Oscar Fendler (1909–2002)

Oscar Fendler was a prominent Arkansas lawyer who, during his nearly seven decades practicing law in Blytheville (Mississippi County), served as a leader of the state bar and worked to improve the administration of justice in Arkansas.

Oscar Fendler was born on March 22, 1909, in Blytheville. His parents, Alfred Fendler and Ray Fendler, were Jews who immigrated to America from Kraków, Poland, around the turn of the century. After moving many times in search of work, the Fendlers eventually settled in the community of Manila (Mississippi County), where they opened a general store. They had four children, of whom Fendler was the eldest.

Fendler attended public school in Manila through the tenth grade, which was the highest grade in the Manila school system. He completed high school in Blytheville in 1926 and then attended the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), where he graduated with a BA in history in 1930. Fendler then attended Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, receiving his law degree in 1933. Eschewing the many prestigious law firms that hired Harvard graduates, Fendler returned home to live with his parents in Manila and open a solo law practice in Blytheville. During those early years in practice, Fendler represented many criminal defendants pro bono. He was the only attorney in Blytheville who represented indigent African Americans caught up in the judicial system. After a few years of solo practice, Fendler joined in a partnership with Cecil Shane, a well-respected former prosecutor and eventual mayor of Blytheville.

Fendler’s legal practice was interrupted by World War II. An officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve (serving as a legal specialist), Fendler was called to active duty in 1942. During the war, he served at several bases around the United States before being transferred to the Pacific Theater. He spent most of the war in the Philippines, with special assignments that took him to Australia and China. Fendler left active duty in December 1945, receiving a Bronze Star for his war service.

Fendler returned to Blytheville to find that his law practice had vanished. His partner Shane had died of a heart attack during the war, and all of the firm’s clients had gone to other lawyers. Accordingly, Fendler had to rebuild his practice from scratch. During this time, he married Shane’s daughter, Patricia, a graduate of Vassar College. They raised two children: their daughter Frances Shane Fendler and Tilden P. (“Chip”) Wright III, who was Patricia Fendler’s son from a previous marriage.

Fendler’s law practice prospered and enabled him to become involved in bar association work. He served as president of the Arkansas Bar Association from 1962 to 1963. He later shifted his attention to the American Bar Association. Fendler was one of the organizing members of the American Bar Association’s Section of General Practice, and he chaired that section in 1966–1967. He also served as a member of the Committee on Legal Aid and Indigents, together with Hillary Rodham (later Hillary Clinton). Fendler and Rodham held opposite views on how legal services should be provided to poor people. Fendler favored an approach called Judicare, under which the government would pay private attorneys to represent poor people in their court cases. Rodham advocated successfully for the Legal Aid model, under which attorneys are paid by the government to work full-time representing the poor. Despite their differences, Fendler and Rodham respected each other professionally and became friends.

In addition to his bar association work, Fendler took on many pro bono clients and causes. His most celebrated case was that of James Dean Walker, who had been wrongfully (in Fendler’s opinion) convicted of killing a North Little Rock (Pulaski County) policeman in a shootout following a bar brawl. Together with Bill Bristow, another Harvard-educated lawyer from Jonesboro (Craighead County), Fendler took three appeals to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and filed two petitions for certiorari (an order seeking judicial review) to the U.S. Supreme Court. Walker was finally freed.

Fendler was also dedicated to penal reform. He persuaded the U.S. District Court to order the closures of the county penal farms in Mississippi County and Phillips County, in the latter case in conjunction with Bart Mullis, a Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) lawyer. He also persuaded U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Eisele to order the county jail in Forrest City (St. Francis County) to stop its unconstitutional operations. Governor Winthrop Rockefeller appointed Fendler to the Arkansas Board of Pardons and Appeals, on which he served for three years.

In 1970, Rockefeller appointed Fendler as a member of a special commission to investigate explosive racial relations in Forrest City, and that commission’s report to the governor was instrumental in quieting the situation. During these years, Fendler, joined by Richard Sheppard Arnold (who later became chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit), represented citizens in Conway County and Crittenden County against corrupt county officials. These suits produced large judgments against these officials for recovery of public money.

Fendler died of a heart attack on December 23, 2002, at his home in Blytheville. At that time, he was ninety-three years old and still practicing law. He is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Blytheville.

For additional information:
LeMaster, Carolyn Gray. A Corner of the Tapestry: A History of the Jewish Experience in Arkansas, 1820s–1990s. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.

Obituary of Oscar Fendler. Blytheville Courier News, December 26, 2002, p. 6.

Frances Fendler
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
William H. Bowen School of Law

Last Updated: 07/19/2018

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