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Hon. William C. Conner Inn of Court

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The Passing of Hon. William C. Conner
Judge William C. Conner, July 10th, 2009

On behalf of the Officers and Executive Committee, it is with great sadness that we report the passing of the Hon. William C. Conner yesterday morning, July 9, 2009. He was 89.

Judge Conner served his country with distinction as a United States District Court Judge of the Southern District of New York for over 35 years. He was a valued member of our IP community as a patent attorney (1946-73), as a past president of the New York Intellectual Property Law Association (1972-73), then known as the New York Patent Law Association and most recently as emeritus and active judicial participant in our Conner Inn of Court. He will be deeply missed.

Judge Conner’s funeral will take place on Sunday, July 12 at 3:00 p.m. at the Irvington Presbyterian Church, located at 25 North Broadway, Irvington, NY. A reception will immediately follow at Saint Andrew’s Golf Club, located at 10 Old Jackson Avenue in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY.

In lieu of flowers, donations to Interplast, Dillon International, or charity of your choice, are appreciated. A donation will be made by the Conner Inn of Court.

Eulogy of William C. Conner by William C. Conner, Jr.
Delivered July 12, 2009
Irvington Presbyterian Church, Irvington, NY

You will be hearing many remembrances concerning the honorable William Curtis Conner Sr., Esquire, all citing him as a truly unique individual.

In addition to his intellect, abilities etc., Judge William Conner was a unique father, something that it took me some twenty years to realize, just as Mark Twain attested. “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years”

In my case, the last time my father and I had a serious disagreement leading to his infliction or even threatened to inflict corporal punishment, I was 31… I am sorry it must have been 13, dyslexia.

He and I had a serious discussion at that time, certainly a result of my sibling rivalry (please note this was when the use of the strap was de rigueur and I also note that he was still a lawyer). I pointedly asked him if he really enjoyed the dealing out of the belt and who was benefiting/learning from this exercise? I was miraculously spared the rod! I note that as a Federal judge he never imposed corporal punishment to my knowledge.

Four words characterize the fatherhood of my Dad: Intellect, Consistency, Humor and Love.

My father was an ever-fixed mark of fairness and high standards. When I first went to college, my father sent me a five-page thesis of advice as to how I should comport myself and take advantage of the opportunities. Needless-to-say, I was quite upset as to why I was uniquely treated in such a “judicial manner” although Dad was in mid-career as a very successful patent trial attorney…. Not yet a judge. By the time I graduated as an undergraduate, he was approached to move up as a federal Judge, taking a significant cut in salary (a factor of 10). Uncle Harry Weeks stepped in and guaranteed to take care of the schooling for all the other children. Dad was then allowed to accept the appointment to the Federal Bench while still supporting his ultimate belief in education for his children. We were all told that we were to go as far as we could in education. His children: Professor, Pediatrician, Thoracic Surgeon and Dr. Molly the textbook author attest to the guidance and the educational inspiration that he provided. Following Uncle Harry, Dad has provided for the financial support of the college education for all six of his grandchildren.

My Father leads by example!

While a brilliant and effective writer, he had also to become an engineer and scientist in order to understand the complexities of technical cases. After the age of 88, my father mastered the complex nanophysics involving a unique method for forming light emitting Diodes, LEDs… a material not even envisioned when he attended college, including graduate school. His written decisions in this case showed the scientific insight of a PhD in Physics, Again I am surprised how much my father had learned after I turned sixty years old. How many people can claim that?

Dad was a self made man who forever worked to be the best at what he did. In almost all he tried, he succeeded. When I was growing up, he had to travel a lot as he won over twenty cases in patent courts… He was essentially undefeated, the Perry Mason in patent litigation. Dad played golf to win as he played bridge. He was a gymnast in college that set many University of Texas records that stood for over a decade. W2GBC, William 2 George Baker Charlie, was at the top of the list in Amateur Radio DX Century awards. This is the award for the amateur radio operator who has communicated with the largest number of countries. He remains #1 in the world, where he had worked every country in the world, I think there are only a handful of radio amateurs, HAMS, who are tied with him. And when a new country had been announced in the past, he was off in the hunt to work the news station.

Dad found Humor in everything from politics, particularly at the expense of liberals, to the small things in daily life. One learned to listen to him carefully as he would often deliver sarcasm with a straight face. He did not put up with ignorance well and would let the world know his opinion with his sharp wit. But he was also the subject of his own humor, citing his own foibles to all.

My father was very loving in a unique manner. His love was not vocalized until much later in his life, after 60. His parents passed away during the depression and the vocal and physical expressions of love were not part of his upbringing. But one does not love another solely by telling someone, “I love you”. Dad expressed his love in so many ways that were deep and constant. He was always there when you needed support. He reveled in your accomplishments and expressed his respect for your expertise.

Finally in the last weeks of Judge Conner’s life he articulated in effect the following transmogrification of Mark Twain (MY WORDS): “When my children were teen-agers, they were so rebellious/disagreeable. By the time they reached twenty-one, I was astonished by how much they learned in seven years. Finally, in our later years, I learned how much we could learn from each other ”.

We all learned to go as far as you can in your education, to play to be your best, to look for humor in everything and to love by living. These are the lessons of the honorable William Curtis Conner, Sr. They are alive today in all of us, his children, and you, his extended family.

-William C. Conner, Jr.

Eulogy of William C. Conner by Chief Judge Loretta A. Preska
Delivered July 12, 2009
Irvington Presbyterian Church, Irvington, NY

I speak on behalf of the Court to applaud Bill Conner as a devoted public servant. Some tend to forget that the Court is a public service institution, not an institution for the aggrandizement of individual judges. Bill Conner never forgot.

He played by the rules and required his customers to play by the rules, and thus all of his customers received the justice Rev. Harkness spoke of. He attended to his customers promptly and moved their cases briskly toward resolution, whether by motion, trial or otherwise. Just as importantly, Bill listened to the litigants and understood their concerns. In return, they listened to him and respected his views.

It was perhaps that ability to listen to and – dare I say – empathize with the parties before him that led to Bill’s renowned ability to settle cases. And as the good citizen of the Court that he was, Bill invited newer judges to sit with him to try to learn this great skill. Try as we might, though, we newer judges could never quite pack the same heat as Bill did in pronouncing the settlement position of one side or the other to be unrealistic or otherwise without merit. We couldn’t quite manage his gravitas.

Also, as the good Court citizen that he was, Bill applied this talent not just to his own cases but to other judges’ cases as well. Judge Wood recalls that after a particularly difficult preliminary injunction hearing between American Airlines and United Airlines over how many landing slots each was entitled to at O’Hare, Bill generously applied his great settlement talents. Despite the difficulty of the case and the competitiveness of the parties, he was able to resolve the entire matter. I am told, however, that Bill employed a secret weapon on that occasion to keep the parties at the table – Jan Conner’s homemade cookies.

Judge Conner’s generosity with his time and talent was not limited to the Court. I calculate that over his 36 years on the bench, Bill devoted years, maybe decades, of his time to his beloved patent bar. They returned his affection, and, as most of you know, earlier this year they honored him by establishing the William C. Conner Inn of Court to foster practice of patent law. It was a well-deserved honor that will continually remind all of us of Bill’s talents and generosity.

The Court will miss Bill’s cheerful, gracious presence, his Texas twang and his wise counsel. We thank Jan and the rest of his family for sharing him with us these 36 years. He was a great man.

-Loretta A. Preska

Eulogy of William C. Conner by Chief Judge Colleen McMahon
Delivered July 12, 2009
Irvington Presbyterian Church, Irvington, NY

During World War II, Bill Conner, who was serving as an electronics officer aboard an aircraft carrier, was asked to take combat photographs from a Navy plane. The flight turned into a story out of Catch 22 – the plane unexpectedly came under enemy fire, and the wire that would hook it onto the carrier’s landing device detached. Unless the wire was reaffixed, the plane could not land on the carrier deck and would have to ditch in the Pacific. The bombadier should have been dispatched to fix the wire, but he was dead. So the pilot ordered Bill to reattach the wire. Depending on how you remember the story, Bill either crawled out or fell out of the plane onto the wing as they flew over the Pacific. But he got the job done, and the plane landed safely, with no further loss of life.

I first heard Bill tell this story at one of the weekly lunches we shared during the nine years when I was stationed at the White Plains federal courthouse. It is an unforgettable story, of course – the moreso because Bill told it with a certain matter of fact nonchalance that only enhanced his bravery – and it shows many things about Bill Conner that I came to admire: his courage, resourcefulness, theatricality and devotion to duty and to the welfare of others.

Bill Conner had a remarkable career at the Bar. He saw early on in his career that American property law was moving away from its preoccupation with who owned Blackacre and into the realm of the property of the mind – intellectual property. Bill did not divine this because he was a visionary, like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs; he figured it out because he did a lot of research, looking for a forward looking career path so he not would not waste his time with the pursuits of the past.

Bill became the preeminent patent litigator of his day, and probably of the twentieth century. I use the phrase “patent litigator” rather than “patent lawyer” advisedly. My late partner, Simon Rifkind – who preceded Bill and me on the Southern District bench – once wrote an article, famous in the lore of the Paul Weiss firm, called “The Romance Inherent in a Patent Case.” It was a very early marketing piece. In it, the Judge posited that someone embroiled in a patent dispute should hire a seasoned courtroom lawyer to plead his cause – even if that litigator knew nothing about science and the useful arts. He argued that the skills of a patent lawyer (whom he described as an engineer with a law degree) were better adapted to jousing with the technocrats in the Patent Office than to swaying juries. Back in the 1950s, when Rifkind wrote the article, there was a clear and virtually unbreachable line of demarcation between patent lawyers and litigators, so there was a reason to make the argument. But you couldn’t make it if you knew about Bill Conner, because he straddled that line of demarcation; he was both a technically savvy master of the patent process and a real courtroom star. Indeed, it could be argued that Bill invented the line of work known as patent litigation, and no one has yet proven a better master of the craft. At some future date, when our grief is not so raw, the court will hold its traditional memorial service for our colleague, and we will hear about some of his courtroom theatrics (including, no doubt, the famous Playtex WonderBra case, in which Bill demonstrated the patentable qualifies of his client’s product in a way not been seen before or since in a federal courtroom).

Bill was the first lawyer with patent expertise who was appointed to a seat on a United States District Court, a court of general jurisdiction. The story goes that Senator James Buckley thought the Southern District needed three new types of judges to reflect neglected aspects of its docket: an admiralty lawyer, a patent lawyer, and a lawyer from the Hudson Valley, with its growing population. Those three slots were, of course, filled with Terry Haight, Bill Conner and Charlie Brieant, and our court has been the happier for their presence.

Now it is a well known fact that most judges cringe in horror when a patent case is wheeled out to them. But we were lucky, because Bill was always delighted to share his inside knowledge of patent law with his patent phobic colleagues. I will now confess, especially to anyone from the Federal Circuit who may be listening, that I have not issued a single patent opinion in my ten and one half years on the federal bench that was not thoroughly vetted and given the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval by Bill Conner. He was my secret weapon, and he saved me from some pretty silly mistakes as recently as last year. I have absolutely no idea what I am supposed to do now.

Bill genuinely enjoyed work that had nothing to do with patents – criminal cases, and commercial disputes, and tort suits, and employment discrimination actions and municipal controversies. In fact, he liked the variety so much that when he was asked to take a seat on the court that hears appeals from every patent case across the country, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, Bill turned it down. When I asked him why, he said he didn’t want to do nothing but patent work – and he thought trials were far more interesting than appeals, a sentiment with which I heartily concur. I am sure that Bill liked the trial bench so much because he was, at heart, a trial lawyer, and he took great delight in displaying a few theatrics even while wearing the black robe. My personal favorite: it is a little known but absolutely true fact that Bill Conner never prepared a written jury charge; he delivered his instructions extemporaneously, no matter the nature of the case. Yet he was never, to the best of my knowledge, reversed for giving an erroneous charge.

Bill shared, not just his expertise, but pretty much anything with his colleagues – including the chocolate ice cream he ordered for dessert after that weekly White Plains judges’ lunch. It was always chocolate – plain, ordinary chocolate – that we passed around the table after our meal of red sauce Italian food. Shortly after my arrival in White Plains, Bill and Charlie made it abundantly clear that they had no interest in trying any more Thai food or cinnamon ice cream at our lunches; both had been favorites of Dick Casey, my immediate predecessor in White Plains, and there were a couple of ill fated excursions into the exotic that were not to be repeated. Chocolate ice cream suits perfectly, because Bill was a plain man, plain spoken and with plain and extremely well defined tastes – tastes that ran to golf, grilled chicken with a simple salad, golf, Rush Limbaugh and William F. Buckley, gold, anything from Texas, golf……….and of course Jan, whose ceaseless devotion caused him to say, every month or so, “I am the luckiest man in the world that she married me.”

I had not been in White Plains a year when Bill told me that he would be retiring to Texas very shortly. No doubt it had taken courage for a young lawyer from Texas to come to New York City to pursue an alient craft; and if home is the place to which you have a fixed intention of returning, then Texas was Bill’s home. Of course, as I eventually figured out, retirement was nothing more than an ever receding line on Bill’s horizon; he delivered his final extemporaneous jury charge last month and he was reviewing opinions from his bed at Lawrence Hospital last week. Ultimately, Bill died, as I suspect he always intended to, like a true Texan: with his boots on, his wits about him, and his docket up to date. He was one of the great ones, and I was lucky to have him as a mentor and a friend. Now that he finally has retired, I hope he’s in a place that looks a lot like Austin – only with an apple tree at the first tee, and a dish of plain chocolate ice cream waiting for him at the end.

-Colleen McMahon

Remembrance of Judge William C. Conner by Judge Richard Linn

In the ten years I have been a judge on the Federal Circuit, I can remember missing the NYIPLA Judges’ Dinner only once. It is a truly remarkable gathering of the who’s-who of the New York intellectual property bar in a resplendent setting. Each year, my wife, Patti, and I would look forward to a fantastic evening among colleagues and friends. But for me, that event will never be the same. The high point of the evening was always walking into the judges’ reception and seeing across the room Bill and Janice Conner. Bill would keep an eye out for me and when he saw me come in, would smile and wave me over. He and Janice were our “official” greeters. The evening only began after we all exchanged hugs.

At those receptions, we would always reminisce about our days in private practice and catch up on interesting things that happened to us in the past year. He was very curious about recent developments at the Federal Circuit and supportive when he thought I had written a particularly interesting and important opinion. I don’t ever remember him being critical of my opinions, although I am sure there were at least one or two with which he might have quibbled.

We had similar backgrounds in private practice as patent attorneys and both spent time tinkering with radios and tuning into the world as amateur radio operators. We had a special bond that over the years grew into a special friendship. Living in different cities made it hard to get together, but we always knew that we would see each other at the Judges’ Dinner. That is why our time together at that event was so special. I know that when Patti and I arrive at the cocktail reception next year there will be an emptiness in our hearts knowing that our dear friend will not be there.

Many who know me, appreciate that I have a special interest in the American Inns of Court. I have been an active member of the Giles Rich Inn of Court for the past decade and have worked across the country to help form new Inns of Court focused on intellectual property. I was gratified last year when Anthony Giaccio expressed an interest in putting together an Organizing Committee to form a new IP focused Inn of Court in New York. I was even more pleased when I learned that the organizers decided to name the Inn after Judge Conner.

I remember vividly the look on his face when he got the news and the joy both he and Janice showed at the inaugural dinner meeting of the Inn last January. He loved the idea of the Conner Inn and the ideals it represented—civility, professionalism, and excellence in the law. These are traits that characterize his entire professional career. I am grateful to all those who made the Conner Inn a reality in his lifetime. Naming the Inn after him was a wonderful and altogether fitting tribute to an outstanding judge, a caring family man, and a cherished friend who I miss very much.

-Judge Richard Linn

Display Case at SDNY

The US District Court for the Southern District of New York has allocated a display case in the 500 Pearl Street Courthouse in honor of Judge Conner. The Conner Inn of Court was proud to fill the case with information about Judge Conner and the Conner Inn of Court programs.

Hon. William C. Conner Inn of Court
Promoting excellence in professionalism,
ethics, civility, and legal skills.

Tel 1.201.461.6630
Fax 1.201.461.6635

Executive Office
Conner Inn
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