Oldest Federal Judge Remembered At Kan. Service

Published February 11, 2012 10:09PM (EST)

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Some 400 mourners gathered Saturday to honor a judge whose sheer stamina and devotion to justice kept him on the federal bench in Wichita up to his death last month at age 104.

U.S. District Judge Wesley Brown was the nation's oldest working federal judge in history, but colleagues at his memorial service said that while he was widely known for his age, he gave seldom gave it any thought.

"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."

To the end, Brown lived life on his own terms — even planning his own memorial service, which included the congregation singing the hymn, "Morning Has Broken."

"The loss I feel is eased by the fact that it is not possible to live a fuller life than you did," Lahey said.

Brown had no patience for lawyers who wasted time, were unprepared, came late or dressed casually in his courtroom, Vratil said. She drew heavy laughter from mourners at the memorial service when she described her first encounter with him.

"I would like to say when I met Judge Brown that it was love at first sight, but if you are a lawyer in this congregation today you can appreciate that really the more accurate description that I experienced was terror," she said.

The judge was aware of his reputation and in his autobiography wrote, "I am a little perplexed when people tell me I have the reputation of being a tough judge with a hot temper, though truth be told it is a handy reputation to have."

U.S. District Judge Monti Belot, who was Brown's law clerk 40 years ago, had spent the last two decades serving alongside him in Wichita as a federal district judge.

Belot marveled at the scope of Brown's judicial career that spanned over 50 years. He was born only four years after the Wright brothers first flew, and lived for more than 40 years after men landed on the moon.

"Judge Brown experienced firsthand what for many of us, for most of us really, are simply historic events," Belot said.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Don Bostwick, told the group that he enjoyed Brown's recollections of events that occurred in his lifetime, such as the Dust Bowl and Great Depression during brown bag lunches at the courthouse. But although Brown talked about the past, Bostwick said he never knew anybody who lived more in the present.

"I know I am not alone when I say that the federal courthouse in Wichita will never be the same without him," Bostwick said. "And we will all miss him more than you can possibly imagine."

By Salon Staff

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