Jerome J. Shestack, 88, lawyer and human-rights leader

Jerome J. Shestack led bar association, served at U.N.
Jerome J. Shestack led bar association, served at U.N.
Posted: August 20, 2011

Jerome J. Shestack grew up with his parents and grandparents in an Atlantic City boardinghouse until he was 7 years old.

Both his grandfathers were rabbis and, his family recalled, he spoke Hebrew and Yiddish before he began to speak English.

But he was a fast learner.

Mr. Shestack, 88, the Philadelphia lawyer who was president of the American Bar Association in 1997 and 1998 as well as an international human-rights leader, died of kidney failure Thursday, Aug. 18, at his home in Center City.

President Jimmy Carter named Mr. Shestack U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in 1979.

Mr. Shestack was president of the International League for Human Rights from 1972 to 1991, except for his two years at the United Nations.

But poetry was also a compelling interest.

A 1987 Inquirer story reported that the fourth annual symposium of the American Poetry Center attracted to Philadelphia such figures as Maya Angelou, John Ashbery, Robert Bly, and Donald Hall.

Mr. Shestack, who was chairman of the center at the time, said: "There are more poetry readings here than in any city in the country outside New York."

And, he said, "I don't know any other city that has so many major corporations involved in supporting poetry."

In Philadelphia, Mr. Shestack sometimes shared the limelight with his wife, Marciarose, a news anchor and talk-show host at KYW-TV, now CBS3, in the 1960s and 1970s.

But he also attracted attention for his own work.

"We lost a great one," William T. Robinson III, president of the American Bar Association, said Friday.

"With his tireless work for human rights and the rule of law," Robinson said, "Jerry Shestack made a positive difference in the lives of so many, not only in our country but around the world."

Robert Arsenault, president of the International League for Human Rights, said on Friday that "Jerry's dedication to the law and to human rights was a guidepost to a generation of activists in the U.S. and abroad. He was a mentor to many and an inspiration to many more."

'Natural-born leader'

Rudolph Garcia, chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, said in a Friday statement: "In every sense, Jerome Shestack was the consummate Philadelphia lawyer.

"He exemplified the ideals of keen intellect, personal character, and professional commitment.

"He was," Garcia said, "a natural-born leader and international human-rights advocate who was a treasured friend and colleague to countless lawyers, judges, public officials, and ordinary citizens."

In a statement Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Mr. Shestack "a committed public servant and a dogged defender of human rights."

His son, Jonathan, said that Mr. Shestack graduated from Overbrook High School in 1940 and earned a bachelor's degree in history and economics at the University of Pennsylvania in 1943 in an accelerated program for potential Navy officers.

In World War II, he was a gunnery officer on the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga.

"Though wounded in a kamikaze attack," when Japanese planes were diving into American ships, his son said, "he always credited his religion with saving his life."

Because lunch that day was pork chops, forbidden to observant Jews, his son said, Mr. Shestack's religion "caused him to avoid the officers' mess that bore the brunt of the attack."

From 1989 to 1992, Mr. Shestack was chairman of the American Jewish Committee's Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights.

'Justice for all'

In a Friday statement, AJC executive director David Harris said that Mr. Shestack "was a brilliant, dynamic, and effective advocate for human rights and the Jewish commitment to justice for all."

"Motivated by his deep roots in Jewish tradition, he championed the plight of those abused and excluded worldwide," Harris said.

Harris said that Mr. Shestack was chair of AJC's foreign affairs commission in 1975, a member of the AJC board of governors from 1993 to 2009, and chair of the committee on conscience at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

After his World War II service, Mr. Shestack graduated from Harvard Law School in 1949, then taught for a year each at Northwestern and Louisiana State Universities.

He became first deputy city solicitor in Philadelphia in 1951. From 1955 to 1991 and again from 2009 he was with the Philadelphia firm of Schnader, Harrison, Segal & Lewis.

David Smith, chairman of the firm, said on Friday that "Jerry lived his life according to the biblical command: Justice, justice, shall you pursue."

Mr. Shestack was with the former Philadelphia law firm Wolf, Block, Schorr & Solis-Cohen from 1991 to 2009 and chaired its litigation practice.

A Schnader appreciation of Mr. Shestack's work said that he was a founder of the American Bar Association's Pro Bono Center and a founder of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.

His son said Mr. Shestack was "a founding member and the first executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law," the first chair of the ABA Commission on the Mentally Disabled, and a chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid.

Among his honors were the ABA Medal and the Gruber Foundation's Justice Award.

An active Democrat, he worked in the presidential campaigns of Adlai Stevenson and was a member of the platform committee for Walter Mondale's 1984 presidential campaign.

Besides his wife and son, Mr. Shestack is survived by a daughter, Jennifer Doss, and five grandchildren.

Services were set for noon Sunday, Aug. 21, at Har Zion Temple, 1500 Hagys Ford Rd., Penn Valley.

Donations may be sent to Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Suite 400, 1401 New York Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005.

Contact staff writer Walter F. Naedele at 215-854-5607 or

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