BOOK REVIEW: “Trying Times” by Terry Gilbert, Reviewed by C. Ellen Connally

Cleveland lawyer Terry Gilbert, with the assistance of his co-author Carlo Wolff, bares his soul  in his newly released autobiography Trying Times: A Lawyer’s 50-Year Struggle Fighting for Rights in a World of Wrongs. As the subtitle reflects, the work chronicles his 50 years at the bar. But it is much more than that. Through anecdotes and narratives, Terry tells of his journey from being a lower-middle class  Jewish boy from Cleveland Heights to a nationally known civil rights lawyer.

Along the way we learn of his struggles as a slightly overweight kid who went from an all-Jewish elementary school to a school outside  his neighborhood where he had to a blend in with other segments of the community; his college years at Miami University  that were financed through an Air Force ROTC scholarship and then came Kent State.

The May 4, 1970 shooting of students at Kent State University marked the start of Terry’s activism. Like many Americans, the actions that day of the Ohio National Guard brought the war in Vietnam into their own back yards. It was the day he decided to go to law school.

The reader travels with Terry as he tackles the issue of avoiding the draft and the summer spent in Europe where he searched for his identity. There are his years in law school where he and other students saw problems in the curriculum at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and sought to make changes that brought the law school into the 20thcentury. You follow him as he shows how he took advantage of programs and internships that could help him achieve his goal, especially his involvement with the ACLU.

He is candid in his depiction of his own drug use; life as a part-time rock musician; and the effect the death of his mother had on him and his family. He is particularly honest in his reflections on personal relationships and his search for a  soulmate to share his life. That search  culminated in his marriage to Robin Greenwald, whom he would learn was the flower girl in his brother’s wedding. In a unique touch, she adds her own voice to the story.

The reader travels with the fresh-out-of-law-school Terry to Wounded Knee in 1973 where he first became associated with  William Kunstler, the renowned civil rights lawyer. It was there that he started  his  lifelong involvement with the Native American movement and with Kunstler. But Terry makes it clear that while Kunstler may have gotten the media coverage, there were many foot soldiers who worked in the trenches to make the voices and plight of Native American heard.

Special credit is given to the late Eugene Bayer, an often-forgotten Cleveland lawyer who fought for the oppressed in the legal system long before it was popular. Bayer mentored the young Terry and gave him the practical experience that he needed to earn a living as a lawyer.

For those in Cleveland’s legal community there are many familiar names and places and a walk down memory lane as there are many reflections of lawyers and judges who have served this community. For those who are not familiar with this aspect of Cleveland, it is an insightful look at our system of justice.

The story of Terry’s involvement with Cleveland’s most famous murder case — that of Dr. Sam Sheppard — is interesting, especially since the representation of Samuel Reese Sheppard was such a diversion from the traditional role that Terry has played as a lawyer. For those who have followed the case over the years, this chapter brings a new perspective.

I have known Terry as a lawyer since I first became a judge in 1980. In 1989 Terry and I were a part of a group of Cleveland lawyers who went on a fact-finding mission to Nicaragua. The aspect of the trip that was omitted was that our group were scheduled to take a boat to the Pacific coast of Nicaragua. After a daylong bus ride across county and arriving at a village that was so primitive I was waiting for Humphrey Bogart to pull up in the African Queen, we learned that boat we arranged to take us to our destination had mechanical problems, causing a cancellation of the trip. Disappointed, we returned to Managua. The next day the boat was repaired, and another group of visitors were able to make the journey upriver. We learned later that the Sandinistas rebels fired on  the boat and at least one person was killed and others wounded. That is how close we came to real danger.

When Terry received the distinguished alumni award from Cleveland Marshall College of Law, I was honored to be asked to be one of two presenters to speak on his behalf.  I thought that I knew the man. After reading his biography I truly know his heart and soul and his mission. The reader will come away with insights into our system of justice, and how activists’ lawyers like Terry Gilbert have changed our legal system and our society for the better.

C. Ellen Connally is a retired judge of the Cleveland Municipal Court. From 2010 to 2014 she served as the President of the Cuyahoga County Council. An avid reader and student of American history, she serves on the Board of the Ohio History Connection, is currently vice president of the Cuyahoga County Soldiers and Sailors Monument Commission and president of the Cleveland Civil War Round Table. She holds degrees from BGSU, CSU and is all but dissertation for a PhD from the University of Akron.







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