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Jerome Shestack, Noted Attorney and Communal Force, Dies at 88

August 24, 2011 By:
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Jerome Shestack

Philadelphia attorney Jerome J. Shestack -- a mentor, poetry afficionado, American history buff, and, in his wife's favorite descriptor, "the pied piper of just causes" -- died of kidney failure on Thursday, Aug. 18, at his Center City home.

From his first campaigns for law schools to grant women and blacks admission, the 88-year-old human rights leader never stopped -- not even after three broken ribs sent him to the hospital earlier this year, said his wife, Marciarose Shestack.

"Jerry had a remarkably curious mind and everything interested him," Marciarose said. "He was invariably president of every organization he was involved in."

In addition to two decades at the helm of the International League for Human Rights, Shestack was appointed to various United Nations commissions and served a year-long term as president of the American Bar Association.

His reach was evident Sunday at Har Zion Temple, where mourners packed the Penn Valley sanctuary for his funeral.

"Countless women and men are better off because of Jerry," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement, noting that he was "unwavering in his commitment to the highest of American values" and "a dogged defender of human rights."

"He set the standard for how civil society leaders can promote human rights," Clinton continued. He was effective "because he had a rare mix of wonderful qualities: optimism, resilience, humor, a thick skin, and a way of making everyone feel at ease."

Shestack spent the early years of his childhood in Atlantic City, N.J. Both his grandfathers were rabbis and he spoke Hebrew and Yiddish before learning English, Marciarose said.

After graduating from Overbrook High School, he joined the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of Pennsylvania. During World War II, he served as a gunnery officer on the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga.

He "felt there is no war that is a just war, but if there ever was, that was it," Marciarose said. "The Nazis had to be stopped."

His mother loved to recount how his religious observance kept him from bearing the brunt of a kamikaze attack in 1945, Marciarose said. The planes hit the mess hall the hardest, but he hadn't gone there to eat that day because pork chops were on the menu.

After helping decommission the ship, Shestack attended Harvard Law School, serving as editor of the Harvard Law Record before he graduated in 1949.

He met Marciarose, then attending Boston's Emerson College, on a blind date. When she moved to continue undergraduate studies at Northwestern University, and later graduate school at Louisiana State University, he came along and taught law.

At the Philadelphia city solicitor's invitation, he returned to the area to become the first deputy city solicitor in 1951.

He moved on to practice at Schnader, Harrison, Segal & Lewis in 1955, and Marciarose began developing her own notoriety as a news anchor and talk-show host at KYW-TV, now CBS3.

As she became the first woman to anchor a prime-time newscast in a major market, Shestack went global with his fight for human rights. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed him to a U.N. Commission on Human Rights, where he headed efforts to investigate disappearances under oppressive regimes. He served on two more international delegations under President George H.W. Bush.

Domestically, he helped found the American Bar Association's Pro Bono Center, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

In 1991, Shestack left his firm to chair the litigation practice at Wolf, Block, Schorr & Solis-Cohen. But he returned to Schnader in 2009.

Fellow attorney Ralph Snyder called Shestack one of the most brilliant lawyers he'd ever befriended. More impressive, he said, Shestack applied the tenets of Judaism into his practice.

He was the kind of person "who took the word 'justice' and gave great meaning to it," said Snyder, 89, of Bala Cynwyd.

Among the numerous groups he chaired were the ABA's Center for Human Rights and the American Jewish Committee's Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, where he lobbied for Israel, civil rights, Holocaust remembrance and Soviet Jewry.

"Motivated by his deep roots in Jewish tradition, he championed the plight of those abused and excluded worldwide," AJC executive director David Harris said in a statement.

Harris noted that Shestack went on to serve on the organization's board of governors from 1993 to 2009, and chaired the committee on conscience at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Shestack was also a political "junkie," though he never ran for office, said his wife. Instead, the ardent Democrat worked for presidential hopeful Adlai Stevenson and wrote speeches for Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Sargent Shriver and Sen. Ed Muskie of Maine.

Likewise, he shared writing tips with the aspiring lawyers he mentored, many of whom went on to be very successful, Marciarose said.

"He shaped people's lives," she said.

He loved poetry and served as chairman of the American Poetry Center. The American Poetry Review, a monthly based here, awards a prize in his name.

Singing was admittedly not his strong suit, yet he made a point of chanting a passage from the Torah on Simchat Torah in commemoration of his father's yahrtzeit.

"He would always introduce it with the most erudite explanation," remembered Har Zion Cantor Eliot Vogel.

Besides his wife, Shestack is survived by his son, Jonathan, daughter, Jennifer Doss, and five grandchildren.

Donations may be sent to Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Suite 400, 1401 New York Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005.

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