Coleman remembered as a pivotal figure in politics and the law

William T. Coleman Jr. in his office at the law firm of O'Melveny & Myers in Washington in 2007.

Stephen J. Harmelin was a young lawyer at Dilworth Paxson when he had a memorable, perhaps even traumatic, encounter with Bill Coleman.

Harmelin was working on a Saturday afternoon at the offices of the Center City law firm and so was Coleman. After a while, Harmelin, not unreasonably, decided it was time to head home.

Wrong move.

“I can recall specifically that I was making my way down the hall at 3:30 … and it was a long week but they expected you to work on Saturdays,” Harmelin said. “And I see Coleman come out of his office and he said, 'Mr. Harmelin, where are you going?' I said, ‘I have a date tonight, Mr. Coleman, and I am leaving.’ He said, ‘We only started making a profit on you at 1:30.'

“It ruined the day for me,” Harmelin recalled with a chuckle. “Now I had to worry about my job security.”

Harmelin did fine, becoming one of the firm’s leading partners. But Coleman, who passed away at his home in Alexandria, Va., on March 31 at age 96, did exceedingly well, too. Over a decades-long career, Coleman was a pivotal figure in national politics and the law.

He was the first black U.S. Supreme Court clerk and the first black lawyer hired by a major Philadelphia law firm. He worked with Thurgood Marshall and Louis Pollak, a former federal district court judge and University of Pennsylvania law school dean, in drafting the briefs in Brown v. Board of Education, the nation’s seminal school-desegregation case.

He was a staff attorney on the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and was  transportation secretary under President Gerald Ford.

Over the course of his career, he advised 10 presidents and sat on many corporate boards.

But his dream job after graduating at the top of his class from Harvard University Law School in 1946 was to work at Dilworth Paxson, where he spent 23 years before moving on to Washington.

On Thursday, Harmelin and fellow Dilworth lawyer Joseph H. Jacovini joined Coleman’s son, William Thaddeus Coleman III, who served as general counsel to the Army under President Bill Clinton, at the Dilworth Paxson offices to reminisce about Coleman and his time at the firm.

Jacovini said he was grateful for advice that he had gotten from Coleman, in advance of a politically contentious hearing, to not answer hypothetical questions.

Coleman was remembered as a tough critic with exacting standards who overcame enormous obstacles.

“When you were on the receiving end of an order to produce a memo in two hours or two days, you better be sure to produce that memo,” Harmelin said.

He also had a rapier sense of humor.

William Coleman III recalled that his father once had a young associate over for dinner at the family home, and afterward, as they were chatting, pointed toward a valuable painting on the wall.

“He said, 'If you really work hard and dedicate yourself to the firm, then perhaps one day I will be able to buy another one of these,' ” Coleman recalled.

Coleman's life touched directly on many of 20th-century America’s pivotal events and themes. There were early painful battles with discrimination that surely would have crushed a lesser spirit. As a freshman at Germantown High School, he was turned away when he attempted to join the swim team because he was black. His parents complained to school officials, arguing that their son’s exclusion was illegal. The school’s response was to disband the team, reinstating it after Coleman’s graduation.

Although Coleman graduated at the top of his Harvard Law School class, no law firm in Philadelphia would hire him when he came back to the city, once again because he was black.

It was Coleman’s goal to work for a top firm, and soon he was hired by Paul, Weiss, Rifkin, Wharton & Garrison, an upstart firm in New York, where he commuted every day by train from his Philadelphia home. It was there that he got to know Pollak, and the two collaborated with Marshall on the Brown v. Board of Education case.

After days working at Paul, Weiss, he would sometimes head uptown to the jazz clubs of Harlem, where musicians who had finished playing in segregated clubs downtown could come late in the evening to perform for themselves and an interracial audience.

It was at one of these clubs, Coleman told this reporter, that he  met and became friendly with Fidel Castro, long before Castro’s revolution had prevailed and he had installed himself as ruler of Cuba.

Years later, as a staff attorney on the Warren Commission, Coleman was assigned to investigate possible Russian and Cuban connections with Kennedy’s murder. 

At Dilworth, it was clear Thursday he was deeply missed.

“For us, it is like a family get-together,” said Jacovini, of the Coleman retrospective. “If you lose someone in the family, members of the family get together and they talk about the person they lost.”