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Former ISBA president Rabb Emison dies

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Even after longtime attorney Ewing Rabb Emison Jr. had finished his service as a pivotal president of the Indiana State Bar Association more than two decades ago, his legacy has inspired generations of attorneys and will continue to do so in the future.
 

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That is the clear message from Indiana’s legal community, which is reflecting on the retired Vincennes attorney’s life and legal career following his death Sept, 1. Emison was 85.

Lawyers throughout the state are honoring the memory of a man they say often talked about how lawyers ought to hold themselves out to the public and strive to be ethical, not only for the profession and themselves but also for the community and state.

“He was an ambassador – an ambassador of good will, an ambassador for the bar and for lawyers in Indiana,” said Carmel attorney and mediator Samuel Chic Born II, a friend of Emison’s since the early ’70s. “I am proud to have been his friend, and I am better for his friendship.”

The last descendant in Knox County of a pioneer family that arrived in 1804, Emison followed in his ancestors’ footsteps in the legal profession and legislative arena. His father and grandfather had become lawyers without attending law school, and his ancestor Thomas Emison was on the original committee that had selected Indianapolis as the site for the state capitol.

Rabb Emison’s obituary noted that he was most proud that in the past century, the three generations of his family had prepared and lobbied for legislation in the areas of flood control, conservation, aviation, and historic preservation.

He joined the U.S. Navy in 1942 and served on active duty during World War II for three years. He was called back to active duty with the Navy for 18 months during the Korean War, and was notified in 1962 to expect another recall, which didn’t occur. Emison graduated from DePauw University before attending and graduating in 1950 from what’s now Indiana University Maurer School of Law – Bloomington.

But in the legal profession, he spent his entire career with the same firm – now Emison Doolittle Kolb & Roellgen in Vincennes – that he joined to practice with his father upon graduating from law school.

Serving as ISBA president from 1986 to 1987, Emison is most widely known for his work on expanding diversity for the organization and legal community. His efforts led to the creation of what is now the Racial Diversity in the Legal Profession committee to promote the employment and advancement of minority lawyers. The association created the Rabb Emison Award in his honor and gives it each year to an attorney who best serves the goal of assisting minority lawyers. In 2003 he received the American Bar Association’s Spirit of Excellence Award for his contributions.

“He was one of those unsung heroes for minority lawyers and getting more participation for the ISBA,” said Bingham McHale partner Rod Morgan, the ISBA’s first African-American president who finishes his term next month. “He was a mentor, fine lawyer, and a friend. He was on the cutting edge of things as far as diversity, and Rabb was always there as a champion.”

Evansville attorney Wesley Bowers interviewed Emison for the ISBA oral history project, which has been compiled into a transcript made available to the public through the association and Indiana Historical Society. Bowers interviewed Emison about his three stints in the Navy, as well as his family’s history in the legal profession.

Emison was well-known for the more than 50 columns he’d written for the association’s publication “Res Gestae” during and after his time as ISBA president. In his interview with Bowers, Emison said his columns were not so much about the law but about the behavior of attorneys who practice it. The columns were recently compiled into a book that he self-published and that the ISBA is helping to distribute.

Past ISBA president Bill Jonas in South Bend said, “Rabb Emison was a terrific lawyer, a gifted writer, and a dynamic leader. His efforts with the ISBA, especially in the advocacy of greater diversity, were truly remarkable. He embodied all the best of what it means to be an Indiana lawyer. On top of this, he was as fine a man as I have ever known. You could always count on Rabb for a wonderful story … usually one that illustrated in his uniquely Hoosier way the point he was making with you as he gently persuaded you to do what was right.”

Born, also a past ISBA president, described his friend as both a gentle and thinking soul, made clear by not only his legal writing but also how he always gave someone the benefit of the doubt. Born said that even though Emison received recognition for his diversity and civil rights efforts, that’s not why he did it; rather it was because of a belief that he could, and did, improve the human condition.

Retired Lafayette lawyer Russ Hart, who served as ISBA president the year following Emison, said his longtime friend’s “Res Gestae” writings ought to be required reading for all new lawyers as well as for longtime practitioners.

“Rabb was a teacher all the time, and he was teaching lawyers every time he spoke,” Hart said. “His word was his bond, and he wrote a lot like he spoke … as a plain person who was very good at expressing himself. If Rabb was in favor of a particular subject, you knew it was a good thing to be aware of yourself.”

“Rabb was a modest guy who didn’t strive for publicity,” Hart said.

Emison is survived by his wife of 57 years, Kathleen, and his daughters Susan Emison of Louisville and Anne Emison Wishard (Gordon) of Indianapolis.

Funeral services were in Vincennes, and Emison’s family asked that memorial contributions be made to the Grouseland Foundation, 3 W. Scott St., Vincennes, IN 47591 or online at grouselandfoundation.org for an endowment to sustain the mansion.•

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