William K. Van Allen

Albion, a very small town in western New York eight miles south of Lake Ontario, is probably not a place you would expect to find a founding partner of a Charlotte law firm.  Nevertheless, that's where Bill Van Allen was born in 1914.  His father, Everett, started out as a school-teacher, was promoted to principal and eventually became the superintendent of the school system in Seneca, New York.  The elder Van Allen then decided he wanted to be a lawyer and obtained his license by "reading the law" and being tutored in the office of a judge.  He practiced solo in Rochester until age 92.

The younger Van Allen, after graduating (and earning a Phi Beta Kappa key) at Hamilton College in 1935, decided that he too would be a lawyer.  He enrolled at Harvard Law School where he and classmate Robert Lassiter soon became friends.  When the two of them completed law school in 1938, they, with several other classmates, went to Washington - Van Allen to take a job with a law firm and Lassiter to work in the Treasury Department.  The two, along with two other classmates and two friends who had just finished their studies as Rhodes Scholars, moved into a rented house at 1913 S Street.  When the number of Harvard Law friends looking for a place to live continued to increase, it was time to look for a larger house.  In a book written in 1998 about one of the friends (Short of the Glory) the situation was described as follows:

Here some fellow members of the Harvard Law class of ’38 resided, among them William K. Van Allen, Robert Lassiter, and William D. “Uncle Billy” Sheldon.  To accommodate the influx of friends who wanted a room at the S Street residence, Sheldon led an effort to find a more spacious locale for the collection of approximately a dozen bright young Harvard-trained bachelors.  Sheldon, John Oakes, and Van Allen soon visited a mansion known as “Hockley” in nearby Arlington, Virginia, a historic house with white columns and a sweeping lawn that overlooked the Potomac.  Sheldon arranged a deal to rent the house from its owner, Admiral Thomas Wilkinson, and Prichard moved in with the other men from S Street to form what became a legendary household during the war years.

Within a very short time, Hockley became something akin to the most popular frat house on campus, only this time the campus was none other than Washington, D.C.  In the early 1940s, more than ten men lived at Hockley at one time or another.  All would later acquire fame and influence in their own right:  Phil Graham, who would later run the Washington Post; John Oakes, who later edited the New York Times editorial page; William Cary, who was appointed to the Securities and Exchange Commission by President Kennedy; Graham Claytor, who had been Louis Brandeis’s clerk and was later president of the Southern Railroad; Van Allen, who would become a partner in a large North Carolina law firm, “Butch” Fisher, who became dean of the Georgetown Law School; and Sheldon . . . .

In their new home, the men of Hockley lived in grand style.  According to one visitor, the mansion made “Mount Vernon look like a sharecropper’s toolhouse.”  Hockley was the site of numerous lavish cocktail parties and other social functions.  The most celebrated events were the Sunday brunches, which were attended by the likes of Frankfurter, James Landis, Walter Reuther, Stanley Reed, Dean Acheson, and young Adlai Stevenson.  On one particular Sunday morning, Graham Claytor, who had been called up by the Naval Reserves, told those sitting at the table about a new bomb the Navy had developed that could detonate in the air and rain shrapnel on the enemy.  Claytor noticed a shy, very frail-looking man at the table he had never seen before, and he apologized to his guest for speaking about such technical and complicated subjects such as weaponry and leaving him out of the discussion.  Afterward, amused Hockleyites informed Claytor that the quiet guest was J. Robert Oppenheimer.

With the rent split ten ways, the men at Hockley could afford some other luxuries.  They hired a butler named Youter Johnson, who had previously worked for Dean Acheson . . . He subsequently attended the needs of the men who lived at Hockley, including pressing their shirts, serving drinks at all functions, and preparing their meals . . .

To add to the fraternity-house atmosphere, a select group of young women – mostly young government employees and the daughters of noteworthy Washingtonians – regularly attended the various functions at Hockley.  One was Katharine Meyer, the daughter of Washington Post owner and former Federal Reserve chairman Eugene Meyer, who later referred to herself as one of “the house girls” at Hockley.  She elaborated that “for a single girl, it was heaven” to spend time at Hockley because the men there were “all very brilliant, very attractive, very funny.”

In early 1941, as the drumbeat for U.S. involvement in World War II grew louder, Van Allen went on active duty as a Naval officer.  After a rudimentary education in seamanship, navigation, shiphandling, naval warfare, etc., he was assigned first to several small vessels – including a converted yacht – and in May 1943 was made executive officer of the USS Eldridge which was still under construction in Newark.  He was ordered to Norfolk for several months to train the ship's crew.  The Eldridge was a 1,240 ton, 306 foot long, destroyer escort.  Its crew would be comprised of around 20 officers and 190 men.  The ship was launched in July 1943 and commissioned in August under the command of Lt. Charles R. Hamilton.  After more training, sea trials and a shakedown cruise, the ship sailed out of Norfolk with the first of nine convoys it would shepherd across the Atlantic to ports like Casablanca, Oran and Bizerte in support of the Allied invasion of North Africa.  His last two years on the Eldridge, Van Allen served as captain of the ship.  As the War wound down, the ship was ordered to the Pacific where it served until hostilities ended several months later.

A side note about the USS Eldridge:  A legend somehow arose that in 1943, the ship, while in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, was the subject of the so-called "Philadelphia Experiment" in which it and its crew were rendered invisible and were "teleported" to Norfolk.  The Philadelphia Inquirer, in a 1999 article, reported that “two movies, two books and several websites have kept the myth alive.”  As the story goes, the ship “was surrounded by a greenish fog, disappeared for a few minutes, and then reappeared.”  Bill Van Allen was interviewed on a History Channel program about the myth and said, "I haven't the slightest idea how these stories got started."  In annual reunions of his crew he said that the story was always the source of a few good laughs.  The myth was weakened by the fact that (a) the Navy never experimented with invisibility, (b) the Eldridge was not launched in Newark until three days after the teleporting was supposed to have occurred, and c) the ship's logs indicate that it was never in Philadelphia.  Part of the legend was that some members of the crew suffered adverse side effects, e.g., "going mad, staggering around and speaking gibberish.” At the ship's 1999 reunion, crew member Ed Tempany was quoted by the Philadelphia Inquirer as saying, “The only part I think is true is the part about the crew being a little crazy.”

Without a doubt, Bill Van Allen's fondest memory of his naval career would be of a port call the USS Eldridge made in the summer of 1944.  The War was still in progress and skipper Van Allen's destroyer escort was still plying its way back and forth across the Atlantic.  These roundtrips took six weeks following which the Eldridge would be in a stateside port for ten days.  

The week of July 4th, 1944, found the ship in New York.  This seemed like a good time and place to have a ship's party.  The party would be held on the Starlight Roof of the Waldorf-Astoria.  Earlier that day in the lobby of the Waldorf, the bride of the ship's executive officer ran into her Sweetbriar College roommate, Sally Schall, who was spending several days in New York enroute from her home in Charleston, South Carolina, to a family vacation on Mullet Lake in Michigan.  Sally and a date had planned to go to a play that evening.  Her Sweetbriar friend convinced her that they should attend the ship's party instead.  There she met Lieutenant Van Allen.  It was obvious after several dances that they were delighted to have become acquainted.  The date who brought Miss Schall to the party quickly became irrelevant.

The day after the party, Van Allen went off to Rochester for a three day visit with his parents.  But as soon as he returned from Rochester (and, we assume, after looking to the welfare of his ship and crew), Van Allen got in touch with Miss Schall and asked her for a date – the first of three that would occur during his last week in port.  These were dinner and dancing affairs at places like The Plaza.  The new friends "closed down" each of the three venues.  By the end of the week and prior to setting sail again, Van Allen, after carefully thinking it over, (a) decided the thing to do would be to marry Miss Schall, (b) proposed to her, and (c) received an acceptance. 

Some weeks later when the Eldridge was next in port Sally came up from Charleston, received an engagement ring and travelled with Bill to meet his folks in Rochester.  Van Allen took this opportunity to compose the obligatory "hand in marriage" request letter to her father in Charleston – a letter which by all accounts was the most compellingly persuasive document he ever wrote – before or since.  (It has been widely cited as a model for that type of correspondence and, but for wartime distractions, would probably have been printed in the Harvard Law Review.)  The wedding was planned for whatever date in November Van Allen would be available.  

Several explanations have been offered for the urgency Van Allen attached to the matter, the most credible of which is that while Sally was only 23, Van Allen was THIRTY, and he feared that if the wedding was deferred until after the War he would have aged out of the competition. (He's bound to have also realized that his best shot would be now and not after the War when he would have traded his eye-catching dress blues, the lieutenant commander’s gold braid, the cutlass and the swashbuckle ‑ for boring lawyer mufti.)  This potentially troublesome age factor was mitigated by the fact that Sally's mom thought that he "looks like Jimmy Stewart." 

After the war, Van Allen returned to Washington and resumed practice there – primarily in labor law.  He reconnected with Bob Lassiter in Washington during the time when Lassiter was travelling there on a fairly regular basis lobbying for more commercial air service for Charlotte.  On one of these visits in 1948, Lassiter suggested that Van Allen come to Charlotte and start a practice.  In the summer of 1950, Van Allen agreed to come to Charlotte, but not before consulting Chief Fourth Circuit Judge John J. Parker, who assured him that the move was a good idea.  After Van Allen took the bar exam and got his North Carolina license in 1951, the firm of Lassiter, Moore & Van Allen was created.  Some principles that were agreed to were that the firm would concentrate on business law and would not do personal injury work, insurance defense or collections work.  By 1962, the total revenue of the firm had soared to $210,000.  Expenses, including salaries, totaled $108,000.  Reaching this milestone had taken over ten years.  On two occasions, the law firm has been the largest in Charlotte; now ‑ with nearly 400 lawyers ‑ and in 1955 when there were five.

In the late 1960’s, North Carolina National Bank, predecessor of Bank of America, hired Tom Storrs to succeed Addison Reese as chairman and CEO of the bank.  Sometime later, Congress was considering an amendment to the Bank Holding Company Act which would loosen certain business restraints on banks.  Storrs was invited to Washington to testify before the cognizant Congressional committee and Van Allen was retained to assist Storrs in the preparation of his testimony.  One night during their Washington trip, Storrs, Van Allen and another Charlottean, Don Denton, were returning from dinner to their hotel.  They were accosted near the National Geographic Building by armed robbers.  Van Allen calmly and successfully negotiated the transfer of his group’s wallets to the thieves – a feat which earned Tom Storrs’ eternal gratitude.  The way Storrs tells the story, “Bill Van Allen saved my life.”  It would certainly be consistent with his history and character that Van Allen would “take one for the team” – or the client.

In subsequent years, Van Allen developed a strong corporate practice with clients such as the Cato Corporation, Wrenn Brothers and North Carolina National Bank.  He also had an exemplary career in public service serving on the Board of Visitors of Johnson C. Smith University, the Mint Museum of Art, the United Way, the Mercy Hospital Foundation, and the UNCC Foundation.  He also chaired the Charlotte Symphony League.  In recognition of the tremendous civic and cultural contributions made by the Van Allens, the firm has named its annual award for pro bono work and civic accomplishment as the “Sally and Bill Van Allen Public Service Award.”

Bill Van Allen died on February 3, 2011, at the age of 96. He is survived by Sally, his wife of 66 years, three sons, and eight grandchildren.  A ceremony was held in Mr. Van Allen's honor on November 10, 2011 at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse.  Sally Van Allen and other family members were in attendance, as well as his close friends and colleagues.  The Resolution and Memorial in honor of Mr. Van Allen was filed with Mecklenburg County and can be viewed in its entirety here.  An audio recording of the ceremony can be found here. 

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