ATLANTA — Friends, family and members of the legal community gathered Saturday in Atlanta to honor the life of Senior U.S. District Judge William C. O’Kelley.
To former clerk Dustin Marlowe, the judge “essentially directed the careers of at least two generations of lawyers.”
“I think he taught us all respect for the law, respect for the court and respect for our adversaries and the parties to the litigation,” he said.
The judge died July 5 after a brief battle with cancer, according to his family. He was 87.
The memorial Saturday was held at the Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church in Atlanta on Emory University’s campus, a short walk from the university’s law school O’Kelley attended. O’Kelley also attended Emory for his undergraduate studies.
He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Ernestine Allen O’Kelley, and children Virginia Leigh O’Kelley Wood and William C. “Bo” O’Kelley Jr.
The memorial was filled with hymns sung with gusto and stories of the late jurist, some bringing a tear and others stirring roars of laughter.
Senior U.S. District Judge Charles A. Pannell Jr. delivered a eulogy along with members of the O’Kelley family, and Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Carla McMillian offered a reading from Psalms.
A procession of a dozen men laid down white roses as part of a ceremony by Sigma Chi, the fraternity to which O’Kelley belonged.
O’Kelley was nominated by President Richard Nixon in 1970 to the federal court for the Northern District of Georgia. He previously worked as an assistant U.S. attorney.
R. Lawrence Ashe, Jr. was in front of O’Kelley shortly after the judge took to the bench. The case had a couple of firsts; it was O’Kelley’s first class-action trial and Ashe’s first appearance before the judge.
The case spread over multiple months before ultimately being settled. Ashe said he was “immediately impressed” by the judge’s preparedness.
“He was courteous to the lawyers and the witnesses,” Ashe said. “He was patient but not endlessly so, nor should he have been. He ran an efficient courtroom, had a sense of humor.”
Another former clerk, Alex Meier, was set to have O’Kelley preside over his wedding last month, but the judge had to withdraw because of the health problems. U.S. District Court Judge Richard Story stepped in for O’Kelley.
“I can’t put into words how much I appreciated his guidance and mentorship. He was, first of all, just an incredibly fair and understanding person, both on and off the bench,” Meier said.
In 1980, O’Kelley was appointed to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger.
Marlowe and Meier shared their memories of the judge over barbecue or one of Gainesville’s meat-and-three restaurants. In the judge’s chambers, he would talk current events or quiz his associates on history.
Marlowe described O’Kelley as “old school, but in the best possible sense of the phrase,” insisting on his clerks wearing suits and ties. His presence was “grandfatherly” in a way, Marlowe said.
“Hearing about how he kind of reasoned through tough issues and talking through cases with him in his chambers is one of the best experiences of my professional career,” Meier said.
Ashe said O’Kelley was working hard up until the end, representing the paradigm for federal judges.
“He never developed any aspect I noticed of what lawyers call ‘black robe-itis,’ meaning judges get on the bench and think everyone has to laugh at every one of their jokes. To use a golf metaphor, give them every 10-foot putt,” he said.