Richard Lerch, 81, lawyer, counseled cancer patients


Richard H. Lerch, a retired attorney who made a successful return to the courtroom after having his larynx removed, died of complications from throat cancer Wednesday in his Baltimore home. He was 81.

Born and raised in Baltimore, Mr. Lerch mastered esophageal speech after undergoing surgery for cancer of the larynx in 1981 - a skill that allowed him to continue his practice and help teach other throat cancer survivors to speak.

Mr. Lerch's new voice was quieter, but those who worked with him - including the judges who ruled on his cases - said it did not affect his rhetorical expertise or his ability to win.

"I think it sustained him, that he was able to have that continued professional confidence," said retired Baltimore Circuit Judge John Carroll Byrnes. "He was a very determined man."

Mr. Lerch graduated from Loyola High School at Blakefield in 1942 and graduated from Loyola College in 1947. He received his law degree from the University of Maryland School of Law two years later.

His college education was interrupted by World War II. Mr. Lerch served with the Army in China, Burma and India. He was recalled to service in 1951 during the Korean War.

He married Marie T. Logan in 1950.

Mr. Lerch founded the law firm of Lerch & Huesman in Baltimore in 1959. The firm specialized in insurance defense, and Mr. Lerch's clients included Zurich and Travelers Insurance.

He served as president of the Defense Bar Association and was a member of the Wednesday Law Club.

Mr. Lerch, who smoked several packs of cigarettes a day, received a diagnosis of throat cancer in 1980. Doctors believed they could treat the cancer, but it would require the removal of his larynx.

At first, Mr. Lerch used a hand-held electronic device called an electrolarynx to speak. The device amplified the vibrations of his throat but sounded too robotic for Mr. Lerch's taste.

In 1981 he traveled to Indianapolis for a procedure that enabled him to speak through trapped esophageal air. Mr. Lerch eventually learned the technique well enough to return to the courtroom, including for jury trials.

"It was almost like learning how to talk again," said his daughter Marie Lerch of Kensington. "Once he mastered it, his voice was very understandable and very human."

In addition to his law practice, Mr. Lerch volunteered as a counselor to help others facing laryngectomies. He provided pro bono legal services to the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center and was a longtime usher at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.

Mr. Lerch was featured in an Australian documentary about professionals who overcame seemingly career-ending diseases, his daughter said.

Former Baltimore Circuit Judge George D. Solter, who met Mr. Lerch in law school in the 1940s, said his friend learned anew how to be an effective attorney. Mr. Lerch worked the courtroom without eliciting sympathy from juries or judges, he said.

"He was just remarkable," Judge Solter said. "He was a great inspiration to everybody."

A funeral Mass was offered Saturday at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.

In addition to his wife and daughter, survivors include two other daughters, Elizabeth Visconage of Ellicott City and Ellen Thomsen of Salem, Va.; and seven grandchildren.

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