Beaumont Foundation honors legal giant Joe Tonahill

By Marilyn Tennissen | Apr 3, 2007

Joe Tonahill Jr. addresses media at Lamar University for the announcement of the $100,000 Joe Tonahill scholarship in honor of his late father.

Joe Tonahill may have become known for defending Jack Ruby, but the lawyer from Jasper, Texas, may now be known for helping students go to college.

On April 3, Lamar University and the Beaumont Foundation of America announced the $100,000 Southeast Texas Legends-Joe Tonahill Scholarship. The scholarship will assist under-served individuals who attend Lamar, University President James Simmons said at a ceremony and news conference in the University Reception Center of the Mary and John Gray Library.

For more than 50 years, Tonahill practiced law in Jasper and tried cases across the country dealing with worker protection, product liability and jury reform.

Joe Tonahill was born Nov. 4, 1913, in Hughes Spring, Cass County, Texas, and graduated from high school in Port Arthur in 1932. He died in November 2001 at age 89.

"Joe Tonahill was larger than life, in spirit, generosity and character as well as in stature," Simmons said in a press release. "It is appropriate that this scholarship bear his name, for Joe Tonahill spent his life helping people. This generous gift will enable the name of Joe Tonahill to endure in the lives of students pursuing the dream of higher education."

"Joe was an unusual lawyer, one of a rare breed who could try almost any type of case," the press release stated, quoting his son-in-law, Richard Hile, an Austin lawyer and Lamar graduate who practiced law with Tonahill from 1975 to 1992 in Jasper. "There were no limits on Joe's practice or his imagination."

In November 1963, Tonahill gained national attention when he was employed by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby to defend him against the charge of murdering Lee Harvey Oswald. Oswald had been arrested as a suspect in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Tonahill remained loyal to Ruby even after the Ruby family tried to dismiss him from the case.

"I told them I wasn't getting out of it because this man was facing the death penalty and I had guaranteed him I would go with him all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court," Tonahill said in a 1998 interview. "I was going to keep fighting because I knew this man was ill."

Ruby's conviction was reversed on appeal, and, said Tonahill, "The judge who wrote the opinion complimented me very highly."

"It was a fascinating case, a hard case," he said. "I met a lot of interesting people."

But Tonahill's friends and family say he became a legend for many more reasons than the Ruby case.

"It is the way he treated people, his clients especially," said Mildred Elmore, Tonahill's oldest daughter, said Tuesday. "He did not meet a stranger, and he put himself the same level of the person he was talking to. He did not put on airs . . . He was country, but he was brilliant in the courtroom.

During his lengthy career, Tonahill tried 50 to 60 jury cases a year, from Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama to Colorado, Wyoming, California and New York as well as before the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I always hated to see my cases end because the experience was so exhilarating," he said in a 1998 interview. "I loved the idea of trying cases."

Tonahill joined the American Trial Lawyers Association in 1946 and went on to co-found the Texas Trial Lawyers Association. He also served in the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, International Academy of Trial Lawyers and International Society of Barristers.

The Southern Trial Lawyers Association honored him with its War Horse Award and in 1994 he received the Champion of Justice Award at the American Trial Lawyers Association Stalwarts Banquet in Chicago.

An organization bearing his name – the Tonahill Society – meets once a year to honor him.

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