Jack Mayer Willen dies at 101

A lawyer who practiced for nearly 80 years and whose hobby was singing songs from Broadway and Hollywood musicals

May 05, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Jack Mayer Willen, the oldest living graduate of the University of Baltimore School of Law, whose legal career spanned nearly 80 years, died April 24 of arteriosclerosis at his Pikesville home. He was 101.

Mr. Willen, the son of Russian immigrants who later owned and operated the Sophie Tucker Noodle Co., was born in Baltimore and raised on Wabash Avenue.

Mr. Willen had aspired to a stage career, but after graduating in 1926 from City College, he decided he needed something a little steadier than an actor's income.

He enrolled at the University of Baltimore law school, where he was a member of the school's second graduating class in 1929.

He began practicing law with his mentor J. Abner Sayler, and after Mr. Sayler was named a judge on the old Supreme Bench of Baltimore City, Mr. Willen established a solo practice at 16 E. Lexington St.

"He had a general law practice but specialized in real estate law," said a son-in-law, former Del. Howard J. Needle of Pikesville.

During World War II, Mr. Willen worked at Crown Cork & Seal Co. making ammunition casings, and when the war ended, he returned to his law practice, which in later years he relocated to his Old Post Drive home in Pikesville.

He continued practicing law until his last client died.

"He was 97 years old when the client died, and his mind and memory were just remarkable," Mr. Needle said.

"The client had a substantial estate, and it took [Mr. Willen] six months to type it up on an old typewriter because he was not computer-literate," Mr. Needle said. "However, the 20-page inventory along with numerous mathematical calculations, which he did in his head, was absolutely free of any mistakes."

Mr. Needle praised Mr. Willen's love of the law.

"He loved tutoring others and giving advice. He was a very wise person," he said.

"He was a very fine gentleman, highly conscientious and an extremely affable man," said retired Judge Basil A. Thomas of the old Municipal Court of Baltimore City. "And he had a very good reputation as an attorney."

H. Mebane Turner, who had been president of the University of Baltimore from 1969 until retiring in 2002, recalled that Mr. Willen's career "set a fine example for students who were interested in studying law."

In addition to his legal practice, Mr. Willen was counsel to the Wilson Building & Loan Association and was president of the Dumbarton/Stevenson Neighborhood Association for more than 40 years.

"He was the last surviving member of his class, and he clearly dedicated his life to practicing law in Baltimore. He gave his life to the city and the community," said law school dean Phillip J. Closius.

When his doctor advised him to take up a hobby in the late 1940s, Mr. Willen, recalling his acting days, decided to sing and studied voice at the Peabody Conservatory.

"At his 100th birthday party, his children gave him a sing-along party, where he and the many guests sang his favorite songs," Mr. Needle said.

"His children said that he always had a song in his heart and would sing at any opportunity," Mr. Needle said.

Mr. Willen, who had been president of the Bancroft Literary Society during his student days at City College, still remembered poems from his youth and delighted family and friends in reciting them from memory.

Mr. Willen was interviewed in 2006 by a grandson for National Public Radio's "StoryCorps" feature and recited Robert W. Service's "The Shooting of Dan McGrew," a poem he had first performed 80 years earlier.

After surviving colon cancer in 1979, Mr. Willen moderated his diet, leaning more toward vegetables and lowering his intake of red meat.

"He wasn't a pure vegetarian and enjoyed an occasional gin and tonic. He didn't smoke and didn't exercise except walking up and down the stairs to his office," said his son, Dr. Richard S. Willen of Santa Fe, N.M.

"He believed in doing things in moderation and always had a strong work ethic. He kept busy and focused. He never brooded about problems or the past," Dr. Willen said.

"When he turned 100, he told everyone at the party that 'I've been the luckiest man,' " said a daughter, Joan Willen Cohen of Phoenix, in Baltimore County.

Recalling his rich and successful professional and family life, Mr. Willen said in the NPR interview that "someone up there was looking out for me."

His wife of 66 years, the former Janice Bernstein, an artist and art therapy teacher, died in 2003.

Mr. Willen was a longtime member of Temple Oheb Shalom, where services were held April 26.

Also surviving are another daughter, Susan W. Needle of Pikesville; a sister, Jennie Himelfarb of Baltimore; six grandsons; and five great-grandchildren.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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