February 12, 2010
Remembering J. Craig Wright
~ written by Stephen C. Fitch, Chester Willcox & Saxbe
Everyone, it seems, has a Craig Wright story. When Craig became Of Counsel to our firm in 1996, after retiring from the Ohio Supreme Court, many of us who knew him from his years on the Franklin County Common Pleas Court were curious to see if time had taken the edge off of his dominant personality, the personality that contributed to the well-publicized incidents that have been resurrected in news reports concerning Craig’s death last week at age 80. As we at the firm learned quickly, Craig’s unique persona had not diminished with age. Borrowing from the term often found in opinions he authored, Craig was sui generis – of his own kind or class.
One of the first cases Craig initiated after joining the firm was a slander action filed in Meigs County against a West Virginia public official whose electioneering ads critical of a prominent Ohio business owner were broadcast into Ohio. Despite our initial skepticism about the case, Craig correctly pointed out that the facts supported the elements of the claim as well as jurisdiction and venue in Ohio. The status of the defendant as a state-wide elected official was no deterrent to Craig and ultimately the case was resolved to our client’s satisfaction. From the time Craig joined the firm until he retired from private practice in 2003 to serve by appointment on the Ohio Court of Claims, Craig never failed to keep life interesting. Or, as our managing partner Rocky Saxbe puts it, “Bold, blustery and brilliant, he became a good friend and a key part of our firm.”
On the Common Pleas bench, Craig enjoyed breaking in young prosecutors and defense attorneys who he not so affectionately referred to as “the lambs.” Frank Ray recalls one of his trials as an assistant prosecutor where the defense counsel approached the bench and suggested that the Judge appeared to be napping throughout the trial. Craig responded that if that were the case, which he denied, it would be justified because “your defense is a living advertisement for No-Doze.”
No remembrance of Craig would be complete without mention of his life long fascination with the game of golf. A collegiate golfer at the University of Kentucky, Craig lived for many years just off the 17th green at Columbus Country Club where he was a member until his death. Steve Jones of Roetzel & Andress met “the Judge” while a first year law student when a mutual friend set up a game at CCC. With five dollars in his pocket, Steve agreed to a wager, the stakes and terms known only to Craig. At the end of the round, Craig looked sternly at Steve and said, “Jonesy, you owe $100.” Sensing his legal career had ended before it began and suffering through several minutes of quiet humiliation, Steve was relieved to hear Craig’s well-known boisterous laugh after which Craig confessed that he was only kidding – Steve had actually won $5.00.
Gene Lewis, a board member at CCC, vividly recalls his discussions with Craig over the years regarding his two best known vices – driving and smoking. In his later years, Craig was known to stray from the narrow road leading to his house and occasionally find his way onto CCC’s 18th hole or the driving range. He also, whether at our firm or at CCC’s clubhouse, found “no smoking” rules to be an annoyance which were to be honored only when absolutely necessary. On the other hand, Craig’s kindness to the employees at CCC made him one of their favorite members who will be sorely missed.
In retelling stories about Craig, however, often overlooked is Craig’s generosity and his sincere concern for others. His tireless and generally unpublicized effort to assist judges, lawyers and law students struggling with alcohol abuse or chemical dependency was extraordinary. He was open about his own battle with alcoholism and was determined to turn that personal challenge into something positive. He was one of the founding members of the Lawyers Assistance Committee of the OSBA, which lead to the creation of the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program in 1991. He remained active in working with OLAP throughout his career. (The CLE courses on alcohol and substance abuse we are all required to take are often attributed to Craig’s early efforts.) He also served on the Ohio Chemical Dependency Professionals Board from 2003 to 2006 and, at the time of his death, was serving by appointment of the Ohio Supreme Court on the Ohio Public Defender Commission.
In the Columbus Dispatch article published the day after Craig’s death, James Nash and Joe Hallett noted that “beneath his occasional gruffness was a golden heart.” Like Woody Hayes, Craig quietly performed numerous random acts of kindness. Those acts, as well as his wit, intelligence and many years of public service are the things for which Craig Wright should be long remembered.