Federal judge Wesley Brown dies at age 104 in Wichita

01/24/2012 5:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:08 AM

U.S. Senior District Judge Wesley Brown has died at age 104.

Brown died Monday evening at Larksfield Place, where he had lived for several years, Judge Monti Belot said Tuesday morning.

“There comes a time, and he was just ready,” said Belot, who served as Brown’s law clerk early in his career before joining the federal bench in Wichita in 1991.

Brown had been appointed by President John F. Kennedy in 1962 and was one of two federal judges to serve until age 104. He continued to hear a full docket well past 100, and then went part time within the past year.

Belot said Brown had been in weaker health and had not come to the courthouse within the past month.

“I hope to be remembered as a good judge, and not just an old judge,” Brown told The Eagle last year, sitting in his office.

Brown used to shake his head when he heard people talk about “activist judges” or push for the election of judges. Brown said he took his lifetime appointment seriously, because of its important role in the separation of powers outlined in the U.S. Constitution.

“And I hope the courts can keep their independence and not be subservient to the pressures of other branches of government, or other special interests. It is this separation of powers that is vital to our democracy,” Brown said on his 100th birthday. “It’s what makes America what it is.”

U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren said he first worked closely with Brown in 1985. Melgren then served as a law clerk to federal judge Frank Theis.

“Judge Brown would have to walk past my office to go into the courtroom, and I remember he would always say to me, ‘Well, is justice prevailing?’ ” Melgren said Tuesday. “As I knew him over the years, that was always the motto of his life.”

After studying at the University of Kansas, Brown graduated from the Kansas City School of Law — now the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He passed the bar in 1933 and served as Reno County attorney. He later went into private practice, representing the city of Hutchinson in a nine-year court battle to implement a flood plan for the Cow Creek and Arkansas River. He moved to Wichita to become a bankruptcy judge in 1958, appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

“I always say we’re appointed for life or good behavior, whichever ends first,” Brown routinely joked.

Brown, born in 1907, also often quipped that he would not take complex cases he figured might last a long time in the court system.

“At my age, you don’t buy unripe bananas,” Brown said.

Judge J. Thomas Marten, another colleague in Wichita, remembered Brown constantly joking about his age.

“He would say, ‘Actuarially, I don’t exist,’ ” Marten said.

But Marten said Brown constantly reminded other judges about the focus of their job.

“At practically every meeting, he would remind us, ‘Remember who you are and what your job is. Our job is to resolve disputes, and it’s no one else’s job but ours,’ ” Marten recalled Brown saying. “And those simple words tend to help you keep focused on what is important.”

Brown served during an era of changing civil rights, equality for men and women in the workplace and legal battles over Internet privacy.

During the 1970s, Brown told a Wichita hospital it couldn’t fire a woman because she was single and pregnant and ruled that North High School had to let a girl on its golf team. During the 1980s, Brown ordered millions of dollars in payments to railroad workers denied promotions because they were Americans of African descent.

More recently, Brown presided over cases including a $3 million athletic ticket scandal at the University of Kansas, where he studied physical education under James Naismith.

Calvin Coolidge was president when Brown entered the University of Kansas as an undergraduate in 1925.

Brown studied by night and worked to support himself at the Ford Motor Co. factory in Kansas City. When the Great Depression hit, he found himself having to write pink slips notifying fellow workers that they were out of jobs. One of those pink slips was his own. He finished law school working as a secretary for a local attorney’s office for $15 a week.

At his first job for a Hutchinson law firm, Brown made $25 a month, before being elected as Reno County attorney from 1935 to 1939.

Brown never let age get in his way. When he joined the Navy in World War II he was 37 — the oldest in his unit.

He was a past president of the Kansas Bar Association. He became chief judge for the Kansas federal district in 1971.

Brown assumed senior status in 1979, which is seen in the federal court system as semi-retirement at full salary. Brown, however, continued to work full time for the next three decades.

Judge Kathryn Vratil, current chief of the federal district, said Brown served as a model jurist for everyone who worked with him.

“Judge Brown was quick to express appreciation, and he was a dear friend and mentor to all of the judges and court staff who had the opportunity to work with him,” Vratil said in a statement Tuesday morning. “We remember his intelligence, his force of will, his gentlemanly demeanor and his wise counsel throughout the years.”

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