Ted M. Warshafsky

Ted M. Warshafsky
Status: Deceased

(1926 - 2012)

Warshafsky's goal: Making the world right.

He could be in the courtroom fighting against a bad vaccine or marching for open housing, but Milwaukee lawyer Ted Warshafsky was guided by one light:

"Making things right in the world," his daughter Lynn Warshafsky said. That was it. That was everything.

Ted Warshafsky, the man who racked up landmark multimillion-dollar verdicts in personal injury cases and, as a member of Eugene McCarthy's campaign found himself giving a nominating speech at the Democratic National Convention, died Sunday. He was 85 and had suffered a stroke in November.

Michael Tarnoff calls him a courtroom natural. Maybe it was the Marine in him, or growing up poor in Chicago.

"I think he knew he was made to be a trial lawyer," said Tarnoff, who was hired by Warshafsky 49 years ago. "He was willing to fight. He would go the extra mile for all of his clients. He'd bleed for his clients."

In 1976, Warshafsky won what was then the biggest personal injury lawsuit settlement in state history - $3.3 million in a case involving a teenage girl who suffered brain damage in a car crash blamed on a GM part. GM appealed and later agreed on a $3 million payment.

Another major victory was $15 million in 1987 against Wyeth Laboratories, makers of the DPT (diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus) vaccine, brought on behalf of a couple whose daughter was brain-damaged by the vaccine.

The road to becoming the trial lawyer who won millions for clients began simply. Ted Warshafsky wanted to be a farmer.

He was born in St. Louis. His immigrant parents divorced when he was 4. His mother moved to Chicago with Warshafsky and his older brother, Shepard.

Warshafsky started working at age 11, and by 13 he had a summer job buying produce in Indiana and Illinois. He loved the farms he visited. That was it. He'd be a farmer.

First he joined the Marines at age 18, and later went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison on the GI Bill. He was drawn there for its agricultural program. The scenery wasn't bad, either.

"It was just the most beautiful place I'd seen in the world," Warshafsky said in a 2008 interview with Super Lawyers magazine. "We were very poor when I was a kid, and I never saw anything as nice as that."

A friend suggested he consider law school. "I absolutely loved it," he said. "I found a career."

He began practicing law in Milwaukee in 1952 and developed a reputation as a skilled trial lawyer who understood not just law, but also medicine and engineering, Tarnoff said. He was especially good at closing arguments.

"One time he tried a case where the other lawyer was kind of cutting down his plaintiff. Ted, in closing said, 'Whatever Mr. So-and-So said about you, I want you to know, I love you and I think you're a great person.' "

Those who squared off against in him in court confronted an agile opponent.

"When he was at the top of his game, he was the best - really smart, really quick, always well-prepared," said Jim Murray, of Peterson, Johnson and Murray.

"To watch him cross-examine a witness was a joy," Murray said. "He had sort of a folksy approach, but it belied somebody who was smart as a whip and completely prepared."

Warshafsky's need to make things right led to a role in the Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign. Drawn to McCarthy's stand on civil rights and the Vietnam War, he became vice chairman of his campaign. During the volatile 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, marked by bloody riots, Warshafsky was thrust into giving a nomination speech for Julian Bond as a vice presidential candidate.

The McCarthy delegation had just minutes to make the nomination - largely symbolic, since Bond was too young, at 28, to serve. Someone noted that Warshafsky was a trial attorney, and there he was at the podium.

Lynn Warshafsky said her father's legacy with the family includes a cabin on a lake where generations who were spread out across the country come together.

"The old people sing on the porch, the uncles fishing, the cousins kayaking - he kind of created a space for us all to be together," she said.

He also left a legacy of activism that was more than just "sitting around drinking cocktails and saying, 'Isn't it terrible.' "

She remembers an incident when she was a little girl, driving with her father, when he saw a white police officer pull over a young black man.

Ted Warshafsky pulled over, and "he said to me, 'I'm witnessing. The officer sees me, and I'm going to make sure this officer knows, someone is witnessing.' He just sort of made his presence known."

Besides his daughter Lynn, he is survived by daughters Beth and Lisa, sons Michael and Bill, his brother Shepard, his longtime partner, Debra Reidel, and five grandchildren.


To listen to Ted Warshafsky nominate Julian Bond as a vice presidential candidate at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, go to http://bit.ly/R1s02D.
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