December 7, 2007
A Man of Fervor
By Bruce Campbell
Normal mortals generally manage only a few abiding passions in the course of their lives. Some rare few can find wells of enthusiasm deep enough to irrigate and cultivate a dazzling array of adsorptions. Benson Wolman was such a man.
His multiple manias were legendary. Cuisine (haute and ordinaire), wine (nothing but the very finest and lots of it), public speaking (anytime, any venue, any subject), TV/Radio interviews (same lack of limitations), causes (lost, impossible, unpopular), public figures (those who listened to him willingly and those who had to be “persuaded” to do so), flowered ties (in the sixties and long after the Age of Aquarius had sunk into the Bermuda Triangle), flowery speech, (hence his self-anointed title “the cunning linguist”), the word “decade” (used in every fifth sentence), Diet Doctor Pepper (his one concession to health) and a gaggle of friends (none of whom, save perhaps his wife Jerilyn, could quite explain how he got the way he was and exactly what made him tick, but all of whom were glad that he appeared on the planet while they were here) – these things were Benson.
As far as I knew, only two things were not of interest to Benson. Tidiness, especially in his office, was a concept for which he held nothing but contempt. Although he claimed – and likely believed – that he could find any needed paper amid the eighteen inch pile on his desk, it was never proven in any valid test. His other anathema was physical exercise. When someone said they had seen him running down a street, he shot back, “That’s a damn lie.” On another occasion, a soccer ball was kicked from Columbus School for Girls across the street to Benson’s lawn, and Benson, in an ill-considered moment of exertion, kicked it back. He, of course, severely injured his foot and had to wear a cast, thus further confirming his determination to refrain from the use of muscles (other
than those that work the jaw) as much as possible.
Although tenaciously loyal to family and friends, Benson did keep regular company with a number of mistresses. For ease of reference, they were numbered One through Ten. One was always his darling. Two was the one with whom he had the stormiest relationship. Three became more or less irrelevant. Four through Eight (the quintuplets) he visited regularly throughout his adult life. Nine and Ten helped him put the others in perspective. Collectively they were called the Bill of Rights, and, together with the remainder of the Constitution, they motivated Benson’s entire professional life. For many years he used his profound knowledge of constitutional law to the benefit of those in the legislative and executive branches of government. Once the Supreme Court admitted him to the bar (a membership many assumed he had held all along), he was able to use his skills on behalf of litigants in the courts. And use them he did in the cause of equal justice and to affirm of the rights symbolized by his band of muses.
To say that he will be missed would be a looming understatement.
* * *By Nelson E Genshaft
It’s hard to put into words how I feel about Benson’s death. I practiced law with him for 7 years, from 1996 to 2004, reveling in his triumphs and suffering in his disappointments. Those disappointments were few, and short-lived, as Benson was always upbeat, always believing that he could find a way to solve a problem for a client, or get the other side to listen to his reasonable point of view. Making money was not his priority, although he knew that he had expensive taste and needed money to enjoy those material pleasures like wine, food and travel. He was loving, generous and great fun, but he was also quirky and unconventional. He had a variety, some may say motley, collection of clients, friends and acquaintances. Many of those people were on the opposite side of a political or a civil rights issue, but they always enjoyed his company. There was standard time, and then there was Benson time, usually causing him to arrive at least 15 minutes late to something, but in such good cheer that you had to forgive him. He was the consummate ditherer; that is, he could fiddle with a document, prolong a conversation or just read something while you were ready to go to an appointment, sometimes driving you to distraction. His office was a sea of paper, as he always wanted an orginal and then copy of the original for his files, and invariably a back up copy of the copy. But on the larger issues of civil and constiutional rights, he was certain of his way and was never satisfied with the status quo. He always believed that he could find some new case or locate that new plaintiff who could rectify a decision that he believed was wrong. I will miss him and his unique personality, his ability to listen to people and care about what they thought and his ever hopeful goal of enhancing the rights of the powerless. We are all diminished by his passing too suddenly and too soon.
* * *By Kathleen Trafford
Benson’s passing frays the fabric of our lives. The poor have lost a tireless advocate. The dissident voice has lost a fearless defender. Young lawyers have lost a caring teacher and mentor. And so many among us have lost a friend. At a time when others might step back from the profession and devote more time to personal pursuits, Benson accepted the challenge of taking the helm at the Equal Justice Foundation. Though personally small in stature, Benson lifted up our profession with the strength and courage of a giant.