CHARLESTON – Prominent Charleston attorney Rudy DiTrapano died Oct. 24.
DiTrapano, who had been battling prostate cancer, was 89. He practiced law for 65 years. He was of counsel with his namesake law firm DiTrapano, Barrett, DiPiero, McGinley and Simmons.
DiTrapano was born in Charleston to Italian immigrants, and he grew up on Cabin Creek. He graduated from Charleston Catholic, and he received his undergraduate and law degrees from Notre Dame.
After law school, he joined the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. He served in the JAG Corps.
During his legal career, his work led to more than 100 published opinions. And he is one of the few West Virginia attorneys who successfully earned an appeal from the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1991 case in which a House of Delegates member had been convicted of federal extortion charges.
DiTrapano also was lead counsel on a case for the West Virginia Board of Investments against Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and other firms. He helped recover nearly $85 million for the state. He also recovered more than $60 million for the state when he helped represent the state Bureau of Employment Programs in a string of cases regarding coal contracts.
He also served as chairman of the state Democratic Party, and he was campaign manager for several gubernatorial candidates.
Rod Jackson co-founded DiTrapano & Jackson and was DiTrapano’s law partner for more than 20 years. That firm became DiTrapano, Barrett, DiPiero, McGinley and Simmons.
“He had a great sense of humor,” Jackson said of DiTrapano. “I saw him about 2 p.m. the day before he died. He was on his deathbed, and he was laughing. He laughed like he always did. He just had a great sense of humor.”
Jackson said he could tell stories about DiTrapano for days. He shared one about DiTrapano’s boxing days. He was a Golden Gloves boxer who ended up boxing in high school, college and in the military.
“He also used to make a little money on the side passing out fliers,” Jackson recalled. “People would pay him $20 or so to pass out a thousand ad fliers. Well, one day, Rudy gets a call from someone wanting him to help advertise his new business. The guy told Rudy he wanted to put an ad on the bottom of Rudy’s boxing shoes.
“Rudy said, ‘Why would you want to do that?’ Then, it hit him that it was a joke about him always being on his back in the boxing ring. He never did find out who called him then.”
Jackson also praised DiTrapano’s courtroom skills. He recalled a disability case in which a coal miner had been injured, but the company wouldn’t pay. DiTrapano represented the miner.
“A week before trial, Rudy told Norman Fenstermaker from Huntington (the defense lawyer) that if they didn’t settle the case that day, there would be no more talk of a settlement,” Jackson recalled. “On the first day of trial, Norman told Rudy the company wanted to settle. Rudy said no and walked away. The next day, Norman tells Rudy the same thing. Rudy sticks his fingers in his ears and runs down the hall of the federal courthouse while Norman is yelling, “Fifty thousand, Rudy! Fifty thousand!’
“Well, by the third day, Norman was so flustered by Rudy that he showed up for court with one black shoe and one brown shoe.”
Jackson said DiTrapano was a great cross-examiner. He recalled a case in which he and DiTrapano were facing famed attorney F. Lee Bailey in a federal court case of Lefty Burdette.
“Rudy is cross-examining Lefty,” Jackson said. “Bailey is objecting to everything. Some are sustained. Some aren’t. Well, Lefty was getting really frustrated. So, Rudy asks him a question, and Bailey objects. Judge (Charles) Haden sustained, but Lefty says, ‘No, I’ll go ahead and answer. I just want this to stop.’ Rudy wore him down, and had Lefty waving the white flag. Bailey didn’t know what to do.
“Rudy had that deep voice. It was kind of intimidating, but people wanted to cooperate, even if they knew they were getting grilled. They figured they might as well answer his questions.”
Tim DiPiero, a partner at DiTrapano, Barrett, DiPiero, McGinley and Simmons, called DiTrapano his legal mentor and friend.
"You have an abiding sense of gratitude that he was around so long and so sharp until the very end," DiPiero wrote on the firm's website and shared with The West Virginia Record. "But some lives touch you and so many others in such profound ways that their death is especially noteworthy and significant. And you find yourself not willing to say good-bye silently.
"That’s the case with Rudy. I've got to publicly thank him and pay tribute to his incredible life."
DiPiero said DiTrapano was known as "Il Capo," or the boss, at the firm.
"Because of him and his reputation as a fighter and highly skilled and effective trial attorney, we were able to work on some of the most interesting and publicized cases in West Virginia," DiPiero wrote. "He liked the tough cases and accused his associates, like me, of wanting to take in and work on only 'the layups.' He got more satisfaction out of taking in the toughest cases and winning them. He did that a lot. But there were times, trust me, when he could be, as my mom and dad used to say in Italian, a 'testa dura,' meaning a 'hard head.'
"When he got focused on a theory or strategy, there was no shaking him. And so we got stuck sometimes working on some impossible cases! We complained but we learned so much, including the importance of caring for your clients in the midst of representing their interests."
DiPiero said his mentor loved life.
He loved people," he wrote. "He loved conversation. He was full of fun and quick-witted and could tell the greatest of stories, including many where he was the brunt of the joke. Of course, he could needle you like no one, and I took great pride and consolation as one of his good friends, because he loved to get on my case. I’m sure going to miss that, and of course, I’m going to miss giving it back to him.
"He was much more than I can describe. He was a man of great passion and compassion, a unique, multi-talented attorney, a fun-loving spirit who loved family and friends, politics, sports, music, wine-making and tasting, good cuisine and on and on. ... There are many who Rudy touched in this life in a profound way and many who will miss him terribly. But what a run he had!"
DiTrapano’s family hosted family and friends during a visitation Oct. 27 at Snodgrass Funeral Home in South Charleston. Funeral mass was Oct. 28 at Blessed Sacrament Church in South Charleston, and DiTrapano was buried at Cunningham Memorial Park in St. Albans.