Fresh out of the University of Pittsburgh in 1980 with a shiny new English degree, I accepted a job at The Times Leader. Wheeling was my beat; the low beat on the totem pole for the East Ohio newspaper. But, the plus side was I got to cover it all: from the lowly police blotter reports on up to murders and federal court.
One of my fondest memories was covering a trial in Circuit Court presided over by Judge Arthur Recht. I knew him from Temple Shalom over the years, but now I was a working professionally with this bigger-than-life judge who commanded his courtroom with a booming voice like no other.
Because I was a “newbie,” I had lots of questions, and Judge Recht was more than happy to devote time after a day’s proceedings to help me to understand. But what stands out in my memory more than anything is this: one day in the middle of my questions about the case du jour, the judge blurted out, “Do you know Vivaldi?”
“Who?” I asked.
“Vivaldi. The Four Seasons,” he said.
I don’t really recall if I did know who Vivaldi was at that moment, but what I do know is that “The Four Seasons” has been one of my favorite classical pieces for years. And Judge Recht probably had something to do with that.
Senior Status Judge Arthur M. Recht (his obituary can be found here) passed away Sunday, Oct. 28, at the age of 80 after suffering a stroke at the end of a long workday on Friday, Oct. 26 — he had recently been called back to the bench.
I will miss seeing him sitting with his beautiful wife Karen a row or two behind me at Temple Shalom during Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur. So many others will miss him, too — his sense of humor and his smile, his sensibility, his professionalism, and his wise contributions to local courts and the state of West Virginia.
A celebration of the judge’s life was held Friday, Nov. 2, at the law firm of Cassidy, Cogan, Shapell & Voegelin, where many colleagues and friends had a chance to share what the beloved man and sometimes feared, but always respected, judge meant to them.
PAT CASSIDY, partner at Cassidy, Cogan, Shapell & Voegelin, hosted the event.
“You learned in his presence to be a better lawyer or to want to be a better lawyer and to be prepared because you knew he was going to be more prepared than any lawyer in the room. It was that kind of thinking that challenged you to greatness,” Cassidy said.
Cassidy pointed out Judge Recht’s interests in music and philosophy.
He shared the story that in his early years, he would debate Judge Recht … “As a person of the Jewish faith, he was a little skeptical of my enthusiasm for the German philosopher Frederic Nietzche, who some thought was a proponent of the Third Reich. … His philosophy was loved by Hitler, for example. … So Art would debate that back and forth. He, actually, after we talked about it, did some research. And he sent me a little letter … . a copy of an article that appeared in The New Yorker called ‘After God,’ and a little note on top from Judge Recht that said, ‘Hey I thought you might be interested in this … You were right, Nietzche was okey-dokey!’”
Cassidy also noted that Judge Recht suffered a stroke hours before the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh, by a “person of hate, an anti-Semite. … I’m not saying there’s any connection, except that it’s ironic … everything that stood for, Art was against in his life. … So in the final analysis, we celebrate Art’s life, and what he taught in that life — empathy, tolerance and hatred of no one. And that … we know is worth celebrating, even beyond the phenomenal gifts we also received from him as lawyer and great judge.”
TIM COGAN, partner at Cassidy, Cogan, Shapell & Voegelin:
“Though my name is Cogan, Arthur insisted it was Coen and that I was Jewish.
“I worked for, with and in front of Art for decades. I first worked with him on the Human Rights Commission where I was the director. He got me a job at the country club that lasted a day. He got me to go to law school … I worked for him as a summer clerk … I tried a couple cases in front of him. I lost both of them, but he was generally fair. In between that time, I was a law clerk on the Recht Decision. … But, enough about me.”
Tim summarized the famous Recht Decision, but also shared personal thoughts about Recht.
“Rarely, if ever, will we see a combination of someone like Art who loved the law, loved being the judge, loved citing the law and the cases, who listened to the testimony and arguments so intently, and was so entertaining even during court. He differed from other judges in his dislike of mediation, which he disliked even more than the ‘new’ federal building. He would say, ‘If you wanted to settle, that’s entirely up to you, not me. We’re here to try cases.’ It is near impossible to think of Art as gone, for he was as full of life, as energetic as anyone I’ve ever known. Some judges seem to fear making a decision. Arthur sometimes spoke of the arbitrator who once told him, ‘Don’t put me in the middle.’ Art loved making decisions. Art seemed to like being a judge more each time he was recalled — especially the last time, when he died. That makes his passing — and our loss — more poignant.”
BILL BALL, probation officer:
Ball, who offered a heartfelt eulogy at Recht’s funeral, said Friday that a convict once shared with him that Recht’s nickname was “Mad Max,” because he always handed down the maximum sentence. “He [Recht] thought that was funny,” Ball recalled.
“Art was my friend, just a great judge. He was so smart, he was so fair. He didn’t have a dog in the fight, no matter what that fight was. … He didn’t care who the attorneys were … you just had to put your case on and convince him. … He never made me feel like he was my boss, even though I knew he was … but he always made me feel like we were equal partners.”
BILL WATSON, retired attorney:
“When I think of Art Recht, I not only think of a good friend, but I also think of one of the outstanding judges of all time and a decent human being.”
“We ended up in the same Army Reserve unit together, in Fairmont. … We spent a lot of time riding back and forth to Fairmont together, and I truly learned more law riding back and forth … than I did in law school. He was just fascinating. I should mention he was a captain in the Army Reserve, and he was a lawyer, and I was a sergeant, and I was a court reporter … for years after that, I would always salute him when I came into his courtroom. He finally told me, ‘You don’t have to do that anymore.’ I’m going to miss him greatly. We lost one of the great lawyers and human beings of all time.”
WRAY VOEGELIN, partner at Cassidy, Cogan, Shapell & Voegelin:
“My wife (Yonnie Lambert) and I moved to Wheeling in 1982, right out of law school. She had received a job offer with the well-established Schrader firm, and I worked out an arrangement with a solo practitioner who was kind enough to provide some space for a desk and a chair in his back office. As I was from New York with no previous connections to Wheeling, getting my practice off the ground was a bit of a struggle. … Judge Recht had heard that I was new to the practice and expressed his view that the best way for a young attorney in my situation to learn his way around the courtroom and figure out how to litigate a case would be to begin representing indigent defendants in criminal cases. He told me that if I was interested in receiving court-appointed criminal cases, he would make the necessary arrangements. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity. The next day I received a call from the clerk of the Magistrate Court (Lin Humphries) who let me know that Judge Recht had placed my name on the list of approved counsel for court-appointed cases, and that she had a client for me to represent who had been charged with a misdemeanor offense. I finally had a client, and my practice was off the ground.
“… when I learned the sad news of Judge Recht’s passing last week, I still had two cases pending before him as a result of his most recent appointment to the bench.
“I know Judge Recht will always be remembered by most for his body of work as a respected jurist with high ethical standards and a great intellectual capacity, but when I remember Judge Recht, my mind will always take me back to that phone call of some 36 years ago, when Judge Recht provided an opportunity to a young attorney who was new to the Wheeling legal scene by placing him on the approved list for court-appointed counsel so that he would at least have the chance to ‘learn his way around a courtroom and figure out how to litigate a case.’”
DON NICKERSON, attorney with Bowles Rice:
“Judge Recht was one of those rare individuals who was very intelligent and had strong people skills. He was an ‘old school gentleman’ and I mean that in the most respectful and complimentary way. He always made time to talk or discuss an issue, even when he probably didn’t have the time. He never said no to a request for advice. That was very valuable to a young lawyer. He was one of those rare people you might meet once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky, who makes you want to be a little better. I would walk away from a conversation with him thinking, ‘I’d like to be more like that.’
“Although I was not a litigator, I would occasionally have a matter in front of Judge Recht. Once, he appointed me as a Special Commissioner to sell some real estate involved in some litigation. I can’t remember the exact issue, but I was uncertain how to handle a notice requirement in that the statute was unclear given the circumstances of the case. I prepared the documents and made an appointment with Judge Recht to get his opinion before proceeding. When I went in to see him and explain the issue, he carefully reviewed the statute and what I had prepared. Then, after thinking for a few minutes, he said, ‘What you did has to be right because that’s how I would have done it.’
“I liked him and respected him. I’ll miss him.”
TERRY GURLEY, attorney:
“The luckiest thing I ever did, I think, was leave Jersey and come down here and go to Wheeling College in 1966. …”
It was Recht and some others who convinced Gurley to go to law school. His second summer out of law school, “I spent tailing Art around and that was a phenomenal experience.
“What he showed me … was that there is a place in this world for absolute justice. And it has nothing to do with money, and it has nothing to do with education … or religion or race or anything like that. … He used to talk to me … ‘Don’t forget this is the Constitution and the Bill of Rights of the United States of America that we’re working for. … Find the one who needs our help the most and let’s work for them.’ … That’s where I want to be, that’s where I was. … I didn’t really practice much in front of him. I don’t think I had more than three or four cases in front of him. … But by God, everything I ever did on behalf of a client, especially a criminal, especially a Title 7 client, everything I ever did was him and what he showed me … I went out onto the Navajo Indian Reservation and became director of litigation for their poverty law program, and one of the things I was called upon to do was to train brand new native American lawyers, and all I did was channel Art Recht. I knew what to do, I knew what to say, I knew how to train them. All I had to do was remember what Art Recht showed me.
“Art Recht changed my life,” Gurley said.
Art Recht changed a lot of lives. We will miss him.
I think I’m going to go listen to some Vivaldi now.
• After nearly 38 years as reporter, bureau chief, lifestyles editor and managing editor at The Times Leader, and design editor at The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, Phyllis Sigal has joined Weelunk as managing editor. She lives in Wheeling with her husband Bruce Wheeler. Along with their two children, son-in-law and two grandchildren, food, wine, travel, theater and music are close to their hearts.