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Jenkins: Brightness of an 'enduring light'

July 3, 2013 

They are two of his best friends and two of the best lawyers there are, Robert McMillan often says of Wade and Roger Smith, the brothers-in-the-law of Raleigh who now are legend. Perhaps the most oft-quoted quip about them from friends goes: If they’d represented Cain in the murder of Abel, he might have gotten a suspended sentence.

But McMillan’s admiration for the Smiths is returned in multiples. They reminisced recently about their connection to the man called by his peers the dean and conscience of the county bar, on the occasion of the opening of the new Wake County courthouse. McMillan was chosen, along with Wade Smith, to speak to a gathering of dignitaries in new Courtroom 701. In his remarks, McMillan was still guiding younger lawyers and judges, and got their attention when he reckoned that the new courthouse could “become a ‘temple of justice or a ‘chamber of horrors’” and asked the question, “Which will it be?”

What followed was a call for honesty, integrity and courage among lawyers and judges. Never, he said, should a judge give in to pressures “from a frenzied mob or to the crowd in the cheap seats.” He said, “Never forget the most famous case ever tried was when Pontius Pilate pandered to the mob and turned over to the crowd an innocent man to be executed.”

Class was in session.

When Wade Smith broke in as a lawyer (he is the older of the brothers) he worked as an assistant solicitor in Wake County, a job now called assistant district attorney.

He recalls a conversation wherein McMillan’s name came up, and “this lady said, ‘You know, all the people he represents are innocent!” Smith laughed. “Now when you’ve got the community thinking all the people you represent are innocent, that’s pretty good.”

McMillan, now 89, has been in practice since 1949, with time out for service as a Marine officer in World War II and the Korean War. He practiced with his father, the late R.L. McMillan Sr., and with his late brother Archie. He’s now in a firm with veteran attorneys Steve Smith and his son, Duncan McMillan.

Robert McMillan is a familiar sight in downtown Raleigh, always in coat and tie, walking ramrod straight to the Post Office, or to lunch at the Mecca. Younger lawyers often visit him in his Martin Street office. And he remains the patriarch of a large clan of descendants of Scottish missionaries from the Riverton community in Scotland County. (He and his late wife, Virginia Maynard McMillan, had six children of their own.)

But it’s fair to say he has been patriarch as well to a multitude of young lawyers. The lessons remembered were not about legal technicalities, but about character.

“Here,” Roger Smith said, “was Robert’s simple philosophy (about ethics). He said, if the question arises about whether it is proper to do something, then it is not. That’s the kind of advice you got.”

The Smiths learned from McMillan in many ways and in many places: at Boy Scout meetings (McMillan was a long-time scoutmaster), hiking the Appalachian trail. They learned by listening.

“Every time we were on the Appalachian Trail,” Roger Smith said, “I would look over and Robert might be wet, he might be covered with mud...but he would be wearing a necktie. I asked him why, and he said, ‘It just feels like the right thing to do.’”

“We worked with him with the Scouts,” Wade Smith said. “I remember how he worked with these young boys. He had such strong and simple philosophies. If a little boy came up at a campout, and said he was hungry, Robert would offer him a piece of loaf bread. If the boy complained and said he didn’t want any loaf bread, Robert would say, ‘Then you’re not hungry.’”

But McMillan was more than a stern mentor to the Scouts and members of the bar. To close friends such as the Smiths, he revealed a musical, poetic, romantic spirit.

“He loves to sing,” Wade Smith said.” Old songs. ‘Bloody War.’ And we always sang ‘Dear Old Wake Forest’ (the anthem of McMillan’s alma mater). Always, that one.” That was quite a tribute to McMillan, as the Smiths were both Morehead scholars and football players at UNC-Chapel Hill.

And upon combing through those memories, sitting in their well-appointed offices on Fayetteville Street, the wildly successful, now-silver haired Smith brothers start singing parts of those old songs, traveling back in melody and memory, perhaps to younger days beside one of Robert McMillan’s campfires.

And then thoughts returned to the latest honor, to the new courthouse, “The dearest friend I have ever had all my life,” Wade Smith said.

“He is simply, ” Roger Smith said, staring at the ceiling, “...an enduring light.”

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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