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Recalling skill, wit of Hanni

Published: Thu, July 17, 2008 @ 12:00 a.m.

By William K. Alcorn

‘One thing I would say, his word was always good with me,’ said William Binning.

YOUNGSTOWN — Atty. Don L. Hanni Jr., who defined some of the best and worst in Youngstown law and politics during a career that spanned more than a half-century, died at his Coitsville home Wednesday morning.

As a lawyer, Hanni had a reputation as an accomplished student of the law and as a courtroom brawler who was faster on his feet than almost any opponent. As a politician, his own success at the ballot box was mixed, but as a Democratic Party chairman he made and broke more political careers than any chairman before him — or likely any that will follow him.

Friends and adversaries, sometimes one person being both, depending on the circumstances, talked about Hanni, 82, the lawyer, the politician and the man.

He was nicknamed “Bullmoose” by Julaine Gilmartin, the wife of his good friend Atty. Vincent Gilmartin. Mrs. Gilmartin said Hanni reminded her of a character, “General Bullmoose, in the “Li’l Abner” cartoon, who was always telling everybody what to do, she said with a laugh.

“He always had the greatest stories. We’re losing all the curmudgeons. It’s the end of an era,” she said.

“We were very dear friends,” said Gilmartin, who had an office in the same building as Hanni at 219 W. Boardman St., after his 16-year stint as county prosecutor.

“He was a very honorable sort of person, very straightforward, very alert and kind-hearted,” he added.

Gilmartin said he and Hanni faced each other numerous times as prosecutor and defense attorney. “I found him to be very well-prepared, always knowledgeable about what we were doing, and aware of what the law required. He was a very good attorney,” Gilmartin said.

One of Hanni’s fiercest political foes over the years was William Binning, who was chairman of the Mahoning County Republican Party at the same time Hanni was head of the county Democratic Party.

Binning said sometimes their relationship was friendly, but they often were bitter enemies and had nasty fights.

“It depended on the issue of the day,” said Binning, professor emeritus at Youngstown State University and former chairman of the school’s political science department.

“One thing I would say, his word was always good with me. I had great respect for him because of that. He was one of the great colorful figures of the Mahoning Valley, and his passing is a great loss to the Valley,” Binning said.

Another political foe with whom Hanni locked horns was Atty. Michael Morley, who replaced Hanni as county Democratic Party chairman in 1994.

“While Don and I had our political differences, we maintained a civil and cordial relationship over the years. I offer my condolences to his family. I visited him in the nursing home a couple of weeks ago and wished him well.

“We would see each other at events and he would call me chairman and I would call him chairman, and occasionally we would share a story,” Morley said.

“Don Hanni and I were close friends. We used to have lunch on Fridays together and have a drink or two together,” said R. Scott Krichbaum, a Mahoning County Common Pleas Court judge and a former defense lawyer.

“But he and I battled, too. We were great adversaries at one point. He was Democratic Party chairman and I was the Republican candidate for judge. We had to send the sheriff up to secure the ballots once the voting was done. It was a very close race,” Judge Krichbaum said.

On the other hand, however, the judge said Hanni was “probably as good a trial lawyer as this area ever produced. He was absolutely brilliant in cross-examination. He was much more concerned with the facts than with the law. His method was very effective. He could pretty much take any case and give the defendant the best defense available.

“We respected each other as trial lawyers. It causes me a great deal of sorrow that I’ve lost him as a friend and as a colleague. His death is a tremendous loss to his family and the community,” Judge Krichbaum said.

Former Sen. Harry Meshel’s relationship with Hanni went back to pre-college days when they used to frequent the Ritz Bar on Wilson Avenue on the East Side. They were both World War II veterans — Hanni in Europe and Meshel in the Pacific.

“We used to argue about who won the war,” Meshel said with a laugh.

They were at Youngstown College and on its student council at the same time. Despite that relationship, they quarreled about politics from time to time. “He never hesitated to argue, even with his friends, and even ruled against them in court,” Meshel said.

“The last time I visited him, not too many days ago, he was screaming about politics. He said, ‘You got to run for mayor.’ I said, ‘I will if you’ll be my law director,’” Meshel said.

“I think people would remember him for his sense of humor and sense of purpose, and his skill as a lawyer. He was highly respected in the legal profession. The judges will tell you he was prepared and clients got their money’s worth,” Meshel said.

“He was one of a kind. People don’t know the things he did,” said Joyce Kale Pesta, deputy director of Mahoning County Board of Elections and a longtime Hanni associate.

When he found out people who lived in the old Pick Ohio Hotel had no place to eat in downtown Youngstown, he fed them out of his office on Boardman Street. “Sometimes he would cook and sometimes I would cook,” Pesta said.

“He always said ‘Don’t kick anybody when they’re down, because you never know when you’ll be down.’ Even his worst enemies he’d stick up for when they were down. That’s how [former county sheriff and U.S. Rep. James] Traficant and he became friends after being enemies for many years,” she said. He served in the Army during World War II and was with the Allied Forces who landed on Normandy beach on D-Day on June 6, 1944. He said it was horrific, but he never talked about it much, Pesta said.

The Rev. Lonnie Simon, pastor emeritus of New Bethel Baptist Church on Hillman Street, said Hanni was “Mr. Democrat in Youngstown as far as I was concerned.”

“He was very well-liked in the black community, and I got along with him well,” said the Rev. Mr. Simon, who, when he came to Youngstown in 1946, registered as a Republican.

Hanni was a mentor for Atty. Alan R. Kretzer in his early days and a client in a high-profile case when Hanni ran his car into the post office building in downtown Youngstown in 1985. Hanni was charged with driving under the influence; however, it was dismissed because of lack of evidence, but a charge of reckless operation was allowed to stand.

Kretzer said Hanni took that case and all cases seriously, but always had a sense of humor.

When they were considering how the case might go, Kretzer said Hanni told him that if he had to spend a few days in jail, at least he wouldn’t have to listen to his telephone ring all day long.

Other local lawyers and government officials remembered Hanni as a widely respected giant in local legal and political circles.

Kathi McNabb Welsh, chief deputy Mahoning County clerk of courts, remembered well her days as an assistant county prosecutor in the 1990 murder trial of Christopher W. Magourias, who was defended by Hanni and Atty. J. Gerald Ingram and acquitted in the stabbing death of Kenmore Drake.

“It was quite a legal education for me to watch his mastery of the rules of evidence and his control of the courtroom,” she said of Hanni.

“He will best be remembered as a great lawyer, a very zealous litigator, a person who really went out of his way to advocate his client’s position and did a wonderful job of that,” said Atty. Vincent Wloch, a magistrate in Mahoning County Probate Court.

“There was nobody better here locally with regard to cross-examination. He thought quick on his feet,” said Wloch, who shared an office with Hanni from 1979 to 1985.

Wloch said he learned a great deal from his experience as co-counsel with Hanni in the defense of Steven T. Masters, whose 1980 murder trial lasted 10 weeks. Masters was convicted of killing his wife, Jodi, in what was then the longest criminal trial in Mahoning County history.

“He was just a Democratic giant in our field of politics,” said Lisa Antonini, Mahoning County treasurer and Democratic Party chairwoman. Hanni’s humor and ability to “get a message out on Democratic Party politics” will be missed, she said.

“What a historian. We’ll miss him for that. He always taught me that you have to understand your history to move forward into the future. He never shied away from calling me when he thought I needed a history lesson,” she recalled.

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