By Gary Herrity
The Clinton Herald
Picture: Eugene Burke with Presidential Candidate Adlai Stevenson at the 1956 Convention. Gene Burke was a friend of both Stevenson and his father. The young man is Jack Wolfe, a protégé’ of Burke's and now a prominent lawyer in Clinton.
Clinton lawyers in our history are a group of hugely contributing citizens. One veteran lawyer, Prentice Shaw, recently said, “Years ago, you could really count on the word of your fellow attorneys.--- Yes, Paul Holleran and Ed Halbach might have words about a case and not speak to each other for a while, but then they would go off on a vacation together and be friends again.”
You can see all the Clinton County Lawyers since 1880, pictured and framed, on the wall between the second and third floor of the newly decorated and restored Clinton County Courthouse. It is a worthwhile trip, both to review the history of the law profession and to see the beautiful rooms of our courthouse.
One multi-talented Clinton lawyer was Eugene Burke, who passed away quietly June 13, 1972. He was, like many, a big man in a small pond, who did his best to help in any given situation. Burke was an attorney and had been practicing law in Clinton since 1916. His Clinton Herald obituary mentioned that he was one of Clinton County’s most prominent Democratic Party members. He died at 78 years of age, while residing at the Wyndcrest Nursing home.
Eugene Burke and Homer Smith were both honored at a Bar Association dinner in 1966, as being lawyers worthy of note for having completed 50 years of service. It should be
mentioned that Mr. Smith was also a World War I flying ace, who returned to “hang out a shingle” in Clinton. Mr. Burke was an avid and knowledgeable Clinton historian, as well as a practicing attorney. He could scarcely stop and chat with someone on the street without giving a mini-lecture on the history of Clinton. His talents were also put to use as President of the Clinton Public Library Board.
Two-hundred-fifty people were on hand at the Moose Hall, in 1970, to honor Burke as “Mr. Democrat,” and both Democrats and Republicans were proud to support him. At his 1972 funeral, Lauren Ashley Smith gave the eulogy and Jasper Morgan sang.
It’s said that Eugene Burke’s retentive memory was such that he was credited with possession of more knowledge about Clinton than any person before or since. At the special evening honoring him, Representative John Culver said, “Our system of government couldn’t survive without the likes of Gene Burke and George Pillers, who devote their talents and energies on its behalf.” Republican George Pillers was also present in the hall, adding much to Clinton’s healthy solidarity of purpose.
In his article covering the event for the Clinton Herald, acclaimed reporter Lee White mentions many of the famous people from near and far who helped celebrate the occasion --- including Senator Edward Kennedy; E.C. Halbach (’91); Judge Merritt Sutton (’24); Everett Streit; and Ray Walton, candidate for State Attorney General. Clinton Mayor Ed Obermiller was there to present Burke with a certificate of appreciation and an official proclamation of “Eugene T. Burke Recognition Day.”
Another famous lawyer was Frank Ellis (an 1888 law graduate), who bought the first set of golf clubs in Clinton around the turn of the century and, in 1898, he built the beautiful home on 6th Avenue South, across from DeWitt Park, which later became the American Legion. In 1934, he built a wonderful house at 960 No. 4th Street, and he was living there when he died in 1949. He had been born in Clinton in 1865, and once he graduated from law school, he returned to become the dean of Clinton attorneys by the 40’s.
Good works were standard fare for attorneys. One effort was that of north-end lawyers, collecting contributions for the Lyons Young Men’s Christian Association. They watched over that fund for many decades. Finally, Paul Holleran and Albert Buechner transferred their funds by using cypres… a state statute which allows transfer of a defunct charitable organization’s money to a like organization. The money was thus contributed to the Public Library before they died, and a Lyons Branch was built with the proceeds. Lawyers were frequently the instruments of such transactions over the years. Buechner was the last to survive and he died at 88 years of age, in 1974.
Several families had more than one lawyer in them: the Hollerans, Purcells, Carstensens, Delaneys, Halbachs, Pillers, Wolfes, Paschals, and the Suttons. One recalls the
toughness of some of the older attorneys. Jack Delaney was quite sick and in the hospital in the early ‘60’s, but he still had the gumption to put his overcoat on over his pajamas and go down to Virt Hansen’s and buy one last drink, saying, “Have a drink on me. --- It’ll be the last one you’ll ever get!” …. He died just a few days later.
Prentice Shaw was graduated in 1933, as a chemist, but he couldn’t earn more than 25
cents per hour during the Depression. So he was hired at the alcohol plant in Clinton, and then worked for DuPont’s. He later became a lawyer and served as such in the Second World War. In the first court martial that he ever witnessed, he was one of the lawyers! After that, he returned to Clinton to work on some very interesting things, like the North Bridge. (Another time, we will tell the story of the North Bridge and those who contributed: Myron Weil, Paul Holleran, Mark Morris, Prentice Shaw -- and three Clinton Banks!)
Other well-known Clinton lawyers of the era were Glenn Cousins; Emmett Maloney; Judge Wm. McCullough; W.J. Keefe (’94); J.E. Purcell (’08); John McCarthy; Alan Mayer;
Ernest Miller (’93); our town’s first female lawyer, Margaret Kolarik (’25); and John Carlson who was a teacher and coach before finishing his law degree.