In Memoriam George P. Wanty

OCTOBER 16, 1906

At the opening of court on Tuesday, October 16, 1906,  Mr. ROGER W. BUTTERFIELD, of Grand Rapids, presented the following memorial, prepared by a committee of the Grand Rapids bar, and moved that it be placed upon the records of the court:

GEORGE PROCTOR WANTY, judge of the United States court for this district, died suddenly in London, England, July 9, 1906.

The bar of the district and the State wish to place of record some tribute of love and admiration, though we realize such tribute must be meager at the best.

When men whom we have known and loved go from among us in the ordinary course of events, and their taking off gives us no surprise, we find it hard to make fitting tribute to their character and place in the community and the world. The shock of the news of Judge WANTY’S death, from which we have not recovered, and shall not soon recover, makes the effort to properly express our appreciation of the man more difficult still.

All his life was lived in Michigan, and all his professional career was passed in our city. For nearly thirty years Judge WANTY has lived in Grand Rapids, and was, from his first day here, prominent in the life of the town.

His mark as a lawyer was made almost at once upon entering the practice, and from humble beginnings he grew sturdily, steadily, and rapidly, and by his own unaided efforts, to a prominent place in the ranks of the lawyers of the State. He grew constantly in learning, practical efficiency, and prestige, until by his merit and worth he earned the eminent position at the bar that was properly rounded out by his appointment to the bench of the Federal courts.

Those of us who have known him through his whole career need no refining of thought or words to explain his character or his success. It is the old story of daily duty done when and as it should be done—with his might. Equipped with a sound intllect and dauntless heart and spirit, he made them all tell in results by his untiring application. Each item of work that came before him was instantly attacked and unceasingly hammered at without delay or procrastination, until it was done and the best of his well-fibred brain was in it. In his office or in the courts he was eager and keen to dispatch his work, but it was not in a spirit of impatience that problems were approached. Whatever impatience he may have shown with men with whom he had to deal (for he was human), he was never impatient with the questions to be solved; those were always threshed out to the last kernel of truth and justice as he saw it. Indefatigable worker at desk and bar, he was loyalty itself to the interests in his charge and the persons of his clients.

His career at the bar was an incentive to all that worked with him or against him, and remains such to all those who wish to emulate a life of thoroughgoing work in the attainment of the good and the right.

In practice he was pre-eminently an advocate. Grounded in his cause, he was eager to win for the doing of what he regarded as justice. He believed in the securing of justice through organized courts, and he believed in the courts as the only safe agency for the working out of the substantial rights of a dispute; and however strenuous his insistence upon his own side of a cause, the final result, even when against him, was a righteous one, because worked out through the tribunal in which he believed. His unbending faith in the court as an institution made him a better judge and helped him to sink those habits of advocacy that a long and busy practice had made very deep.

He carried to his judicial seat the learning so diligently acquired, his habit of thorough investigation, and the same promptness that characterized his work at the bar.

It would be rash to attempt at this time any extended estimate of his work as a judge. We believe that he repaid to his government the honor bestowed upon him in his appointment, by maintaining, at its best, the character and reputation of the courts over which he presided, for learning, dispatch of business, and righteous judgment. He was a worthy successor of Judge WITHEY and SEVERENS, which is high praise indeed.

He was one of the State’s best citizens.

His views of life were clear and his appreciation of his duties distinct. In public matters as well as private those duties were imperative with his conscience, impelling action. Beliefs and convictions ruled him, not uncertain opinions, and he could be and was as emphatic as a partisan where a conviction of his own was involved, and he matched the depth of that belief with the vigor of his expression.

Suspicion never rested upon his honor or integrity as a man or a judge, and words can say no more in that behalf.
Faithful and loyal friend! “There’s the respect that gives us pause.” Pain hinders speech.

Courteous, manly, and considerate with all in his daily habit, to his intimates he was indeed “grappled with hooks of steel.” At fifty, his work was well rounded and his attainment much beyond that of the multitude who live out all their years, and so his life cannot be called incomplete; but for his love and friendship we could wish for yet uncounted years.

Continuing, Mr. BUTTERFIELD said:
In presenting to this Court the memorial prepared by the committee upon whom that duty devolved, I am not unmindful of that large and impressive meeting in that house of mourning, the court-room where Judge WANTY was accustomed to preside, nor of the part which this court took in honoring the dead by their presence there, and by their active participation, in the exercises which there took place, through one of the members of this court who was able to speak so understandingly of Judge WANTY, because he spoke not simply as one judge of another judge, or as one lawyer of another lawyer, but because he spoke as a friend speaking of a friend. No man can expect to voice so well the general sorrow as it was voiced in the words spoken there.

And yet it has seemed to me, that in this, the highest court of the great State of which he had become a distinguished citizen; the court where more than anywhere else he had formed his character and won his reputation as a lawyer, it is becoming that some special consideration be given to the life and career of Judge WANTY.

GEORGE P. WANTY was a native of this State. He was born March 12, 1866, at Ann Arbor. His father and mother, Samuel and Elizabeth Proctor Wanty, came to this country from England in 1853. The death of his father while he was a child made it necessary for him to assume, at a very early age, the responsibility which usually comes with later years. His primary and academic education was received at the common and high schools of Ann Arbor. By his own efforts he accumulated the means of attending the law department of the University of Michigan, from which he graduated in 1878. Immediately thereafter he commenced the practice of his profession at the city of Grand Rapids, and he continued in active practice until his appointment as judge of the United States court for the Western District of Michigan, in March, 1900.

During the earlier years of Judge WANTY’S career, I knew him intimately, and, although by the revolution of the wheel of things to which we are all bound, I was not brought so closely into association with him in the later years, the friendship then formed continued during his life.

I suppose the last and most decisive test of a man’s character is to be found in his ideals and the methods he used for achieving them.

As a young man he took life very seriously. He had thought out clearly the things that to him seemed worthy for a man to accomplish, in life, which were to be to him the best things, and he followed those best things which he had selected with a rare steadfastness to the end. His ideals were not only high, they were distinct and clean cut. The good for which he struggled was a practical good, a possible good, a good that could be accomplished. Distinctness characterized all the operations of his mind and affected his intellectual and moral attitude. I have met very few men whose effectiveness was so little impaired by vagueness of conception.

But it was in the method of the pursuit of these ideals that we find what is most remarkable, it seems to me, Judge WANTY’s life. I find it difficult to put into words exactly what I mean. The best phrase to express it is one which, as ordinarily used, means something very different, and yet, stripped of its theological meaning, it does contain the idea that I desire to express. I think Judge WANTY was a man of profound faith. With a clear mind and a firm intellectual grasp, he comprehended the good which was to be accomplished. He had a heart which drew him towards that which was good, and a will that held him persistently and firmly to its accomplishment. And in his life there was the inspiration of the belief that that which was good could be accomplished, and that the accomplishment of it was the only worthy life work of a man. Convinced that the thing ought to be done, it came to him as a logical conclusion that it could be done, and the next thing with him was the doing of it. In the language of Holy Writ, it seems to me it could be said of him that this, his faith, was his triumph. It influenced and guided his whole life in all its relations.

He had faith in himself. It was the farthest from vanity. It was born of the consciousness of a strength that had been tried, of a sincere, honest purpose, of a consciousness of the great forces that help the man who is trying to do his duty as a man.

He had faith in his friends. He gave to them rare loyalty and generous service, and the very manner of the giving called forth rare loyalty and generous service in return. So that he was most fortunate in life in that he was not only surrounded by loyal and generous friends, but, giving the best himself, he had the happy faculty of drawing the best from those around him, and lived in the atmosphere that comes from the best of human friendship.

He had faith in American citizenship, in the possibility of the accomplishment of better things in our political and municipal life. He was not one of those patriots of whom Cicero said that they are always pointing out what other people ought to do. In those contests which had for their purpose the creation of a clean municipal life, in the preservation of law and order, he took an active part, always speaking and acting as one who believes that a better municipal life is a possibility which can be achieved.

He had faith in the administration of justice. He recognized it as one of the most important, if not the most important, factor in the maintenance and growth of a civilized community, and that only through a proper administration of justice is a high type of civilization possible. He was a lawyer, and, as such, he recognized himself as a part of that administration of justice, and to worthily participate in the administration of justice was his life work. He believed, and it was to him an inspiration, that the life of a lawyer well lived is the most magnificent offering which a man can make to his generation. He gave to it the years of strenuous, earnest, faithful work that filled his life. The years were few in number, but they were great in accomplishment. He gave to it finally that greatest gift which a man can give to the work he loves–his life.
And so it has seemed to us, who, as members of our association, were near to him in life, that his memory, the memory of a man who, as a friend, a citizen, a lawyer, and a judge, kept in his heart the inspiration of his faith and from it wrought out through his life so valuable an offering to his generation, who through it developed so beautiful a character, should be preserved not for ourselves only, but for the sake of those who come after, in the places where he wrought in life, but from which he has passed forever.

We, therefore, respectfully request that the memorial presented be spread upon the records of this court.

 Mr. Justice GRANT responded in behalf of the court, as follows:
My Brothers of the Bar:
A man’s character after his death is what he makes it in his life. Neither the eulogies of friends nor the condemnations of enemies can change it. Our charitable and kindly human nature remembers and cherishes the good in our friends and forgets their errors, whether of head or of heart. Fulsome eulogies will never convert a sinner into a saint and are always out of place. When one’s character requires the mantle of charity to cover it, silence is best. But when one’s character can truthfully be placed in the sky as a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day to guide others, especially the young, into the way of manly living and honorable success, it is due to humanity more than to him to preserve his character in the most lasting form. Then, and then only, should the life and character of the lawyer and the judge be preserved in appropriate language upon the journal of this court and published in its reports.

Such were the life and character of our friend, Judge GEORGE P. WANTY. Your resolutions and the eulogies of his brethren of the bar contain no fulsomeness or exaggeration. They are but truthful statements of his character at the bar, upon the bench, in citizenship and private life. It was my great good fortune to know his personally and intimately for seventeen years. I think I can truthfully say that I enjoyed his confidence, and was thus enabled to better know the man. The door of his beautiful home was always open to his friend, and I frequently walked in to enjoy its generous hospitality. I would not lightly encroach upon the sanctity of that home, but I may be pardoned for saying that if the same kindness, frankness, example, and teaching were found in all the homes of this country, we should have much less crime, misery, and unhappiness.

As a friend, a truer one was impossible.

As a citizen, no one ever had higher ideals or better measured his life by those ideals.

As a lawyer, he rose to distinction and a large clientage by his native ability, his persistent labor, and his rugged integrity. His argument was always an aid to the judges to whom it was addressed. He wanted no winning of lawsuits based upon deception, trickery, or pettifogging. These could no more mix with his nature than will oil with water. He sought to present to the court the law governing the case in hand, that law which should govern not only that case but all similar cases, and accomplish justice between men. His was the success which every lawyer should strive to win–the only success worth winning. He was temperate in all things, unless it was in his arduous study of the law and his loyalty to his clients.

He came to his place upon the Federal judiciary with an equipment possessed by few. His career as a judge was unfortunately too brief, but he won the admiration of all, and his decisions will live as models of clearness and sound expositions of the law.

Perhaps I was too loving a friend, and too great an admirer, to detect his faults, but if he had any which we should bury with his mortal body, I never knew what they were. It is difficult for me to find language adequate to express my appreciation of the virtues and character of my deceased friend. I can truthfully say that Judge WANTY in all his relations, both public and private, lived the life of the “square deal.”

Let every young lawyer follow the trail which he blazed.

 Mr. Justice MONTGOMERY responded further, as follows:
Judge WANTY entered upon the practice of his profession at Grand Rapids at about the date of my own removal there from Oceana county, where I had previously been engaged in practice.

Possibly the fact that we were strangers in a strange city may have led to a closer intimacy. However this may be, our acquaintance soon ripened into a friendship which remained unbroken to the day of his death.

On another occasion I have given some expression to the sense of personal bereavement which Judge WANTY’S death brought to me. It may be fitting that I add my estimate of his character as a man, and his ability as a judge, to the discriminating estimate made by the committee in the memorial presented.

Judge WANTY began practice at an early age. He brought to his work a mind well stored with the elementary principles of the law, but what was of far greater value in his profession, he possessed such earnest convictions as to right and wrong that he could be said to almost have had an instinct for justice.

In the years preceding his preparation for the bar, he had had a business experience which proved to be of exceeding value to him in his practice.

He had trained himself to method in his work; when a case came to him for investigation it was given its place on his office calendar and when that day was reached, unless something most extraordinary had intervened to divert his attention, the investigation was taken up and pursued with a thoroughness such as few men give to such work.

His mind was acute and logical. He had great facility in stating a proposition, whether for the consideration of the court or jury, so clearly and tersely, that it was sure to be understood. From the day of his admission to the bar to the day of his all too early death, his life was a constant development and growth, until he reached such eminence as a lawyer that his appointment as a district judge was considered by his brethren the most fitting that could be made.

Had he lived to the allotted age of man he would certainly have earned, if he should not have attained, the highest judicial position in the land.

Young as he was, it can be said that no man has left a deeper impression on the life of the community in which he dwelt, or done more to elevate the ideals of the bar and bench.

 Mr. Justice BLAIR said:
It was not my good fortune to be intimately acquainted with Judge WANTY, although I have known him personally and by reputation for many years. My attention was first called to him upon the occasion of his prosecuting a civil suit in the Jackson circuit against one of the most prominent merchants of Jackson who was defended by the foremost lawyers of the Jackson county bar. The skill with which Mr. WANTY conducted his side of the controversy, and his complete triumph against what seemed considerable odds, made a marked impression upon my mind which grew more favorable with the passing years.

Judge WANTY combined with tireless industry and an enlightened understanding a lofty enthusiasm in the cause of justice, a beautiful character and equable temperament, which made him equal to all demands and specially fitted him for judicial office. His appointment to the Federal bench was universally recognized as eminently fitting, and his discharge of the duties of his office justified the promise of his professional career.

It was my privilege to appear before Judge WANTY on the hearing of the Railroad Tax Cases, involving the constitutionality of the ad valorem system of taxing railway property in Michigan. I had known him as an able lawyer; his disposition of that important litigation satisfied me that he was a great judge. The luminous opinion which he handed down speaks for itself, and will continue to declare the merit of its author so long as the reports of the exalted tribunal which approved it remain. It must have been a source of just pride to Judge WANTY to learn that he had been deemed equal to the demands of a great case by those most competent to determine. Said the Supreme Court of the United States. “In view of the exhaustive and well-considered opinion of the trial judge, with the general trend of which we concur, it is unnecessary to further extend this opinion. It is sufficient to refer to that opinion for a consideration of those questions.”

Judge WANTY’S opinion is the most fitting monument erected by himself to his memory. Secure against the assaults of time, it will testify to remote generations the merits of a just and righteous judge.

Remarks appropriate to the occasion were made by others, which, unfortunately, were not preserved. The memorial was ordered entered in the journal of the court and printed in the reports.