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Government, Politics & Issues

Obituary of F. William McCalpin: Advocate for justice for disadvantaged people

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 12, 2009 - Had it not been for Francis William McCalpin, there may never have been a Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, or a state legal services office anywhere in the nation to defend the rights of disadvantaged people.

"No one meant more to the establishment of Legal Services than Bill McCalpin," said Missouri Supreme Court Justice Richard B. "Rick" Teitelman. "He was one of the five most important people in the history of Legal Services in the U.S. or Missouri.

"As a lawyer, he was one of the best there ever was in Missouri," said Teitelman, who was executive director and general counsel of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, St. Louis during Mr. McCalpin's service to the organization. "And he was, as Martin Luther King said, 'a drum major for justice'. He lived a righteous life."

Mr. McCalpin, who had been in failing health in recent months, died Wednesday of injuries suffered from a fall at his home in Glendale. He was 88. On Saturday, more than 300 friends, colleagues and family members attended his funeral Mass at Mary Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Webster Groves.

There the Rev. John Leykam said Mr. McCalpin believed "you cannot be faithful to Jesus unless you are faithful to what he taught us."

Mr. McCalpin's son, William F. McCalpin said that his father knew from the age of 12 that he wanted to be a lawyer. At the age of 17, the younger McCalpin said, "the boy from south St. Louis" wrote to Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas seeking advice on what courses he should take in college to prepare for a career in law. "And he got a response," McCalpin said. "This a good example of how my father never with a sense of boundaries or limits." He would later meet Douglas as a practicing attorney and thank him for his advice.

Mr. McCalpin was a graduate of St. Louis University High School and St. Louis University. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1948, he joined the Lewis, Rice law firm and spent his entire career at the firm, retiring in 1991.

Hell of a Lawyer

In an interview Friday, Robert Allen, a friend and colleague at Lewis Rice for half a century called Mr. McCalpin "one hell of a lawyer.

"He was very, very bright, a hard worker and a great writer," Allen said. "He was a wonderful lawyer; he was not a front man, he was an r-e-a-l lawyer."

The two were friendly competitors, Allen said, and rarely worked on the same cases. But there was a notable exception: the case in which U.S. Sen. Kit Bond's residency was questioned during his first run for governor of Missouri. The case went to the state Supreme Court.

"I worked closely with Bill on that case, and that's where I learned of his writing skills," Allen said. "We won the case in the course of a month."

For which Bond was eternally grateful.

"Thanks to Bill's advocacy, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled five to two that I was a Missourian and I was able to serve as Missouri's governor for two terms and senator for four terms," Bond said. I shall always be grateful for his friendship and legal skills. Bill was a great friend and a real leader in the Missouri Bar in St. Louis."

Humbly Receiving Highest Honors

Mr. McCalpin earned numerous accolades for his leadership, but none more appreciated than the American Bar Association's highest honor, the ABA Medal of Honor, which he received in 1988. In a story in the St. Louis Countian following his receipt of the award, Mr. McCalpin modestly declared that "it was like being struck by lightning" as he joined the likes of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and Justice Warren E. Burger.

The medal recognized his efforts in helping to form the Legal Services Corporation, an organization established by Congress to provide lawyers to defend disadvantaged citizens in civil cases.

He was chosen in 1965 by the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell, then president of the ABA, as chair of the Bar's Special Committee on Availability of Legal Services, which led to the creation of the Legal Services Corporation in 1974. He served as board chair of the Legal Services Corporation until 1979; in 1981, he and nine other board members were fired by President Ronald Reagan in an attempt to dismantle the organization.

President Reagan's efforts failed.

"Bill stood tall in the fight," Teitelman said. 

A Titan of His Times

Jack Pruellage, chairman of the law firm now known as Lewis, Rice & Fingersh, acknowledged Mr. McCalpin's decades of work both in the community and at the firm, particularly his efforts in mentoring young attorneys.

"Bill was a titan of his times who committed a great deal of his energy to advancing his profession and community," Pruellage said. "He gave more back than he took from his profession and anything he could do to help people he did."

It was always about the work said his wife of 55 years, Margaret (nee Wickes) McCalpin, whom he met while both were students at St. Louis University.

"His work was his main interest," she said. "His work with Legal Services was also most important to him, especially in later years."

In addition to Legal Services, Mr. McCalpin's other civic endeavors included serving as president of the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis in the early 1960s and later as president of the American Bar Foundation. He also served on the Board of Provident Counseling and the Missouri Board of Social Welfare.

Included among his many awards was the F. William McCalpin Pro Bono Award, named in his honor by Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, the Backer Award of St. Louis University High School in 1986, the Herbert Harley Award of the American Judicature Society in 1987, and the St. Louis University Alumni Merit Award in 1971, for his service as a trustee of the university and as president of the Alumni Federation and the Harvard Club here. He was a trustee in the early 1960s of the Junior College District and chairman of the Missouri Coordinating Board for Higher Education in 1974.

Mr. McCalpin served in the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II in the Pacific theater and was called back to service during the Korean War.

"Bill was a great friend to all and a great family man. He tried to work for justice and fair play for all in the U.S., especially in St. Louis," Teitelman said.

Mr. McCalpin was preceded in death by his parents, George and Marguerite McCalpin.

In addition to his wife, Mr. McCalpin is survived by three daughters, Lucy McCalpin of Glendale, Martha (Jay) Staley of Des Peres and Katherine (William) Winfrey of Shrewsbury; two sons, William (Sara) McCalpin of Wilton, Conn. and David (Tracy) McCalpin of Louisville, Ky.; one brother, George McCalpin of Richardson, Tex., and one sister, Mary Moss of Columbia, Mo. He is also survived by 18 grandchildren.

Memorial contributions would be appreciated to Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, 4232 Forest Park Avenue, St. Louis, Mo. 63108, www.lsem.org , or St. Louis University High School, 4970 Oakland Avenue, St. Louis, Mo. 63110-1472, www.sluh.org .

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.

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