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Lawyers support ISBA's oral history project

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Having read some of the transcripts from an oral history project, it's easy to see why members of the Indiana State Bar Association's Senior Lawyers Section decided to interview men and women who've significantly contributed to the practice of law in Indiana.

The project's first round of interviews included a former congressman, senior judges, and trial lawyers from around Indiana.

Retired Barnes & Thornburg attorney Henry Ryder, along with Indiana Court of Appeals Judge Nancy Vaidik, retired Indianapolis lawyer Andy Emerson, Evansville attorney Wesley Bowers, and former ISBA president Doug Church of Noblesville each volunteered to interview two people from a list that was compiled by attorneys participating in the project.

The Senior Lawyers Section of the ISBA compiled a list of candidates, Ryder said, with a goal of having a diverse group in terms of geographic location, economic and educational backgrounds, and the types of legal jobs they've had.

Emerson, via e-mail from Arizona, said he participated because of his interest in history and "I had a fairly wide acquaintance among the older lawyers in the state. ... Being long retired, I had available time for the project."

Steve Haller, senior director of collections and library at the Indiana Historical Society, helped volunteers structure their interviews to get the most valuable information from their subjects, Ryder said.

The final transcripts, along with attachments such as speeches and resumes of the interview subjects, will be available to view at the Indiana Historical Society in downtown Indianapolis and through the ISBA.

For most of the conversations, interviewers gave their subjects questions beforehand to review and think about their answers. The interviews, which lasted anywhere from an hour to five hours, were transcribed and subjects had a chance to edit what was said.

Ryder said he wouldn't discuss anyone who hadn't yet finished the process, but those who have include Senior Monroe Circuit Judge Viola Taliaferro, former Congressman Andy Jacobs Jr., Senior Dubois Circuit Judge Hugo C. Songer, South Bend attorney Thomas H. Singer, Lafayette attorney Russell H. Hart, Vincennes attorney Ewing Rabb Emison Jr., and Indiana Court of Appeals Senior Judge John T. Sharpnack.

Bowers' interview topics of Emison included his three stints in the Navy - 1942, 1952, and 1962 - and that his father and grandfather were attorneys even though they didn't go to law school.

Emison had written columns for "Res Gestae" when he was ISBA president in the late 1980s. He has written at least 50 columns since then, which recently were compiled into a book that he self-published and will soon be available. In his interview, he said his columns were not so much about the law but about the behavior of attorneys who practice it.

Singer, interviewed by Judge Vaidik, spoke about his involvement with civil rights issues, including a case in which he represented a group of Muslims who sued the state because they couldn't have religious services while in prison. In 1963, Singer was appointed to be the first chair of a biracial committee to study the problems of racial discrimination in South Bend.

Judge Taliaferro told Emerson about her experiences with civil rights issues as someone who grew up in segregated Virginia.

Because of the football career of her husband, George Taliaferro - the first African-American drafted by a National Football League team - she traveled around the country from the time they were married in 1950 until he got a job at Indiana University in Bloomington in 1972. She attended Indiana University Maurer School of Law - Bloomington from 1974 to 1977.

In 1995 she was appointed to be the judge of a new Monroe Circuit Court after serving as a magistrate since leaving her private practice in 1989. It was there she experienced what she called "heartbreak" - including child abuse cases - and joy, as she would later learn that those who appeared before her in court were able to turn their lives around.

Ryder interviewed Andy Jacobs Jr., who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1965 to 1997, losing only one election in between. Jacobs talked about his father and other attorneys who were older than him, including his father's acquaintance with Asa Smith. Smith was a well-known attorney for his involvement in a murder trial that involved D.C. Stephenson, an Indianapolis resident and infamous leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

Jacobs' story also included a detailed account of his time in Korea with the Marine Reserves. It was there, he said, he stood up against overt racial discrimination. He also formed his opinions about war during his service, and the experiences caused him to adamantly oppose U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Of his accomplishments while in Congress, he said he was most proud of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which he helped write.

Bowers' interview with Songer is also a good read. Like Jacobs, Songer talked about his service in the Korean War. He also discussed a case in which his client sued a suspect in her daughter's murder in civil court. He also served as a judge from 1985 to 1997 and remains on senior status.

The project has been a success, Ryder said. Those who've completed their interviews since they started in September have already expressed an interest to do more as soon as they can.

"I can't tell you how much fun this has been," Judge Vaidik said.

Ryder and Judge Vaidik said the need to interview more attorneys sooner rather than later is partly because how much the interviewers enjoyed getting to know the subjects. But part of the reason is because a few of the judges and attorneys on the list to be interviewed have died since the start of the project, and they don't want to lose out on the stories of others.

Other oral history projects involving the Indiana legal community include one at the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, one by the Evansville Bar Association, and the "legendary lawyers" interviewed by the Indiana Bar Foundation each year.

Ryder said the project will accept suggestions for interview subjects, but he asked that suggestions have something unique about them, such as their involvement in a prominent case, high-profile political experience, professors who are greatly admired by their students, or even lawyers and judges known for their expertise in areas outside of the law.

To suggest names, contact Henry Ryder at indyryder@att.netor hryder@ btlaw.com, or Maryann Williams at the ISBA, mwilliams@inbar.orgor (317) 639-5465.

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