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Robert Spearman

1943 - 2017
Robert Spearman Obituary
Robert Worthington Spearman

January 24, 1943 - December 3, 2017

Chapel Hill

Bob Spearman, an honored trial lawyer who led the legal fight to breathe life into the North Carolina Constitution's guarantee of a sound basic education for all public school students, died on December 3, 2017. The causes were dementia and Parkinson's disease. He is survived by his wife of 44 years, Patricia Hinds Spearman; daughters Madolyn Marschall (Mark Salditch) of Baltimore and Dorothy Marschall of Corte Madera, California; grandchildren Zoe Salditch, Leah Salditch, Ellis Hurtado and Weston Hurtado; and sister Mary Lindsay Spearman of Chapel Hill.

Robert Worthington Spearman was born in Durham on January 24, 1943, the son of Walter S. and Mary E. Dale Spearman. During his formative years in Chapel Hill, where his father was a beloved professor in the UNC School of Journalism, he attended the public schools, delivered the Chapel Hill Weekly for pocket money, became an Eagle Scout, and developed his lifelong love for birds and Carolina basketball. For high school his father, an ardent Democrat, sent him to the Groton School in Massachusetts because President Franklin Roosevelt had gone there. He served as co-captain of the Groton basketball team, graduated first in his class, and was awarded a Morehead Scholarship.

In the fall of 1961, Bob embarked on his near-legendary tenure as a student at UNC, where he compiled a perfect 4.0 academic average and became the first (and only) person in history to be elected president of both the student body and Phi Beta Kappa. He was a member of Chi Psi fraternity, the Order of the Golden Fleece, the Order of the Grail, and the Society of Janus. As Student Body President he and other student leaders worked alongside Chancellor William B. Aycock, UNC President William Friday and Governor Terry Sanford to oppose North Carolina's infamous "Speaker Ban" law, which was the subject of his senior honors thesis. After graduating with highest honors in 1965 Bob attended Oxford University (Merton College) on a Rhodes Scholarship. At Oxford he earned First Class Honors in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and played basketball, where one of his teammates was Princeton All-America and future U.S. Senator Bill Bradley. "The implicit understanding," he said, "was that if Bradley was open and I took a shot instead of passing to him, I would come out of the game."

After graduating from the Yale Law School in 1970, Bob served as law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. At the time neither knew that it would be Justice Black's last term on the Court, or that Bob would help him draft his last and most famous opinion, in the "Pentagon Papers" case. Returning to North Carolina in 1971, he entered private law practice in Raleigh. He practiced with Sanford, Cannon, Adams & McCullough and its successor firms for his entire career, retiring on January 1, 2010 from Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein. Although he handled a wide array of antitrust cases and other complex commercial and business litigation in both state and federal court, Bob was best known for his creative and energetic representation of public school students from poor and rural counties in the landmark case known as Leandro v. State of North Carolina. The Leandro case, which was filed in 1994 and is still pending, resulted in two major State Supreme Court opinions. The first ruled that North Carolina schoolchildren have a judicially enforceable constitutional right to a sound and basic education. The second affirmed a series of later superior court decisions after trials, and held the State had wrongfully denied this right to many State schoolchildren. Bob's Parker Poe colleagues, for whom he was a mentor and role model, are carrying on his fight.

Bob's honors as an attorney included his election to the American College of Trial Lawyers and his service as a director of the American Judicature Society. He served as a faculty member for the National Institute of Trial Advocacy, taught trial practice at the UNC School of Law, and was a frequent lecturer at judge's conferences and lawyer seminars.

He also served as chair of the Wake County Democratic Party from 1979 to 1981, and as chair of the State Board of Elections from 1981 until 1985.

He was a founder and chair of the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research.

Because Bob loved birds, nothing made him more conflicted and flummoxed than a gang of red-bellied woodpeckers who relentlessly attacked the cedar siding on his and Pat's Raleigh home. After several attempted remedies proved to be useless — including placing a fake barred owl and a scarecrow on the roof — Bob essentially declared a unilateral truce and wrote a hilarious essay about the "woodpecker war" that he distributed to friends and family. He also loved good food, good wine, good books, his family, his alma mater, and reunions with his Groton, Carolina, Oxford and Yale friends and classmates.

A celebration of Bob's life will be held at a later date. His family suggests that memorial contributions be made to The Carolina Covenant Scholarships General Fund. Office of Scholarships and Student Aid, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, P.O. Box 1080, Chapel Hill, NC 27514-1080.
Published in The News & Observer from Dec. 5 to Dec. 10, 2017
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