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Bill Klaus: A Mind Without Borders

by Edward W. “Ned” Madeira Jr.

Fall 2006, Vol. 69, No. 3

I met Bill Klaus on December 21, 1953. It was my first day as an associate at what was then and now the Pepper firm, although there have been several name modifications in the interim. Bill and I shared an office at the start and almost immediately became close friends, a friendship that lasted fifty-two years.

Bill and Janet lived in a basement apartment in Lansdowne with their 6-month-old son, Robbie. Bill had graduated from Temple Law School, in the class of 1951, where he had been editor-in-chief of the Temple Law Review and had been a clerk to Judge L. Stouffer Oliver in the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court before joining the Pepper firm in 1952.
Life in the law and in the city was quite a bit different then. Starting salaries in “large” law firms (we were about twenty-three strong at the time) for those who had a judicial clerkship were about $4,200 per year. An air-conditioned office was a concept of the future. There were old “hunt and peck” typewriters with carbon paper if copies were needed. The Uniform Sales Act (“caveat emptor”) was about to be replaced by the Uniform Commercial Code in July 1954.

In his first year at the firm, Bill had tried a small case and won a jury verdict. That was enough litigation for him, as his legal interests tended to matters financial and commercial. And developing expertise in certain of the articles in the Commercial Code provided him with an instant opportunity to gain recognition. One of my earliest recollections of this modest, mild-mannered man was his quiet drive to become “the best” in any field or endeavor he chose. For many weekends in 1954, Bill would travel around the country lecturing to lawyer groups thirsting for information on the new Code that had dramatically changed commercial practice. Each Monday he would wander in, and I recall him once extolling the Black Hills of South Dakota, for he had been lecturing that weekend to the South Dakota Bar Association.

He was reserved about discussing his record in World War II, where he had enlisted at the age of 17 and had been a tank commander in the Battle of the Bulge. It seemed that this was a part of his life that was behind him, and his energy was directed to the future.
Bill’s practice in the firm quickly grew and he was increasingly involved with loans and international transactions for several banks, as well as representing a large advertising agency, helping to unravel its complicated legal problems.

Bill and Janet had moved to Devon in 1954, to a house he had substantially built, and in 1957 another son, Ken, was born. In these years I learned that Bill was an accomplished carpenter and proficient in many of the building trades. To me it seemed he could do anything he set his mind on, and during his life he set his mind on many things.

With all of the problems and changes in the 1960s, there was an increased recognition of the plight of the cities and the needs of the country’s poor. Bill was a pioneer in recognizing and addressing the unmet needs for legal services. He was not only active in the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Public Service Committee and one of the leaders who formed Community Legal Services in 1965, but on the national scene he had been instrumental in urging the formation by the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity of its Legal Service Program designed to promote and fund civil legal aid offices throughout the country as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty.” This was a contentious time for legal services, both within and without the Bar, but Bill was a persistent advocate, and in 1970 he chaired the first ABA committee to protect and enhance the legal aid program. He calmly responded to contentions within the Bar that providing civil legal services to the poor would deprive lawyers of business, and political opposition, including an exchange of views with Vice President Spiro Agnew, an opponent of the program. Even though there had been opposition in the Bar, Bill ran successfully for Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association and served in that office in 1974. During 1978 and 1979 he served as president of the Board of Directors of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.

His dedication to the local and national legal services program, which continued throughout his life, did not detract from his growing practice. And he was invited to join several boards of directors, including the Fidelity Bank, Westmoreland Coal Company and Pennsylvania Warehouse and Safe Deposit Company, on which he served for many years. He developed a specialty in the international aspects of banking practice and was involved in a series of transactions in Chile where he and Janet developed several close friends.

Tragedy struck Janet and Bill in 1980 when their son Robbie died suddenly from an undiagnosed brain tumor. This was an immense blow and for some time, not unexpectedly, took some of the drive out of Bill.

Bill was truly fascinated with life—all the things to do and all that history could tell and teach. He thrived on the challenges of sports that he had not known in his early years and became proficient as a sailor and skier. Already a master craftsman, Bill took up wooden boat building and became proficient at carving ship models with personal inscriptions that he would modestly give to his friends. He was drawn to matters cultural, especially the visual and performing arts, music, opera and ballet, and he looked forward to the Wagnerian operas at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He craved more knowledge about the many cultures and religions of the world and read about them with a unique intensity. Janet and Bill’s extensive worldwide travels were not a result of “wanderlust” but part of their drive to see, appreciate and learn more about the wonders of the world.

In 1995, Bill was stricken with cancer of the esophagus, which was originally thought inoperable. A young surgeon recently relocated to this area described and successfully performed a novel procedure that removed the cancer, and Bill was back on his feet within a few weeks. Bill withdrew from active practice in the firm but kept up his community and civic activities and service on several corporate boards of directors.

By now, their son Ken had married and provided them with a grandson, Tyler Klaus. Bill and Janet maintained their home in Devon, but spent their summers at their second home in Beach Haven on Barnegat Bay.

Bill’s quest for knowledge and culture did not cease with his withdrawal from the firm and, in fact, increased with time. Instead of spending his weekends lecturing on the forthcoming Commercial Code in some lesser known state capital, he and Janet would spend two weeks in China, Japan, Turkey or India or perhaps on the slopes of Utah or Colorado.

Bill died October 15, 2005, after an agonizing five-month illness unrelated to his earlier cancer. On October 29, there was a gathering of more than 450 friends to celebrate his life. The sentiments, recollections and remarks expressed provided inspiration to many. He was described as an exemplar of “the greatest generation” with contributions of substance to his country, community and family. His quest for knowledge warranted the description of “a mind without borders.” His partners described him as a mentor, always available and willing to assign credit to those working with him on a client matter. His friends and clients provided anecdotes of kindness and thoughtfulness, and Ken spoke passionately about his father.

As I heard these tributes, I was struck by the fact that in the more than fifty years I had known Bill, I had never seen him lose his temper. In times when anger rose and normally would be vented, Bill would smile and quietly shake his head and move forward to more productive ground.

The most powerful remarks were delivered by Bill’s longtime friend and colleague, Judge Ned Spaeth. The passion of that tribute best captures and celebrates the noteworthy life of my friend Bill.

Homage to Bill Klaus

By Judge Edmund B. Spaeth Jr.

There are three great professions whose roots go back thousands of years. One is theology, the study of the nature of God and religious truth. Another is medicine, the study of diagnosing, treating or preventing disease or damage to the body or mind. And the third is the law, the study of the nature of justice and of how to achieve it. The reason Bill Klaus was a great lawyer—and he was a very great lawyer—was that he saw every legal task he undertook in the light of the law’s ancient purpose to advance justice. Never did he seek the quick, the slick, the one-sided victory. He always sought a solution that served not only his clients’ interests but the interests of everyone in a better legal system.

Once at their annual meeting, Bill’s partners at Pepper Hamilton presented a program on professional responsibility. A difficult problem was conceived—one that exploited the ambiguities and possible inconsistencies in the Supreme Court’s Rules on Professional Conduct. The problem was then discussed by a panel of three partners from the firm’s Litigation Department and three from its Commercial Department. At the end of the discussion, Bill rose and, in his gracious way, thanked the panel’s members for their clear explication of the rules, and then he added the admonition that rules must always be construed in light of their purpose, and that purpose, he said, was to solve problems, to make things better.

You have heard a little about how Bill spent his life solving problems. Extraordinary as his achievements were, to me what made Bill not simply a great lawyer but a great man was the balance he struck between tenacious idealism and profound realism.
Walt Whitman once watched a spider spinning her web. He was enthralled by how she “tirelessly” “launch’d forth filament, filament, filament” out of herself. That, he declared, was what he did:

O my soul where you stand, Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

In thus describing his own quest, Whitman perfectly described Bill’s quest. Whitman knew, as Bill knew, that the threads he flung out—for Whitman, his poems, for Bill, his efforts to achieve justice, understanding in all that he did—would not always hold, just as the spider’s filaments would not always reach across the abyss she was trying to bridge. But that realization never prevented Whitman from trying to bridge the “vacant vast surrounding,” as it never prevented Bill from trying to get closer to achieving justice, excellence and understanding. “Ceaselessly venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them”—that’s Bill Klaus at work.

If you want to see the difference Bill made to the law, go to the exhibition at the Philadelphia Art Museum of Jacob van Ruisdael’s landscapes. Look at one of Ruisdael’s skies, study the towering gray and white clouds, and note how the light breaks through to illuminate in gold the bleaching fields, the oak woods, the beaches and the dunes below. That’s the way Bill lighted up some of the dark corners of the law.

You will recall that at the end of “The Tempest,” Prospero stages a beautiful dance of spirits, which he abruptly ends. When Ferdinand expresses dismay at Prospero’s brusque dismissal of the spirits, Prospero replies in a speech that I think Bill might have given, for it just catches Bill’s ceaseless yearning and quest for beauty, excellence and truth and his profound grasp of the limits our humanity imposes on us.

Be cheerful, sir [Prospero says to Ferdinand] Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

We honor Bill, and celebrate his life, not simply for what he achieved but for his unquenchable spirit. Musicians revere Mozart not simply because of his compositions but because of the vistas he opened, his demonstration of the limitless possibilities of music. And so with Bill. He showed us what might be accomplished if we shared his courage, his love of life, and followed his lead.

Shakespeare knew greatness when he saw it, and so I should like to close by quoting Shakespeare’s farewell to Hamlet, perhaps his greatest creation and surely one of the greatest creations in all drama:

Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!