William Dowdell Denson
It was only a matter of time before William Dowdell Denson would make an appearance here at my blog.
It’s hard to know where to begin in telling you my story about Bill Denson. He was so many things to me: a colleague, a confidante, a mentor, and above all, one of my closest friends.
But as you are about to learn as I did back in 1990, Bill was so much more. And while this remarkable gentleman is no longer with us, he will forever remain a larger than life figure in our American/WWII history.
By the time I met Bill he was 77 years old and in the twilight of his distinguished legal career. I was 29. We would become an unlikely and somewhat inseparable duo. I was marketing director and Bill was of counsel to a prominent Nassau County law firm, Meltzer, Lippe et al, also known as MLG.
The managing partner of MLG had an avant-garde approach to marketing, so it was of no surprise to me when Lew asked me to develop a newsletter that would read more like People magazine than a stodgy corporate bulletin. I instantly latched on to the idea because the concept would enable me to employ my love of digging around for, and writing, good stories.
So began the process of me finding the compelling human interest story behind each lawyer in the firm’s “stable.” I decided to begin my interviews with questions or statements like: “what do you do, or who are you, when you’re not practicing law?” Or, “Tell me something no one knows about you, or your unique story.”
Now, asking a lawyer that kind of a question might seem pretty antithetical if your goal is to communicate and sell the collective legal prowess of a law firm. But, that line of questioning worked wonders in gaining entree to the provocative kind of content I needed to make our new newsletter InSights live up to its People magazine promise. And as it turned out, clients and potential clients responded with great interest and enthusiasm to the back stories of MLG lawyers. It enabled personal and very human connections to take place that broke the ice surrounding the complex legal problems that were often brought to the firm.
I soon discovered there were cantors, dancers, important art collectors, and even a young partner whose father was a renowned accordion artist who, among many incredible recording accomplishments, performed on the soundtrack of the Godfather, as well as appeared in the wedding scene of that same film.
And then I got to Bill.
Bill, was an Alabama-born, West Point, Harvard Law School-educated Atticus Finch-like lawyer who spoke with a charming southern drawl. All of those qualities had a mesmerizing effect that captivated me so I figured, this is going to be easy.
Actually, no, it was not.
Why do you want to know? Bill slowly and defiantly drawled out in response to my question, in a clear effort to make me defend and/or reconsider my plan. His pensive blue eyes were trained on me in wait of my answer. He did not reveal a shred of emotion to allow me to get a read on how I was doing, or where to go from there. (This, I later came to understand, was a great skill that Bill had mastered as a fierce litigator in his earlier courtroom days).
Suddenly, the little hot shot who sat before Bill was sufficiently reduced to her proper size.
I finally came up with an answer Bill evidently did not like.
“I want to use your story to market the law firm….you…and us,” I stammered, trying to make it clear I was on his side, being sufficiently intimidated of the alternative.
“You, do, do you? And what exactly do you hope to achieve by that?” Bill seemed to spit those words out at me in slow motion. He clearly reviled the idea of telling me his story for marketing or gratuitous purposes and wasn’t the slightest bit shy about making sure I knew that.
No, this was not going well at all. As I recall, the rest of the conversation continued something like this.
Me: Well, I’m your marketing director, and that’s what I’m supposed to do, and was asked by Lew to do (as if mentioning the managing partner’s name would score me points). I probably sounded like a childish fool and Bill took no pity on me.
Bill: Well, young lady, I happen to come from an era of lawyers who do not see it proper to advertise themselves. In fact, I find the idea garish if not ethically abhorrent, and I therefore will not allow it or be part of it, no matter what anyone says.
Now, what I have neglected to tell you thus far is that Lew gave me an advance briefing of Bill’s illustrious legal background to prepare me for the blockbuster of all stories ever to be told by his firm.
Bill served, under General George Patton’s Third Army, as the Chief Prosecutor for the United States in four war crimes trials held in Germany following the Second World War. After that, his government service included a stint as the Chief of Litigation for the Atomic Energy Commission where he represented the Commission at the espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, among so many more notable achievements and posts.
As Chief Prosecutor for the United States in the four WWII war crimes trials, Bill prosecuted 177 Nazis and sent 97 of them to the gallows. After the Dachau trials in Germany, Bill was later quoted: “I never tried an accused who I wasn’t personally willing to place the noose around his neck and pull the trap.”
This was no man to be messing with.
I decided to politely end my questioning for the day, and excused myself like a proper lady to return to my office and sulk.
The next day I heard a rap at my office door, and who of all people did I see standing there but the mighty Bill Denson. That charming voice spoke to me again.
Bill: May I come in?
Me: (uh oh?) No words. I nodded in the affirmative.
Bill: (in that sugary polite, charming southern drawl) May I sit down, if you pleeeease?
Me: Still silent, I patted my guest chair and took a long deep breath. I had no idea what was coming but prepared myself for the worst.
And then, a surprise.
Bill: I want to apologize if I came off a bit strong with you yesterday. I understand you have a job to do and I’ll see what I can do about helping you do that job, but I want you to know I have my limits.
Me: (now insulted and in the hubris of my youth also unafraid to speak my piece). Limits? What could you possibly mean by that? You can tell me whatever you want, or not, and I’ll be more than glad (relieved) to move on.
Bill: (With his eyes cast downward) You know, my dear old pappy, who was a very able lawyer and who taught me everything I know, was just about nearly disbarred for having the audacity to have the word “lawyer” engraved on the license plate of his car.
Bill articulated this to me in the hushed tones one uses to reveal a shameful family secret, and in that instant I understood exactly what yesterday’s flogging was all about.
Me: (with this reveal from Bill followed by a complete fascination by the prospect of peeling away the layers of this “onion”) How about we start out like this- nice and simple- you tell me your story, from the beginning, and I’ll keep my pen down and listen. I really want to hear it, if for no one else, but myself.
Bill seemed both amused and challenged by my offer, and with that, gave me a wide and sincere smile nodding in the affirmative. We shook hands on the deal and made plans to have our first lunch together.
After that, I visited Bill daily to hear installments of his story during lunchtime. After starting out on a light note by making me chuckle at his obvious disappointment or disgust over the items he begrudgingly pulled out of his lunch bag (items like yogurts or other fat-free products packed by his wife to guard against his heart condition) Bill started from the beginning to tell me the story of his life and his work.
There were nights I could not sleep after some of the particularly intense sessions we shared pouring over Bill’s experiences, that often included Bill sharing his U.S. Army photo collection depicting the gruesome conditions found in WWII concentration camps after liberation. These were the same images used as exhibits in the trials to depict the crimes.
At Dachau, Bill tried nearly 200 hardened war criminals who perpetrated unthinkable atrocities against innocent and helpless prisoners held in WWII concentration camps- many defiant until the very end, with one, actually saluting and proclaiming “Heil Hitler” in his final moments just before being hanged.
Now here in this blog I can tell you so much more about Bill’s remarkable legal achievements that have since been well documented in history. A Google search will easily take you to video interviews of Bill that are included in exhibits at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.
But this story is about my personal journey with Bill, and how his incredible experiences, friendship and trust transformed my life in ways I never could have expected.
During one of our lunch sessions I shared with Bill that my mother had become a refugee as a teenager in Germany during the final years of WWII. Mom was forced to flee her home, along with her mother and younger brother, as a result of the constant bombings and killings of innocent German civilians during those final savage months before the war ended.
I told Bill that mom was later devastated to learn what her people had done, and it haunted and hurt her years after she emigrated to America after her marriage to my father, then a U.S. Army officer stationed in Berlin. There were so many times, as a child, that I would hear mom sobbing alone in her bedroom, and when I asked her why she would simply reply: “oh nothing, dear. Mommy is sad about the war.”
The war? What war? Didn’t that happen a long, long time ago, mommy? But for my mother, the pain and anguish she felt between 1943-45 was as fresh as if it had happened yesterday.
Bill was truly moved to hear that story, even wiping his own eyes in empathy, and in return, told me that his German-born wife, nicknamed Huschi (her birth name was Constance) was equally ashamed and appalled, as was her father, whose life tragically ended after that war. His own wife suffered in the same way my mom did.
You see, Bill, for most of his married life, was reluctant to share the full scope of emotions and details connected to his service in Germany in going after these murderous Nazis with a vengeance as to spare Huschi from any more shame than she had already known. After all, Bill was about fairness and justice, and his wife was surely at the top of his list of those most deserving.
Bill had no interest in sharing his experiences for personal glory. His goal was to teach anyone who would listen that these heinous acts at the camps did in fact happen, and could very well happen again in our human history if our civilized society did not take sufficient measures to guard against it, and those who condone such inhumanity.
In thinking about Bill today, I am tearful by the idea that his love and concern for his wife Huschi often caused him to gloss over his experiences in Germany. And yet, his heart and soul needed to purge, because for him, the trauma, as it had for my mom and for Huschi, endured.
Bill just didn’t know how or where to really begin; he was not of a generation that turned to therapists to unload such burdens. It was a constant internal struggle. And above all – fierce litigator aside – Bill was an absolute perfect gentleman at all times. He aimed to please his family, friends and colleagues, not bring them down by heavy conversation or look for sympathy.
And so, when I came along in 1990 and unknowingly forced that door open, it was like a spigot had been opened making way for a constant gush that didn’t stop until Bill took his last breath.
To witness Bill achieve what appeared to be some measure of peace and closure during his final years was as transformative for me as it was for him.
All those who appeared at Bill’s many lectures openly revered him and told him he was a hero, although that was never his intention. What warms my heart until this day is it turned out that nobody was more proud of Bill than Huschi and their grown children.
One of the most somber, but proud moments of my life occurred in the fall of 1998 when Huschi and Bill summoned me to their home in Lawrence. By that time I had left the law firm to start my own marketing/public relations practice, but remained in close contact with Bill and the Denson family.
Bill’s longtime heart condition was finally getting the best of him, and the Denson family knew his days were coming to an end. A very frail Bill took my hand that day and asked me to write his obituary, while Huschi asked me to be the family’s spokesperson to the media after he passed. It was a heartbreaking request, but naturally, I honored it. How could I begin to tell Bill, and Huschi, what they had meant to me? There was nothing I wouldn’t do for them.
So my final days with Bill were spent at his bedside going over the obituary I had written. There were a lot of tears between us and we treasured what we knew were our final moments together. Bill asked me to read what I wrote over and over again to him, as he also suffered from macular degeneration and had limited vision. Finally, when he was satisfied I put the work away, praying it would be a very long time before I had to release it, but knowing it couldn’t possibly be long. My friend was dying.
Huschi called me some weeks later on December 13, 1998, to tell me that her beloved husband had passed away peacefully in his sleep at home early that morning, just as he had wanted. And on that day, as I promised, the world found out that William Dowdell Denson was no longer with us. But it would not be long before his life and work would be recognized throughout the world.
In 2003, with Huschi’s cooperation and assistance from MLG, documentarian Joshua M. Greene authored a book, “Justice at Dachau” the cover of which appears here at my blog.
Huschi followed Bill into the hands of God on December 5, 2006. I will miss them both forever, and will always remain thankful to Bill and Huschi, as well as to their children, Yvonne, Will, Jr. and Olivia, for welcoming me, my husband and our two daughters, into their remarkable and memorable family.
Little did I know Bill was as soft and vulnerable on the inside as anyone else. But by giving me that “test” the first day we met, Bill made me earn my way into his friendship and trust that makes me all the more grateful for the journey.
If Bill were here today to read this story and about the day we met, he would probably chuckle at my expense and say in his exceedingly charming southern drawl, “Brains” (his nickname for me) you know I was only joshin’ you that day.
Only I would know, he really wasn’t.