Prominent in law, but with a special swing

William F. Hyland
William F. Hyland
Posted: March 07, 2013

William F. Hyland, a New Jersey attorney general in the 1970s who argued the Karen Ann Quinlan "right-to-die" case before the state Supreme Court, fought back challenges to Atlantic City gaming in its nascence, and wailed on clarinet with Benny Goodman, died of complications of a stroke on Saturday, March 2, in Moorestown.

He was 89, with a brimful resumé in public service.

During a career exceeding 50 years, Mr. Hyland moved in and out of private practice. Those occasions often were commas in a lengthy list of Democratic Party posts, an elected office, and several gubernatorial appointments of increasing gravitas.

In 1953, just four years out of law school, he won a seat in the New Jersey General Assembly. Five years after that, he was speaker. By 1961, he was president of the Board of Public Utilities; by 1968, head of the new Commission of Investigation, routing out mobsters; by 1974, the state's chief law enforcement officer.

"He was an extraordinary package of talent," said Robert J. Del Tufo, first assistant attorney general during Mr. Hyland's four-year term and, later, U.S. attorney for New Jersey as well as attorney general. "Bill Hyland was somebody we should have everywhere in public life. He had absolute integrity. He was dedicated to serving the public, not himself."

Into his 70s and 80s, Mr. Hyland did not march to a public-service beat so much as swing to it.

A gifted clarinetist, he met Goodman in 1976 at the Waterloo Jazz Festival in Sussex County.

A promoter convinced the fractious King of Swing to let the attorney general briefly share the stage. As Mr. Hyland warmed up, Goodman was shocked by his ability.

The bond between the two grew so tight that they made annual treks to Nova Scotia to fish and play duets in the wild. Goodman named him coexecutor of his estate. Upon his death in 1986, Mr. Hyland was entrusted with the momentous task of reviewing his idol's unreleased recordings and arrangements, deciding what to make public, and overseeing the dispersal of his musical trove, including clarinets.

Long ago, politics and music played tug-of-war with Mr. Hyland. Born in Burlington and raised in Camden, he was the grandson of the locally illustrious Emma Hyland, who dived into Democratic politics the minute women won the right to vote in 1920, and became the party's county coleader. In 1934, Franklin D. Roosevelt named her postmaster of Camden, a title she kept until her death in 1945.

He also was the son of a sax enthusiast who insisted that his four sons master an instrument. Young Bill was sent to study with Michael Guerra, the Philadelphia Orchestra's principal clarinetist.

Eventually, though in death, Emma Hyland won.

Mr. Hyland, whom she had towed to rallies as a child, often cited her as his foremost inspiration.

After graduation from Camden High School in 1941 and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in 1944 with an accounting degree, he went to war. As a Navy lieutenant (junior grade) in World War II, he took part in the Battle of the Atlantic as well as fighting at Iwo Jima and Luzon.

Mr. Hyland emerged not wanting to be an accountant. By then married, he got his law degree from Penn in 1949 and founded the firm of Hyland, Davis & Reberkenny in Camden and Cherry Hill.

In 1953, at the behest of his grandmother's confreres, he ran for the General Assembly. At 35, he became the first Democratic speaker in 22 years.

When his term ended, he returned to his law firm.

"There are many sacrifices in government work," said his son, William Jr. "The reality was, he had a family to support," one that would expand to six children.

Time and again, Mr. Hyland was called away from private practice by governors asking him to chair commissions - the most significant of these from Brendan P. Byrne in 1974.

Within a year of becoming attorney general, he was drawn into one of the century's knottiest moral and legal questions.

Karen Ann Quinlan had been in a coma for months after ingesting tranquilizers and alcohol. Her parents went to Superior Court to force doctors to disconnect her respirator so she might die - a decision that had never before fallen to a U.S. court.

Representing the state, Mr. Hyland contended that the judicial system did not have such authority, and warned that such "a knowing, intentional act" was "homicide."

His argument won in Superior Court, but not in the state Supreme Court. Quinlan was taken off a respirator in 1976, but she lived 10 more years.

Mr. Hyland's tenure also coincided with the rise of casinos in Atlantic City. Although an early foe who feared the infiltration of organized crime, he directed the legal defense of gaming in the wake of the referendum endorsing it. He also laid the foundation for the Division of Gaming Enforcement.

In 1978, he returned again to private practice - only to be recalled by Byrne to head the Sports and Exposition Authority that ran the Meadowlands.

In 1986, rather than rejoin the firm he founded, Mr. Hyland became a partner in Riker, Danzig Scherer, Hyland & Perretti in Morristown.

Upon his retirement in 2006, he moved to the Evergreens, a Moorestown retirement community, with his wife, Joan, who died four years ago.

Until about a year ago, his son said, Mr. Hyland was playing his clarinet.

Surviving, besides his son, are daughters Margaret, Nancy Wiley, and Emma McCormack; sons Stephen and Thomas; 12 grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; a sister and a brother.

Viewings will be from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday, March 8, and 9 to 10 a.m. Saturday, March 9, at McChesney Funeral Home, 30 W. Main St., Moorestown. A Funeral Mass will follow at 10:30 a.m. at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, 42 W. Main St., Moorestown. Interment will be in the mausoleum of Calvary Cemetery, Cherry Hill.

Donations may be made to Sacred Heart Church, 1739 Ferry Ave., Camden, N.J. 08104, or St. Vincent Academy, 228 W. Market St., Newark, N.J. 07103.

Contact Kathleen Tinney at 610-313-8106.

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