Obituary: John J. McLean Jr. / Common Pleas judge left bench to pay for his children's college

Aug. 28, 1927 - Dec. 24, 2013

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In the 1960s and '70s, John J. McLean Jr. had a distinguished decadelong career as a judge in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court. Nearly 40 years later, other jurists still recall the mill-town youth who earned an Ivy League law degree as a man of high intellect, solid work ethic and even-keeled temperament.

But as much as he loved the law, Mr. McLean was just as ardent -- if not more so -- about his other great passion: his family.

In January 1976, Judge McLean left the bench, despite being re-elected to a 10-year term, to return to private practice, at least in part so he could afford to send his seven children to college.

"There is no doubt that his family and their welfare was the center of his life," said U.S. District Judge Mark R. Hornak, a former law partner and longtime neighbor of Mr. McLean's when the two lived in Munhall.

Mr. McLean, a Mt. Lebanon resident, died Tuesday of melanoma at Concordia of the South Hills in Mt. Lebanon, where he had been in hospice care. He was 86.

A native of Homestead, Mr. McLean was born into a family that valued education. His father was a dentist who became the local mayor. His younger brother, James, would eventually also become a Common Pleas judge and the mayor of Bethel Park.

Mr. McLean graduated from Homestead High School and Mount St. Mary's College before heading to Harvard Law School. He split military service between the Navy in the 1940s and the Army in the 1950s.

With a law degree in hand, Mr. McLean returned to the Pittsburgh area and joined a small firm in 1955. The next year he became solicitor for Homestead and its school district and later for Munhall.

He became a judge at the end of 1965 and served until 1976.

"He was clearly one of our superstars at the bar," said retired federal judge Donald E. Ziegler, who overlapped with Mr. McLean in Common Pleas Court for several years. "He was just viewed as a heavyweight, a go-to guy, kind of like the closer in the bullpen. When nobody else could solve a case, it was sent to John McLean."

As 1975 drew to a close, Mr. McLean was re-elected. But he had been indicating he might leave, and he followed through early the next year, departing for a 20-year career at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. While there, he handled complex litigation, including asbestos and anti-trust cases.

Judge Hornak was a law school student when he met Mr. McLean in the summer of 1980 at Buchanan Ingersoll. Mr. McLean was a partner and "did the big stuff, where he was leading a team of lawyers," he said.

Judge Hornak was pleased to learn that Mr. McLean, while still on the bench, had walked a paper route with his children in Munhall, delivering the daily newspaper to many houses, including his summer intern's.

Although Mr. McLean presided over and strategized about complicated legal matters, he never hesitated to lend a more direct hand to friends. Judge Hornak recalled that Mr. McLean could often be found in the summer sitting on a bench outside his house listening to a Pirates game on the radio and entertaining neighbors who stopped by with various legal questions.

Mr. McLean served in high-profile roles as a judge and lawyer. He headed the county prison board, was appointed to an investigative panel to assist in settling a 1975-76 teachers' strike and was chosen by President Jimmy Carter to recommend names for a federal judge appointment.

Mr. McLean and his wife of 57 years, the former Emma Jean Baranak, whom he met on a blind date, managed to send all of their children to college.

Despite being surrounded by the ruckus of his brood, Mr. McLean was able to maintain his calm demeanor in both the courtroom and the family room, his daughter, Peg McLean of Park Place, said.

And he was home often. Rather than being a workaholic, Mr. McLean valued balance in his life and made it a priority to be home for dinner and on weekends, Ms. McLean said.

In his later years after retiring from full-time work, Mr. McLean handled mediations and arbitrations.

In addition to his wife, brother and daughter, Mr. McLean is survived by his six other children -- Joan Hussey, Mary Cappetta, Stephen and Michael, all of Pittsburgh, John III of Olney, Md., and William of Dallas -- and 11 grandchildren.

Funeral services were Saturday. Beinhauers Mortuary in Peters handled arrangements.

Donations can be made to the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, 144 DePaul Center Road, Greensburg, PA 15601 or to the Little Sisters of the Poor, 1028 Benton Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

Jonathan D. Silver: or 412-263-1962.

First Published December 29, 2013 11:35 PM

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