Judge Hargrove, trailblazer for blacks in Md. law, dies Senior U.S. judge dies of heart attack at 73

April 02, 1997|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

Senior U.S. District Judge John R. Hargrove Sr., who cleared a path for African-Americans in Maryland's legal circles for nearly four decades, died of a heart attack at his Ashburton home yesterday morning. He was 73.

Judge Hargrove was the first black to become a federal prosecutor in Baltimore and the first to be named deputy U.S. attorney. He was also the first administrative judge of the district court system in Maryland and one of the first blacks to be admitted to what was once the all-white Maryland Bar Association.

Along the way, the jurist built a dedicated following of aspiring lawyers who studied at his side, heeding his advice as they rose through the ranks of the white-dominated legal profession. Among his proteges: Maryland Chief Judge Robert M. Bell and XTC U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis.

"His life served as an example for those of us who came after him," Judge Bell said yesterday. "He broke a lot of new ground. He did it by bringing to bear a tremendous capacity for work. He was always striving for excellence."

Said Judge Davis: "He was a giant in the legal community. He was a gentle and dedicated soul."

Judge Hargrove was described by his friends and colleagues as a jurist who was serious on the bench without taking himself too seriously. He used the law to level the playing field for the parties in the cases that came before him, and he used his sense of humor and easygoing style to solve complex problems.

His favorite saying: "That's no problem."

He was an avid golfer, sports fan and swimmer in his earlier days. Judge Hargrove's health started to fade in recent months after he was diagnosed with a respiratory illness.

Still, he summoned enough energy to pursue another passion -- traveling. In February, he and his wife, Shirley, took a trip to Italy with the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore. In March, they went to Scotland.

It was the last trip the judge would take after a lifetime filled with journeys.

Hargrove spent all but six months of his life growing up and practicing law in Baltimore. He went to St. Catherine's Academy, now St. Pius School, Frederick Douglass High School, Howard University and the University of Maryland Law School.

After spending five years in private practice, Judge Hargrove was hired as the first African-American prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore in 1955. He became the first black ,, to hold the office of deputy U.S. attorney in 1957.

In 1962, Judge Hargrove was appointed to the old People's Court in Maryland and then became the first administrative judge for the newly formed district court system in 1971.

In 1974, he was named to the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City, now the Circuit Court.

A year later, he helped Mr. Bell win a judgeship on the district bench. He helped prepare Judge Bell for his interview. "And I'm sure he put a good word in for me," Judge Bell said.

As a testament to the reputation Judge Hargrove built for himself, the liberal Democrat was nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 to fill a U.S. District Court seat vacated by Shirley B. Jones. Judge Hargrove would become the second black to sit on the federal bench in Maryland. But it wasn't easy.

His nomination was caught up in political maneuvering on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Congress adjourned before his nomination came to a vote. The Senate finally confirmed his nomination Feb. 9, 1984.

"He was a wonderful man," Chief U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz said yesterday.

Judge Hargrove's philosophy about the job was straightforward: take each case as it comes, and deal with it as fairly as I can," he said in a 1990 interview published in "A Bicentennial History of the United States District Court" in Maryland.

"I never base my decisions on who the lawyers are or who they represent. I treat everyone with the same courtesy and fairness as I would want to be treated. I have done that all my life. I can't change that now."

Three years ago, he took a senior position on the federal bench, lightening his workload and handling mostly civil cases.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete last night. So were details for a memorial service planned at the U.S. District Courthouse on Lombard Street.

Besides his wife of 43 years, Judge Hargrove is survived by two daughters, Lora Hargrove and Janet Ryczko; two sons, John Jr. and Steven; four sisters, Margaret Turner, Georgine Francois, Doris Johnson and Betty Yerby; and five brothers, James Vernon Johnson, Charles Melvin Johnson, Bernard Johnson, Harold Johnson and Robert Johnson, all of Baltimore. He also is survived by two granddaughters.

Pub Date: 4/02/97

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