He served on the federal bench through his 104th birthday, slowing down only when death took him last month.
U.S. Federal District Judge Wesley Brown died last month. At a memorial service, those who knew him paid homage to his lifelong devotion to the Boy Scout Oath. At the risk of angering the copyright poobahs at Associated Press, I quote from the AP story from Wichita, Kansas, carried at the site of Fox 6 WBRC (somewhere in Alabama):
“He was truly a first among equals – an icon of all that is good and faithful and true, both as a person and as a judge,” said U.S. District Judge Katherine Vratil, now the chief judge for the federal district in Kansas.
Mike Lahey, Brown’s law clerk for the past 24 years, said the judge’s life was governed by two oaths: one that he took to be a district judge in 1962 and the other when he became a Boy Scout in 1920.
Lahey said the judge often would recite the oath to him from memory: “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the scout law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.”
“To Judge Brown those words were never a simple rite of passage,” Lahey said. “To him, they were the aspiration of what a man should be and he adopted them as a guide for the rest of his life.”
He was born three years before Scouting was incorporated in the U. S. and lived past Scouting’s 100th anniversary. Any other Scouters out there with greater longevity in Scouting?
An article in The Wichita Eagle laid out the historical perspective of Brown’s astonishing service:
Brown served during an era of changing civil rights, equality for men and women in the workplace and legal battles over Internet privacy.
During the 1970s, Brown told a Wichita hospital it couldn’t fire a woman because she was single and pregnant and ruled that North High School had to let a girl on its golf team. During the 1980s, Brown ordered millions of dollars in payments to railroad workers denied promotions because they were Americans of African descent.
More recently, Brown presided over cases including a $3 million athletic ticket scandal at the University of Kansas, where he studied physical education under James Naismith.
Calvin Coolidge was president when Brown entered the University of Kansas as an undergraduate in 1925.
Brown studied by night and worked to support himself at the Ford Motor Co. factory in Kansas City. When the Great Depression hit, he found himself having to write pink slips notifying fellow workers that they were out of jobs. One of those pink slips was his own. He finished law school working as a secretary for a local attorney’s office for $15 a week.
At his first job for a Hutchinson law firm, Brown made $25 a month, before being elected as Reno County attorney from 1935 to 1939.
Brown never let age get in his way. When he joined the Navy in World War II he was 37 — the oldest in his unit.
He was a past president of the Kansas Bar Association. He became chief judge for the Kansas federal district in 1971.
Brown assumed senior status in 1979, which is seen in the federal court system as semi-retirement at full salary. Brown, however, continued to work full time for the next three decades.
- “Federal Judge, 103, still hearing cases,” MSNBC in April 2011
- “At 103, judge has one caveat: No lengthy trials,” New York Times, September 16, 2010, p. A1
- Wichita Eagle video, “Common Law,” feature on Judge Brown, part 1; part 2; part 3.