The Honorable Ralph M. Holman ’37

The former Oregon Supreme Court justice died of natural causes on September 3, 2013.
  • Ralph M. Holman 1937

A fourth-generation Oregonian and former justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, Ralph M. Holman died of natural causes on September 3, 2013, in Salem, Oregon. 

Ralph was born in Portland on June 7, 1914, and was raised in the Molalla area. In 1937, he married Louise Mariam Oesch of Portland. 

Ralph practiced law in Portland until 1942, when he was inducted into the U.S. Navy. He served as a chief petty officer until his discharge in 1946. Following his military service, Ralph joined the law firm of Butler and Jack in Oregon City. The practice subsequently became Butler, Jack, Beckett and Holman. In 1950, he was appointed circuit judge of Clackamas County by Governor Douglas McKay, in which position he served until he was elected to the Oregon Supreme Court in 1965. 

While a trial judge, Ralph was a member of the Committee on the Administration of Justice. As chair of the Subcommittee on Juvenile Law, he was instrumental in the passage of a law permitting the termination of parental rights of parents of abused children, thus making them eligible for adoption. At the request of the other members of the Oregon Supreme Court, he drew up the plan for the establishment of the Oregon Court of Appeals. 

Ralph was also a Lewis & Clark life trustee and served as chair of the law school budget committee. He was honored as a distinguished graduate by the law school and given the Aubrey Watzek award by Lewis & Clark. 

Ralph retired from the Supreme Court in 1980, after serving as a judge for 30 years. The Ralph M. Holman Law Center in Oregon City was dedicated on July 30, 2007.

Ralph’s wife, Louise, died in 1989. He is survived by several nephews and nieces. At his request, there was no service. Contributions may be made to Lewis & Clark Law School for scholarships for four-year students. 

Professor Emeritus Ron Lansing Remembers Ralph Holman ’37

The foregoing is a customary obituary. It highlights mileposts and vital statistics—deeds and data. Like in an application for job or membership, an obituary is etymologically a racecourse with running tracks of life, coined “curriculum vitae.” But these are results that may tell of a cause but do not make a cause. So too, tracks may tell of souls, but are not themselves souls. Scruples, humors, spirit, grit, passions, and other such natures are more at the font of character, as shown by incidentals like these: 

Ralph M. Holman 1935 Ralph Milo Holman was born of generations that reached back into Oregon frontier times and included ancestors like U.S. Senator Rufus C. Holman and Frederick V. Holman, president of the Oregon Historical Society and of the Oregon State Bar Association, and cofounder of Portland’s “Rose City” gardening image. Those forerunners and others passed along pioneer gumption.

When Ralph graduated from high school, it was in the midst of the Great Depression. His parents did not have money to send him to college. But his zeal led him to a four-year Portland night school where tuition, fees, and books were only $110 per year. He was just 19 years old and had no college degree. Nevertheless, Northwestern College of Law admitted the future trial judge and state supreme court justice.

In 1933, during his first courses in law school along with 114 others, he met classmate Louise. They were elected vice president and secretary, respectively, of their sophomore class. During his four years at Northwestern, love for the law and Louise grew side by side. In 1937, he graduated—along with just 23 classmates—and wed.

He lost his left leg below the knee in World War II, while serving in the South Pacific with the U.S. Navy. He spent the rest of his life with a discreet prosthetic limb to which he adjusted, but kept to himself.

At age 75, two years after he and Louise celebrated their golden anniversary, he was a widower and childless. But he was not alone in the last quarter of his life. 

One episode, inter alia, may serve to identify and depict the man. It took place 40 years ago, on a Saturday evening in the Crystal Ballroom of Portland’s swank Benson Hotel. The occasion was a banquet celebrating a momentous achievement in the law school’s history. A huge audience of trustees, benefactors, law faculty, administrators, visiting dignitaries, friends, and spouses had come to celebrate national recognition from two giant accrediting agencies, the American Bar Association and American Association of Law Schools. It was a time for festivity, draped in tuxedos and gowns and sparked by balloons, confetti, serpentine, champagne, and fine dinner.

The law school accreditation came at the end of almost a decade of effort, which began in 1965 when two venerable colleges came together. When Northwestern and Lewis & Clark merged, the law school gained a new and lengthy title: Northwestern School of Law of Lewis & Clark College. That period also launched a new law review periodical under the title Environmental Law.

The banquet program in 1974 began with the usual cordialities followed by two main speakers. The first was AALS President Maurice Rosenberg, whose speech was the usual “welcome to the fold” and “congratulations for job well done”—all presented with the usual dignity and charm. Everything was well suited to the occasion.

Then came the second main speaker. Justice Ralph Holman boldly took the milieu to a different place. His more challenging course gave voice to the nature of the man. Now that his alma mater had finished the battle for accreditation, Holman proposed that it was time to tend to some postponed issues; whereupon, for the first time publicly, he suggested a change of names. The school and its law review should drop “Northwestern” and “Environmental” from their respective titles. The school should be simply “Lewis & Clark Law School” and the periodical simply Lewis & Clark Law Review.

That, then and there, took the phrase “name dropping” to new depths. It astonished and impacted two distinct audience factions, the nostalgic and the ecologic—the older Northwestern alumni and the newer nature-prone graduates. When it comes to shifting from old to new, no doubt the trauma of name changing leads the list of shocking disruptions. Had the event not been a time for cheers, there would surely have been jeers.

It would have made no difference to Holman. He had never been one to shy away from candor or from the reaction to it. He spoke his mind. But one could never be quite sure about his tongue. Was it from his heart or in his cheek? Either way, one thing was certain: He was ready to open doors, to get at the real issues, to turn from play to work, to pioneer. He was unabashedly direct, frank, and open and did so with plain talk, albeit, perhaps, tempered by ploy and wink.

Always the rogue and an avid international fly-fishing angler, he wetted his line and waited, not so much for the catch and release, but rather for the strike and challenge. When his troll seemingly snagged on impertinence, time might tell it had merely angled on impetuous. Today, while “Northwestern” is still revered in legend and legacy, the nation knows the institution as Lewis & Clark Law School. And, while there is still an Environmental Law periodical, there is also a Lewis & Clark Law Review.

Legatee, lawyer, lover, lame, and lasting, his hook was blunt but never dull.