Author: Ryan Lear
Many people often laugh at lawyers until they need them. In the 1960s, I had some serious trouble in the Vietnam War, and I protested a lot, even though I was a reservist in the U.S. Air Force at the time. As a result, I lost my day job in the city and didn’t have the money to continue my PhD in English Literature, and I spent three years at Temple University by night.
I needed a lawyer but couldn’t afford it, so my big brother Bennett put me in touch with his best friend Norman Oshtry, a former Penn State student who is a lawyer , lived in Mount Airy for 40 years. Oshtry told me that he himself was very opposed to the Vietnam War, so he would represent me for free. I told him I’d be happy to pay him when I got a job and got back on my feet, but he refused to accept anything.
Thanks to Oshtry’s months of representation, the legal issues were resolved, and even though the officers at Willow Grove Air Force Base threatened to disgracefully fire me, making it difficult for me to find any responsible employment, Oshtry was able to convince them that it was honorable To dismiss me out of hand, which is no mean feat considering how strongly they feel about the matter.
Oshtree, who I think saved my life and gave me my now 55-year career in journalism, died on June 29 at the age of 96.
Oshtree was president of the Allen Lane Arts Center for four years in the 1970s, and in my mind he was a giant because he was never driven by money or honor, but by a passion for justice. He often represented clients who were excluded from the larger society at the time. In fact, he reminds me of Atticus Finch, the lawyer Gregory Peck brilliantly played in To Kill a Mockingbird.
For example, he gained notoriety for his work in Ginzburg v. United States, an obscene 1966 U.S. Supreme Court decision, where he was lead attorney for Wahl, a gay man who reached the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1967 The Bar Case. He also worked tirelessly for Clark Polak, one of Philadelphia’s leading gay activists in the 1960s. Polak was the leader of the Janus Society and the Homosexual Law Reform Society, and was the editor of Drum Magazine, the largest gay magazine at the time.
Oshtry’s defense of Polak in the 1960s didn’t win any popularity contests. Pollack moved to Southern California in the early 1970s and committed suicide in 1980.
Marc Stein gave an exhaustive interview with Oshtry in 1993 at his home on West Mt. Airy Avenue in “Sister and Brotherly Love City: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia in Philadelphia, 1945-72” (University of Chicago Press) , 2000), and who quotes Oshtry at outhistory.com: “My crooked civil liberties came from my mother.
“She had an intuitive sense of right and wrong, and I think it instilled in me. I don’t know how else to explain it, because I’ve always felt that these issues are very important.”
After Oshtree retired from the Navy after World War II, he attended law school at night for seven years, while working day-to-day in the city’s personnel hospital administration and serving as an investigator on the Human Relations Commission for six years. He has also done a lot of volunteer work for organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, the Jewish Class Relations Council, and the Foreign Birth Council.
Oshtry did not work for a large law firm, but has been a one-man band with general practice. “I’ve only done bankruptcy twice,” he once told me, “but I’ve done pretty much everything else the law says.”
Oshtree’s wife survived, Eva taught for many years at Henry School in Mt. Airy, sons Joel and Daniel are lawyers, and grandsons Ezra, Samuel, Charlotte and Lily.
Joel graduated from Rutgers University School of Law in 1982 and has been an independent practitioner in his father’s practice since 1990.
“Dad is a warm person with a strong sense of right and wrong,” Joel told us last week. “He grew up in a blue-collar community and experienced a lot of anti-Semitism, so he has a lot of empathy for his clients. Instead of seeing the law as a business, he sees it as a whole social worker, using The law improves people’s lives and the world.”
Church services are held at Joseph Levine & Sons at Blue Bell on July 3rd.In lieu of flowers, a tribute to the Brennan Center for Justice or any organization working to strengthen democracy and justice in the United States can be made in honor of his contributions
Len Lear can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org