Benson Wolman, Columbus Ohio Attorney and champion of civil rights

December 1, 2007

Note: Nelson Genshaft is a Small Business Law attorney whose profile can be viewed at
Benson A. Wolman | 1936-2007
Lawyer was champion of poor, civil rights
Saturday,  December 1, 2007 3:08 AM
<p>Benson A. Wolman also wrote hundreds of restaurant reviews under the name Ben Vivant. He was 71.</p>

Benson A. Wolman also wrote hundreds of restaurant reviews under the name Ben Vivant. He was 71.

Attorney Benson A. Wolman, champion of the downtrodden, well-known storyteller and the pen behind hundreds of restaurant reviews, died yesterday at Grant Medical Center. He was 71.


Associates said Wolman was rushed to the hospital from his office at 88 E. Broad St. after falling ill at work.

He was to undergo exploratory intestinal surgery to discover the cause of the illness but died before that could occur, longtime office manager Susan Kretschmer said.

Nationally recognized for his knowledge of constitutional law, civil rights and legal representation of the poor, Wolman led a diverse legal career over the past two decades.

In 2005, he became chief executive and general counsel of the Equal Justice Foundation, a nonprofit agency designed to represent those who are disenfranchised by the legal system.

For the past 16 years, Wolman also dished out restaurant reviews for Columbus Monthly and other publications under the pen name Ben Vivant. He referred to himself in print as "a glutton and wino masquerading as gourmet and connoisseur." He was a member of the International Wine and Food Society and had nearly 3,000 bottles of fine wines in his personal collection.

Wolman was a sought-after speaker on civil-rights and First Amendment issues and loved telling a good story. Before his frequent speeches, Wolman would hand out what he called "standard obituary material" and then implore emcees not to bore the audience with the details, "a task he reserves for himself."

Wolman, of the East Side, grew up in Bexley and often joked that he was Columbus' oldest native liberal.

"He was the best boss ever, very fair and very flexible," Kretschmer said of her 15 years working with Wolman. "He considered all of us colleagues, which is rare for some bosses."

Central Ohio lawyers elected Wolman seven times since 1994 to the Council of Delegates of the Ohio State Bar Association. He also has chaired the association's Media Law Committee.

He served as president of the Central Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and provided pro bono work for civil-rights and human-rights cases.

Nelson Genshaft, one of Wolman's previous law partners, said Wolman was perhaps proudest of his work with victims of the Kent State University shootings. Four anti-war protesters were killed and nine others wounded by Ohio National Guardsman on the campus on May 4, 1970.

"He brought the state government down and forced it to apologize and admit its wrongdoing," Genshaft said. "Benson kept a signed document from (then-Gov. James A.) Rhodes in his desk drawer."

Wolman, who was Jewish, persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that the anti-Semitic Ku Klux Klan should be allowed to erect a cross at the Statehouse.

Eight years later, he led a team of lawyers in the successful appeal by inmate Brian Dalton, who had been sentenced to seven years in prison in Columbus for writing his sexual fantasies about children in a personal notebook. Wolman argued the case turned on governmental "thought police." Dalton was freed after serving 18 months.

Before practicing law, Wolman served as law clerk for Judge George C. Smith in U.S. District Court and served 17 years as executive director of the Columbus branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. He earned his law degree at Capital University Law School and entered private practice in 1988.

He taught Sunday school for 10 years as a member of Congregation Agudas Achim and had served on the boards of trustees of the Hillel Foundation at Ohio State University, the Columbus Jewish Federation and Wexner Heritage Village.

Wolman is survived by his wife, Jerilyn Lazear Wolman; a son, Robert, of Virginia; and a granddaughter, Mia.

Services are being handled by Epstein Memorial Chapel and a funeral is scheduled Monday at Agudas Achim, 2767 E. Broad St.

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