal told a reporter in 1974. "It's not easy but I'm glad I did it. Israel is so exciting. It's like going West in the 1840s. Not everyone survives it, but if you do, it's worth it."

Relatives who spoke at yesterday's service mostly remembered Weisgal's humor, but a former Middle East correspondent who was his friend recalled Weisgal's never-ending optimism.

"We grieved sometimes about the elusiveness of peace, about the stupidity of politicians on every side and their contributions to the spiral of violence and hatred," said G. Jefferson Price 3rd, now The Sun foreign editor. "We despaired sometimes. He did not."

Two other speakers, Cantor Joseph Levine and Weisgal's nephew, Jonathan Weisgall, also shared memories of the man who once accrued 34 parking tickets in less than a year, who clipped notes to himself in his tie clasp, and whose collection of books on Franklin Delano Roosevelt was reputed to be the largest in Baltimore.

Weisgal's niece, Deborah, summed up her uncle's life in a speech that brought tears to the eyes of many in the crowd.

"At funerals, we always read the 24th Psalm," Deborah Weisgall said. "Maybe for Freddy, we should read the hundredth. 'Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, come to him with singing.' That's what Freddy always did, and in our hearts he always will."

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