- The Washington Times - Friday, November 18, 2005

Friends, family and colleagues of William B. Bryant remembered him yesterday as a leader among judges whose wisdom and kindness extended far beyond the courtroom.

“To measure the life, work and accomplishments of William Benson Bryant would be [like using] a thimble to try to empty an ocean,” Howard University School of Law graduate Vernon E. Jordan told about 500 people who attended Judge Bryant’s memorial service at the Dunbarton Chapel in Northwest. “It would be as if one tried to measure the heavens with the width of a human hand.”

Judge Bryant was the first black chief judge of the city’s federal court. He died Sunday night in his D.C. home at the age of 94.

During the service, a singer serenaded the attendees with renditions of “Ave Maria” and “Nearer My God to Thee.” Several speakers read from Scripture or paid tribute in speeches to the man many knew simply as “Bill.”

Those who shared courtrooms and classrooms with the judge remembered him as a man with a keen intellect and a sharp sense for justice who also possessed a deep love and commitment to family and friends.

“For all these years he’s been my friend, my mentor and my confidant,” said Louis F. Oberdorfer, 86, a senior judge in D.C. District Court. “I along with so many others will miss him terribly.”

Judge Bryant was born in Wetumpka, Ala., and moved to the District as a child. He attended segregated public schools in the District and received his undergraduate degree from Howard University in 1932. In 1936, he graduated from the university’s law school, where he later taught as an adjunct professor for more than 20 years.

Howard President H. Patrick Swygert — who took a class from the judge in 1968 — remembered his former teacher as a modest man, and said the trial class he taught with two colleagues should have been named “learning at the feet of giants.”

“We were in one sense legally impaired because we thought at the conclusion of the course all lawyers were like Judge Bryant,” Mr. Swygert said.

Judge Bryant, who also was the first black assistant U.S. attorney for the District, was nominated by President Johnson to the federal bench in 1965 and became the first black chief judge of the D.C. District Court on March 20, 1977.

He served as a senior judge until his death, and President Bush last week signed into law a bill naming a $110 million addition to the city’s federal courthouse in his honor.

“Unashamedly, I can say that I loved him, and I am so proud to have his name on our new building,” Chief Judge Thomas F. Hogan of the D.C. District Court said as he choked back tears. “He was the soul of our court and we’ll miss him.”

Judge Bryant also was remembered as an ace pool player and down-to-earth man whose folksy humor often put lawyers in their place and endeared him to many.

Judge Henry F. Greene, a senior judge of the Superior Court in the District and former law clerk for Judge Bryant, said his mentor would tell lawyers making illogical arguments that “you can’t put a shoe on a running horse.”

The judge — whose wife of 63 years, Astaire, died in 1997 — also would advise the groom in weddings he officiated that “you can either be right, or you can be happy.”

Following yesterday’s service, pallbearers from the U.S. Marshals Service took the judge’s polished, wooden casket outside to a waiting hearse. Judge Bryant was interred at Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Brentwood.

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