On April 16th, 2012 103 year old Walter Gordon Jr. passed away at the California Medical Center in Los Angeles. It brought an end to a compelling life, one with valuable lessons for us.
Walter was born in Santa Monica on June 22, 1908, the only child of Walter Lear Gordon and his wife Vertner. His father was a mail carrier.
But Walter had big dreams, wanting to become a lawyer. There was just one problem. The family was black and in Los Angeles, as in most of the nation, that meant few law schools would accept him.
And if Walter did graduate from law school and pass the bar, law firms, virtually all of which were white, would not hire him, nor in Los Angeles could he join the County Bar Association, which had a “Caucasians Only” restriction in its constitution.
This matched similar restrictive clauses in many other Bar Associations across America.
But Walter did not let this stop him. He became a student at the University of Southern California and after a 1 ½ years, he transferred to Ohio State, where he eventually earned his law degree in 1936.
This is our first lesson. If you have a dream, pursue it. If you are determined enough, like Walter you will find a way to achieve it.
The following year, Walter returned to Los Angeles, passed the bar, and set-up a one person law practice on Central Avenue, an area where black people were allowed to live and work.
Bright and personable, Walter actively pursued black clients, knowing few other law firms would represent them. He represented black Hollywood celebrities such as singer Billie Holiday and bookmakers and numerous working class black families and built a sizeable practice.
This is our second lesson. Because of skin color, few lawyers would represent what was a large pool of clients. Walter saw an opportunity and by using this bigotry to his benefit, built a successful law practice.
Walter also became a mentor to young black attorneys, helping them to build their practices.
This is our third lesson. Give others a helping hand and it will make you a better person, and help you to feel good about yourself.
Walter conducted his law practice on Central Avenue from 1937 until he retired in the 2000’s, in his early 90’s.
In Walter’s private life, he was married three times before he met his fourth wife Clara, whom he married in 1956. They were married for 50 years, until her death in 2006. With his second wife, Walter had three children.
A daughter Anne predeceased him in 2010 and he is survived by a son Walter L. Gordon lll, an attorney, who also earned his Ph.D. from UCLA in political science, and is an author and teacher. He is also survived by another son James and by two grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Walter is also survived by many of the lawyers he mentored and by generations of families for whom he wrote wills, negotiated contracts and offered other legal services to keep them secure.
In 2008 when Walter was 100 years of age, he told the Los Angeles Times he was finally slowing down, but that he was still current on important legal decisions. And he added undoubtedly with a laugh, “I make sure I catch ‘Judge Judy’ every day.”