CHARLESTON – If you live long enough, you’re going to suffer the loss of loved ones. You hope and pray you never have to experience, as too many do, the loss of a child or grandchild.
When a man like Rudy DiTrapano, your legal mentor and friend, lives a full life for 89 years, you're naturally sad but you have an abiding sense of gratitude that he was around so long and so sharp until the very end. 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.
At our firm, he was “Il Capo,” the boss! 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. 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.
We’ve been asked in the last few days to describe him and explain what made him so special. That’s tough to do.
Rudy, first and foremost, loved life! He loved people! 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.
For years, he would say I wasn’t a true thoroughbred, that is, of 100% Italian descent, as he was. My mother was half Greek and half Italian, so I was 3/4ths Italian. I would tell him, "You're just jealous of my Spartan genes (my grandfather was born in a small village just outside Sparta)and besides most Italians were probably originally Greek anyway."
I first met him when I was clerking for Chief Justice Charles H. Haden II, my first legal mentor. Within a short period of time, Rudy and I became good friends. He said that our similar sounding Italian last names (i.e. DiTrapano and DiPiero) and our both being graduates of Notre Dame made it a natural that someday I would have to come work for him. I had seen him in action, both in personal injury and criminal defense cases, and those areas appealed to me and the way I was raised by my parents, to fight for the underdog.
So, I went from having no idea what I wanted to do as an attorney, to having an ultimate place to go. He suggested after my clerkship that I should go somewhere and get some trial experience which I did for 5 and 1/2 good years at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. When I decided to leave, as promised, he gave me my first job in private practice. That was 1983 and I've been here ever since.
During these early years of our friendship, I would visit him and his family at his home, and it was over a glass of his homemade wine that he turned me on to wanting to see and learn about Italy and my family roots. I attribute my love affair with Italy and my close connection to family and friends there, and now my children’s similar love for the Old Country, directly to Rudy’s influence. I’ve visited there about a dozen times and have loved being there every time.
He always accused me, and I was single at the time, of having an uncanny ability to visit him at dinner time. I was no dummy and whether he or Martha were cooking, I was always getting an exquisite plate of pasta, among other delicious dishes, and lively banter about any number of subjects, like politics, sports, his kids, Notre Dame, Italy, etc. He made me feel like I was part of the family.
Rudy was one-of-a-kind and people from all walks of life loved him. He was confident, but not arrogant. He could find humor in the most intense situations. He loved good wine with good food and fun people. His colleagues and staff here loved him as did our clients. And he had some regular pals he hung out with and they loved the entertainment and friendship he provided.
In fact, that it is a big part of who he was – he was an entertainer! He might drive a judge or an opposing attorney crazy sometimes with his aggressive tactics or novel legal theories, but they loved him too, because a case with Rudy usually ended up being entertaining.
Rudy loved his family. A highlight in the early years was when he would invite you to join him for lunch at his mom's place on Saturdays where she cooked homemade pizza for him and homemade bread for the family for the week. The smells were spectacular as were the pizza and bread. He loved to tease his wife, Martha, about how good she had it being married to him, but down deep he let you see how crazy he was about her.
Behind every good man is usually a better woman, and there is no exception in Rudy's case. He knew he married UP when he betrothed Martha. Her great love and faithful care of him these last couple of difficult years was evident indeed! They experienced the joy and highlights of raising five smart and active children.
Sadly, they experienced the tragic loss of a handsome and beloved son, Lidano, who died June 11, 1983 in a car accident in Florida. Lidano was blessed with many of the same loveable qualities of Rudy – good humor, quick wit, great people skills, etc. That was the saddest day I'd ever experienced in MY life at that point; the pain it brought to Rudy and his family was so hard to witness.
I distinctly recall talking to our investigator, Rudy's close pal for many years, Ray Larzo, the evening of the funeral, and Raymond said, "I don't think Rudy will be able to survive this." Three weeks later Raymond was tragically killed, and Rudy's sorrow was greatly enhanced. Somehow, Rudy and his family carried on.
I joined them on a trip, not long after Raymond's funeral, to Italy and to his roots where his father was born in Sezze. It was indeed a sad time, but you could see some healing occurring as he enjoyed the precious time with his family and Italian cousins in that beautiful setting.
Oh, the stories he could tell and we could share about him. A favorite for many is the one he told about being in front of a judge on a late Friday afternoon, and wanting to put on a witness who had been waiting all day to testify. The judge was tired but said it would be okay if Rudy could promise that the witness would be short. Rudy assured the judge, innocently he always maintained, that he would indeed be a "short witness."
When the judge gave him the go ahead to call his next witness, Rudy announced his name and the bailiff opened the door and a dwarf walked in. Everyone in the courtroom burst out laughing, and the guy not knowing what colloquy had occurred between Rudy and the judge, felt humiliated and was naturally ticked off and turned around and immediately left the courtroom. Rudy never got his testimony.
There was a time in Logan County when he had given two elderly ladies who had been injured in a car accident a list of jurors to go over to see what they might know about any biases the potential jurors might have for or against them. On the morning of the trial when he met with the women, they produced a list and confidently announced which jurors to keep and which to strike.
The women had telephoned all of the people on the jury list, told them what had happened to them in the accident and asked them if they would be for or against them. They proudly told Rudy which ones would be for them. They also said he should strike certain ones who said they would be open-minded but couldn't say which side they would find for until after they heard all of the evidence. Rudy said he quickly went out and settled the case before jury selection commenced and got out of town before he and his two clients got arrested for jury tampering.
Rudy was notorious about having you try cases on your own, but you not knowing about it until the last minute. Or saying he would be making the argument at a hearing and then telling you to go handle it. One time he was sitting in court and asked a young associate what day it was. When he told him the day, he said, "Oh my goodness, my grapes are arriving today in Erie (Pa,) and I got to go get them." He ran out of the courtroom and got his car and headed north to get the precious grapes he had ordered from California for his wine-making! Of course, he took credit for teaching us how to think fast on our feet.
Some of his emails were legendary. Back in 2009, when I had hip resurfacing surgery (instead of a full hip replacement so I could continue to play basketball) at the Cleveland Clinic, I emailed everyone that I was okay but naturally in some considerable pain. I mentioned that when Cheryl stopped in Canton for gas and a sandwich, I had her drop me off at a Holiday Inn so I could see if Tom Watson, who was nearly 60 years (and a few months younger than I was) would win the British Open which I had been following on my cell phone. Here's the response I received from Rudy: "Tim, Both you and Watson are washed up. Divine Providence is visiting pain on you for all the innocent people you prosecuted in the in the U S Attorney's office. All this pain might shorten your days in Purgatory. Rudy"
Here's another example of his self-deprecating wit: Referring to a telephone call from a potential client back in 2012, Rudy wrote us this gem: "I forgot to mention another curious facet of his phone call. The caller noted with interest and commented that one of the reason he called is my 60 years of experience. I would think that most callers might start calculating my age and start to wonder if the body is still warm." That was Rudy!
One more thing I have to add. Rudy was highly opinionated and incredibly competitive. For example, being small in stature, he didn’t give much credit to basketball players especially those who could dunk the ball. He’d say, “what’s so athletic about putting a ball in a hoop. They teach porpoises to make baskets routinely.” And when he played tennis, he got pretty good. I could never beat him, that is, when he was healthy. Every time I won, he would grab his arm in pain or limp like Chester in the Gunsmoke series.
The few times he beat me I never saw him writhing in pain from some physical ailment. One time I made up a pre-match sheet for him to check off and sign. I asked him to check that his legs were fine, no knee pain, his shoulders and back were pain-free, legs and feet okay, he was not suffering any flu-like symptoms and his permanently stiff elbow was good to go. He took one look at the sheet, cussed me and wadded up the page and threw it at me. I beat him that day, but I have to admit, he sure looked like he was in a lot of pain that match.
I could go on and on and my current partners, Sean McGinley, Lonnie Simmons and Rob Bastress could tell you even better stories, I'm sure, as could many former colleagues like his daughter, Lia, and his son, Dante, and Josh Barrett, Rod Jackson, Frank Fragale, Bill Field, Joe Buffa, Becky Baitty, DL Hamilton and Missy Hambrick, to name a few, as could his devoted staff who loved him too.
Who was Rudy DiTrapano? 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.
None of us knows for sure how this afterlife we're all heading to actually works. The Bible says to be absent from the body is to be with The Lord. I once heard a priest describe what dying on this earth is like. He said those of us left behind are like mourners on a shore waving goodbye as we watch a ship carrying our loved one disappear over the horizon. But on the other shore, as the ship comes into view, are overly joyous loved ones waving and jumping and shouting and singing because of the arrival and anticipated reunion of their loved one. I hope that's the case.
Rudy didn't talk a lot about faith, but I recall about 2 or 3 years ago him saying to me after some meaningful event he had seen or read or heard about. I can't recall exactly what precipitated the conversation. But he said to me, "Can you believe that seemingly highly intelligent folks actually believe there's no God." I recall saying something like, "How can the intense love we feel for our loved ones come from some accidental big bang in the cosmos, and not from a loving Creator?"
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! My hope is he's embracing Lidano right now, laughing with his momma and dad, and his brother and sister, toasting a glass of vino rosso with his cousin, Lucio, and ribbing all of his close buddies, too many to name here.
Dante was thoughtful enough to text me and Sean the evening before Rudy died to welcome us to come by and say our good-byes. His good buddy, Sam Supa, was in the room with us and Sam believed, because of Rudy's indomitable spirit and strength, that he would rally and be with us for a while. Sadly for us, but better for Rudy to have his suffering over, he died early the next morning.
I don't know if he understood me, but I got to thank him for the opportunity he gave us and for all the wonderful times that he shared with me and Sean and all the others at our firm. And then I got to grab his arm and pray for him. I was greatly encouraged by Dante’s report that he got to pray with his dad and Rudy was indeed ready spiritually to meet his Maker.
Rest in peace, Rudolfo! We'll miss you, Capo! And love you forever! Our thoughts and prayers and deepest sympathies are with Martha and all of Rudy's family.
DiPiero is a partner at DiTrapano, Barrett, DiPiero, McGinley & Simmons. This originally appeared on the firm's website and was reprinted with permission.