Feb. 23, 2012 – On Feb. 21, Madison attorney Jack R. DeWitt passed away. A retired civil litigator, DeWitt practiced business, litigation, legislative, and estate planning for more than 60 years in the firm that he founded in the 1950s. DeWitt was 93.
Although DeWitt retired from the active practice of law in his mid-80s, he continued to be an important and valued member of DeWitt Ross & Stevens S.C. “Jack set the standard for all of us,” said the firm’s President and Managing Partner, Bradley W. Raaths. “He exemplified what it means to be a leader through his professionalism, his commitment to helping others, and his relentless pursuit of excellence.”
“Jack was much more than our law firm’s namesake – he was an example to all of us on how to practice law with decorum, respect, and grace,” said law partner of 37 years Jon P. Axelrod. “Throughout his legal career, Jack made extraordinary contributions to the public as well as his clients and set the standard as an outstanding litigator, legal scholar, and ethicist.”
“Jack taught me how to be a professional and effective attorney, as well as how to treat people with respect and openness,” said Stephen A. DiTullio of DeWitt Ross & Stevens. “As Jack said, ‘you don't always need to agree with them, but you should at least be willing to listen to them.’”
Forward thinking and a great mentor
Nearly 30 years ago, DeWitt and several other prominent litigation lawyers started the Dane County Case Mediation program. The program – an innovative idea at the time – was developed to help alleviate congestion in the courts.
In his nomination letter for the 2009 State Bar of Wisconsin Senior Lawyers Division Leonard L. Loeb Award, the Hon. Gerald Nichol noted, “[the program was] the first of its type in our state and for that matter in the country. We trained lawyers in mediation techniques and on a pro bono basis, they volunteered to help mediate cases. This was cutting edge in the civil practice at this time and it took patience and diplomacy to sell the bar and the bench to use this service. Looking back, what an impact the program has made, and Jack played a key role. Jack has sown much more than he has reaped and we are all richer because of his commitment and dedication to the profession.”
DiTullio remembered his first meeting with DeWitt when he was a summer law clerk. “Having not come from a family of attorneys, and having never even set foot in a law firm until I began my work at DeWitt, I was a bit intimidated to meet with the attorney that the firm was named after. Not only did Jack put me at ease through our conversations, but he provided me with many practical tips on how to be a successful attorney. To this day, I regularly use many of his tips.”
“Jack became my mentor and imparted to me the values of our profession which I cherish,” said Axelrod. “[Throughout his legal career, Jack has set the standard as an outstanding civil litigator and legal scholar and extraordinary legal ethicist.”
State Bar volunteer
Contributions to the State Bar of Wisconsin include a term as president and chair of the Board of Governors. A long-time member of the Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP) Committee and a WisLAP volunteer, DeWitt’s WisLAP colleagues expressed their feelings about DeWitt on their electronic mail list. The comments were anonymous, following is one of them.
“I first got acquainted with Jack back in the period when efforts were under way to merge the WISLAP predecessors, Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers and the Committee on Assistance for Lawyers. Without Jack's calm guidance and diplomacy through those tumultuous times, I am not sure what may have come from those efforts. He was a wonderful role model for so many. What seemed so intuitive and graceful for Jack always proved elusive and awkward for me. He was a very special fellow indeed.”
His commitment to the Wisconsin Law Foundation included serving on the Programs, Funds Development, Grants, and Legal History committees and many years on the board.
Awards and recognitions
DeWitt received the Wisconsin Law Foundation Charles L. Goldberg Distinguished Service Award, Truman Q. McNulty Service Award from the Fellows of Wisconsin Law Foundation, Senior Lawyers Division Leonard L. Loeb Award, and Distinguished Service Award from the University of Wisconsin Law School Alumni Association.
When DeWitt received the Senior Lawyers Division Leonard L. Loeb Award in 2009, retired Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice William G. Callow said in his letter of nomination, “There are many excellent attorneys in Wisconsin but there are very few great citizens. Jack DeWitt is not only a great attorney, he is a great citizen.
“Jack’s community service cannot be matched by many Wisconsin citizens,” said Callow. “The reorganization of the Wisconsin court system was drafted by the supreme court while I was a member, and I know first-hand the importance of Jack’s leadership in accomplishing that milestone in that branch of the government.”
War World II hero
Born in Oklahoma in 1918, DeWitt moved to Wisconsin when he was 14 years old. From a young age he was committed to excellence and determined to succeed. He earned his J.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1942. He finished his law degree one semester early so he could enlist in the U.S. Army during the height of World War II.
After a short stint as an enlisted soldier, he set his sights on becoming a commissioned officer. He quickly worked his way up the military ranks and finished his officer candidacy training in three months. In 1944, DeWitt fought in the Battle of the Bulge in France and earned a number of prestigious medals for his valor and bravery.
DeWitt received the second highest military decoration that can be awarded for extreme valor –the Distinguished Service Cross as a First Lieutenant (Infantry), in the U.S. Army, for his extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving with the 14th Armored Division in action against enemy forces in 1945. The Army noted his “intrepid actions, personal bravery and zealous devotion to duty exemplified the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States and reflected great credit upon himself, the 14th Armored Division, and the United States Army.” At the time he received the Distinguished Service Cross he was told, “You’re a lucky man. I usually put these on caskets.”
DeWitt also earned the Silver Star in 1944 for gallantry in action in France. He went on to receive the Purple Heart when he was wounded in action and was one of fewer than 2,000 World War II, non-British officers who received the British Cross from the United Kingdom in recognition of his distinguished and meritorious service during battle.
His history with the military extended beyond the war. He continued to serve in the U.S. Army Reserves and eventually retired as a Brigadier General and as the Assistant Division Commander of the 84th Division of the U.S. Army.
“Jack exemplified the highest ideals of our legal profession and exhibited the best attributes one can find in a person,” said DiTullio. “He was smart, kind, thoughtful, patient, a great teacher, compassionate, a great communicator, and always carried himself with dignity and grace.”
A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 3, 2012, at Cress Funeral Home, 3610 Speedway, Madison. A visitation will take place from 1 p.m. until the time of service, reception following at Kavenaugh’s Esquire Club, 1025 N. Sherman Ave.
Memorial contributions may be made in Jack’s honor to Southern Poverty Law Center, 400 Washington Ave. Montgomery, AL 36104.
By Deb Heneghan, Reporter, State Bar of Wisconsin