Obituary: Joanne Ross Wilder / Family law attorney, legal scholar known for her wit
Share with others:
Joanne Ross Wilder, a nationally known divorce attorney and author of an authoritative textbook on Pennsylvania family law, was famous for her acerbic wit.
A few years ago, during dinner with colleagues in Houston, Texas, Chicago-based lawyer Donald Schiller praised President George H.W. Bush for appointing the first black man to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Oh, really? Did you ever hear of Thurgood Marshall?" Ms. Wilder replied, correctly naming the first black man, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson, to serve on the nation's highest court.
Ms. Wilder, 68, died Monday after a brief illness at her home in Oakland. A zealous advocate for her clients and a legal scholar who taught for more than a decade at the University of Pittsburgh, she served as a role model for women who joined the profession after she earned her law degree in 1969.
Devoted to pro bono work and high ethical standards, she taught trial advocacy at national seminars for the cream of matrimonial lawyers. Tall, blond and trim, Ms. Wilder dressed stylishly, right down to her square-cut jade ring and cobalt blue toenails.
She was born in Rochester, N.Y., grew up in Baltimore and worked as a fashion model while earning her undergraduate degree in College Park at the University of Maryland in 1964. Her mother was a social worker and her father sold insurance.
After college, Ms. Wilder was employed as a social worker during the day and attended law school at night. She was one of three women in a class of 250 students at the University of Maryland who had to walk two blocks to a gas station to use the restroom because the law school lacked facilities for women.
In 1970, she married Bruce Wilder, a doctor who became a neurosurgeon. The couple moved to Pittsburgh in 1972 so Dr. Wilder could serve a residency at what is now UPMC Presbyterian.
While managing the Homewood office of Neighborhood Legal Services in 1973, Ms. Wilder met her future law partner, James E. Mahood, then a second-year law student. They were law partners for 31 years.
"When we were at legal services, she was involved with Pittsburgh Action Against Rape," Mr. Mahood said, adding that Ms. Wilder staffed the organization's crisis hotline in the evenings and on weekends.
By 1976, more than 100 women lawyers were listed in the Allegheny County Bar Association's directory. But they represented a tiny fraction of practicing attorneys, said Westminster College sociology professor Phyllis Kitzerow, who is writing a book about female lawyers in Pittsburgh.
After a two-year stint at the law firm of Raphael, Sheinberg and Barmen, Ms. Wilder established her own firm, Wilder & Mahood, in 1978. "She could be fiercely adversarial when she thought she was right and that someone was misstating the law or the facts," said Gary Gentile, a lawyer who admired her professionalism.
Attorney Chris Gillotti recalled that during the 1970s and 1980s, as additional women began practicing family law, some of them thought they had to be "more macho and more confrontational" than men to succeed.
"Joanne never did that. She brought a sense of elegance and charm to the practice that she never lost. Nothing made you happier than when you were in court, you could find something in her book that was contrary to what she was saying. She took it with good grace," Mr. Gillotti added.
"She was always up to date on every case," said Superior Court Judge Eugene B. Strassburger, adding that while he served in Allegheny County's Family Division, Ms. Wilder was among a half dozen lawyers who gathered regularly in his courtroom to draft child support guidelines that were adopted here.
"They were amazingly close to the ones that the computers hammered out later," Judge Strassburger added.
Attorney Robert Raphael, one of her early mentors, said Ms. Wilder played a role in persuading state legislators to adopt Pennsylvania's no-fault divorce law, which was adopted in 1980.
Ms. Wilder encouraged her husband to attend the University of Pittsburgh law school. While practicing medicine, Dr. Wilder earned his law degree in 1986 and wrote the chapter on assisted reproductive technology in his wife's family law textbook.
"Joanne was very disciplined. She enjoyed writing. She put a lot of time into it," Mr. Mahood said.
Dr. Wilder added that while the couple vacationed during the summer in Kennebunkport, Maine, he often heard his wife dictating book chapters for a new edition at 5 a.m. She also served as editor of the journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, an organization that admits family lawyers who have passed a rigorous test.
Ms. Wilder loved Haitian art, English history and cooking. Her hospitality on New Year's Eve was a longtime tradition.
Besides her husband, Ms. Wilder is survived by a son, Charlie, of Philadelphia; two sisters, Cynthia Ross of Plainfield, Vt., and Diane Henne of Chambersburg, Pa., and one brother, David, of Charlottesville, Va.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Nov. 29 at Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside.
Correction/Clarification: (Published November 17, 2011) Joanne Ross Wilder's maternal grandparents were German immigrants who met while sailing on a boat to America. Her obituary Thursday11/17 misidentified the relatives who were immigrants.
First Published November 17, 2011 12:00 am