Jerome Shestack, 86, renowned legal, political & cultural figure

Posted: August 19, 2011

JEROME J. SHESTACK was a prominent Philadelphia lawyer, a former president of the American Bar Association, a mover and shaker in law, politics and culture.

But he might like to be remembered chiefly for his record on human rights.

Shestack, who died yesterday at age 86, was appalled by the violence that people heap upon each other in the world, sometimes seeing it with his own eyes, and ached to do something about it.

As chairman of the International League for Human Rights and the U.S. representative on the United Nations Human Rights Council, Shestack often gave voice to his feelings.

After leading a delegation of human-rights leaders to the violence-ridden Balkans in 1993, he said, "It is a bitter, disillusioning and dispiriting experience to see that people can treat each other with such brutality as we approach the 21st century.

"The human-rights movement is like Sisyphus," he said at the time, referring to the figure in Greek mythology condemned to push a rock up a mountain only to have it repeatedly roll back down.

But after recording the horrors committed by all sides in the Balkans, he said it was important to have faith that things will improve.

"The alternative to having faith is despair," he said.

He decried those who remained silent in the face of atrocities.

"It is only a short step from silence to complicity," he said on another occasion.

Jerome Shestack was a retired partner in the law firm of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis. For a time, he was associated with the firm of Wolf Block.

The National Law Journal ranked him as one of the "100 most influential lawyers" in the United States.

Shestack was active in Democratic politics and was a member of the Democratic Party's platform committee at the national convention in San Francisco in 1984.

He was an important influence on Democratic politics through the years and was a mentor to a number of candidates for public office in Philadelphia.

Shestack was president of the American Bar Association from 1997 to 1998, and chaired the ABA's Center for Human Rights. He was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to be the U.S. representative to the U.N. Human Rights Council in 1979, a post he held until 1980.

Shestack was a Navy veteran of World War II. He served as a gunnery officer on the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga in the Pacific Theater, and was wounded in a kamikaze, or suicide, attack by the Japanese. He was saved from greater injury because lunch that day was pork and, as a Jew, he didn't eat that, thus avoiding the deck that bore the brunt of the attack.

In some quarters, Shestack was most famous for being the husband of KYW-TV anchor Marciarose Shestack, who in 1971 became the first woman to anchor a prime-time newscast in a major market.

Her husband managed to keep his sense of humor when he was sometimes referred to as "Mr. Marciarose."

He also was known for being the father of Hollywood film producer Jonathan Shestack, a champion of the cause of autism in children because he has a child with autism.

Jerome Shestack was a consultant on Jonathan's film "The Young Philadelphians," starring Paul Newman. The father's name shows up twice among fictional lawyers' names in a lobby directory.

Jerome Shestack was born in Atlantic City to Isidore Shestack and the former Olga Shankman. He received his bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1944, and his law degree from Harvard in 1949. He married Marciarose Schleifer in 1951.

As editor of the Harvard Law School Record, he covered the 1948 Democratic Convention in Philadelphia at which South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond stomped out of Convention Hall with a delegation of "Dixiecrats" over a civil-rights plank.

In an interview in 2003, Shestack decried the popular image of the "Philadelphia lawyer" as a "pettifogger," an unscrupulous conniver. He noted that the Merriam-Webster dictionary listed "Philadelphia lawyer" as part of the definition of the word.

"The pejorative use was very unfortunate," Shestack said. "I think today the term is not a pejorative anymore."

Shestack was a former member of the SEPTA board.

He was also active in Jewish affairs. He was on the board of the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee. He was a former president of Har Zion Temple, then in Wynnefield, when it was Philadelphia's largest Conservative congregation. The synagogue is now located in Penn Valley.

He was also chairman of the American Poetry Center and director of the American Poetry Review, which awards a prize in his honor.

Besides his wife and son, he is survived by a daughter, Jennifer.

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