Retired Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Thomas “Tam” Strong Wilson did not cotton to inequality, especially toward African-Americans, according to his lifelong friend, Joe Lang Kershaw, Jr.
When Wilson, J.D. `71, died in 2015, he directed a generous gift to Miami Law, specifying it be used for minority scholarships. Some of the beneficiaries of his estate were his four best friends – Kershaw, Bruce Alter, Rob Walker Freer, J.D. `74, and David Peckins, J.D. `76, and their wives – who would, in turn, honor his name and his wishes to endow the scholarship that bears his name.
Deana Kershaw, Joe Lang Kershaw and Lauren Maddox
"Tam was motivated by a clear sense of right and wrong, balanced with genuine compassion and concern for others," said Kershaw, a retired general magistrate. "Tam could not tolerate prejudice regarding another person's race, gender, or sexual orientation, and he was particularly concerned about bias toward the African-American community. It was his wish that a scholarship be created for minority scholarships and we, his friends, also wanted to ensure that his legacy and impact will endure."
The first recipient of the Honorable Judge Thomas S. Wilson, Jr. Endowed Scholarship is cut from much the same cloth, with a similar duty-bound sense of empathy. Lauren Maddox has managed cases for children in foster care at Miami Law's Children and Youth Law Clinic, and had her paper, "His Wrists Were Too Small: School Resource Officers and the Over-Criminalization of America's Students," published in the University of Miami Race and Social Justice Law Review. In it, Maddox addressed the militarization of local police and how it has bled into police in schools and school resource officers, negatively impacting students.
A Miami native, Maddox first became interested in law while studying political science at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she received a B.A. in political science in 2013. As a break from her pre-med curriculum, she took a few law courses "for fun. The first was a 100-level course on U.S. politics; next came political strategies. By ‘Ethics and the Law,’ I was sure it was what I should be pursuing," she says. "It was interesting, it was challenging, and chemistry was not."
Now a third-year law student, Maddox is looking forward to entering the profession and is showing a proficiency and passion for contract and transactional law. Her ultimate goal is to become a general counsel, and her work at Miami Law will always be an important component.
"Joe Kershaw speaks so highly of Judge Wilson's commitment to social justice and equality," Maddox said after spending time with Joe and Deana Kershaw at the Donor Scholarship Luncheon. "He said even if Judge Wilson did not rule in a party's favor, they would shake his hand out of respect because Judge Wilson was fair. Through Mr. Kershaw, I understand how Judge Wilson carried out his ideals.”
FRIENDS FOR LIFE
Wilson was born in Portland, Oregon, and reared in Garrett Park, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. His father was a labor relations judge for the National Labor Relations Board; one of his relatives had been the first federal judge in the Oregon territories. Another, William Strong, was a President Ulysses S. Grant nominated Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1870 to 1890. Both Tam and his brother James would become lawyers.
Freer was a few years behind Wilson in elementary school, but the two became friends when Freer was in the second or third grade. "I always looked up to him," Freer says. "He was my closest friend when I was growing up, my role model, and later my mentor."
Wilson studied at Dickinson College, a small liberal arts school in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, before coming to Miami Law. After his first year, he took a one-year sabbatical, to serve in the U.S. Navy. He returned, graduated, then clerked for Florida Supreme Court Justice James C. Adkins, Jr.
Freer would go on to law school and selected Miami Law because of Wilson. "He guided me throughout my life," the J.D. `74 says. "As I told Tam often, I would not be where I am today if it was not for him."
The friendship endured, extending to Freer's wife, Kathryn Patchen Freer, and the couple's children, Walker and Hallie. "My wife and I wanted to honor him for all that he has done for my family and me over the years," Freer said, who went on to become a managing director at the University of Virginia Investment Management Company. "An endowed scholarship, in a small way, will help to defray the cost of getting a legal education for minority law students who may need financial assistance."
Wilson eventually joined the Dade County Public Defender’s Office for some years. There, in 1974, Wilson would meet a young intern with whom he would form a lasting bond: Joe Lang Kershaw.
"I was an intern trying a case and needed a supervising attorney," Kershaw says. "Tam was the only attorney available, so I guess he drew the short straw. I was at Florida State University for law school, and we got talking about with Tallahassee and Judge Atkins. My father was a legislator, and they were friends. After a while, Tam excused himself and returned a bit later.
"'Atkins says that if I would be as good a friend to you, as your father was to him, I would have a lifetime friend,'" Kershaw recalls. "He became the brother I never had."
H.T. Smith, J.D. `73, a current member of the UM Board of Trustees and long-time civil rights advocate, was also at the public defender's office. Smith and Kershaw had known each other from their grammar school days, and Smith and Wilson were colleagues who became friends. Alter and Kershaw knew each other from FSU and now he, too, was at the Office of the Public Defender and roomed with Wilson for several years. Peckins came in as Smith's intern – by the time Kershaw was also an assistant public defender like the others – and completed the circle of friends.
"We became close friends and golf partners for more than 40 years," Peckins says. "It was Judge Wilson's desire throughout his lifetime to help those who needed and deserved the help the most. This gift helps in a small way, to advance his hopes for the future and his enduring belief in men and women who will make a difference for those with whom they may come in contact."
Peckins and his wife Miriam are the third of the four couples giving the gift. Alter and his wife Connie are the fourth. Peckins and Alter are still practicing criminal defense attorneys in Miami.
Wilson went on to join Janet Reno's State Attorney’s Office as a prosecutor before being appointed in 1990 by Governor Bob Martinez to the Miami-Dade Circuit bench, a Democrat appointed by a Republican. He was subsequently re-elected in 1990, 1996, 2002, and 2008, running unopposed. He resigned from the bench in October 2009. Highly respected, Wilson was ranked in the top five "exceptionally qualified" in his final Dade County Bar Association Judicial Poll, out of 123 judges.
Wilson is probably best remembered for presiding over the most publicized voter fraud case in Miami-Dade County history, when Joe Carollo challenged the legitimacy of City of Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez's election, citing voter fraud, in 1998.
"Tam considered it his duty and obligation to help those who were not of privilege," Kershaw said. "The four of us wanted to endow the scholarship in Tam's name will ensure that something survives of his judicial legacy and will serve as a reminder of his impact on so many lives, his imitable integrity and sense of justice, and his enduring compassion for all those whom he met."
"It was the right thing to do," added Deana Kershaw.