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Huntington Quarterly


A Modern Day Renaissance Man

Judge Dan O'Hanlon wears many hats.

Judge Dan O'Hanlon

article by John Gillispie

Judge Dan O'Hanlon wears many hats. He is an attorney, farmer, scholar, husband, fiddle player, community leader and two-time national amateur chess champion. But when O'Hanlon removes his trademark hat and dons his black robe, he sets aside his personal interests to uphold the tenets of the U.S. legal system as a Cabell County circuit court judge.

He is well aware of his enormous responsibilities as a circuit court judge, which has been his job since 1985.

"I don't promise anybody that I'm going to do a perfect, error-free job. I will do the best job I can possibly do and then move on," he says.

Being a good judge means being a staunch supporter of the legal system, O'Hanlon says. "If you advocate for due process of law, things workout in the end and the result will be fair. The system is right a lot more often than it is wrong.

"A judge who's being a good judge in my view doesn't do it by virtue of individual personality, he does it by continuing to uphold the rules and traditions that have worked for 700 years in our society. The Hatfields and McCoys - that's what's waiting for people without our court system."

O'Hanlon, 49, faces one more election in the year 2000. If elected, he would be able to retire at 60 and reach senior status as a judge. He has already twice been appointed as Acting Justice on the West Virginia Supreme Court.

"It was fascinating to be at the very highest level deciding cases that are going to be law in West Virginia. It was a great honor for me."

As a circuit judge, about one third of O'Hanlon's docket involves criminal or juvenile crimes, one half is taken up with civil cases and the remainder involves domestic relations cases.

Attorney Tom Craig, a partner in the firm of Bailes, Craig and Yon, says O'Hanlon is always prepared for a case. "When administering a trial, he is thoroughly familiar with all the issues. He is committed to being fair and it shows in his courtroom. He has outward goodwill toward everyone who I've ever seen come into his court." O'Hanlon says his number of cases has remained fairly stable over the years.

"We are fortunate to have a good police presence in this community. They've kept the lid on crime. Every year that I've been in West Virginia, the state has had the lowest crime rate in the nation. That's a record that everyone can be proud of."

People who know O'Hanlon often speak of how intelligent he is. Lola J. Fincham is the secretary in O'Hanlon's office and has worked with him at the courthouse since 1991. In the early `80s, she worked with him when he was a municipal judge for the City of Huntington. Fincham says O'Hanlon is the best boss she has ever had. Even after years of working with O'Hanlon, Fincham says she is still amazed by what she jokingly calls his "scary" intelligence.

"You could look all over Huntington and not find a more intelligent person," she says.

Fincham tells the story of a Chinese couple experiencing a problem with their legal paperwork. O'Hanlon made them a lot more comfortable about the situation. "He comes out and starts talking to them in Chinese. He's amazing," Fincham says.

O'Hanlon is one of the few Huntingtonians who is a member of MENSA, a national society for men and women with exceptionally high I.Qs. Members must score in the upper two percent on the test to be admitted. The organization has national meetings as well as local chapters in communities throughout the country.

"If I had to describe Dan O'Hanlon in two words, I would have to say he is a `Renaissance Man,'" notes Tom Jones, C.E.O. of St. Mary's Hospital. "It's just amazing to me that someone as intellectually brilliant as Dan can work with and relate to everyone in all walks of life. And he enjoys life. Among other things, he is a national chess champion, a wine connoisseur, he loves to travel and is as knowledgeable about the internet as anybody in Huntington. He's just a tremendous individual and we're very fortunate that he chose to call Huntington home."

Finding a balance to his life helps him in his career and his personal life, O'Hanlon says.

Just 15 minutes from the Cabell County Courthouse is O'Hanlon's 20-acre farm. "This is a sanctuary for me. I deal with people in the public all day, every day. Here I have physical work and nature," O'Hanlon says as he looks out over the land that he has slowly cleared in the past two decades. He points to a hill and says that just beyond it is Mike Perry's Heritage Farm Museum.

"When I first saw this land, there was no road, no house, no fencing," he says. After a spot was cleared for the stone house and a masonry shell constructed, O'Hanlon and his wife, Kathy, who is a family practice physician, moved in and fixed it up themselves.

"While Dan O'Hanlon's interests and intelligence are considerable," notes A. Michael Perry, C.E.O. of Bank One West Virginia, "the smartest thing he ever did was marry Kathy, a very talented and special person in her own right. Together they are as interesting and exciting as any couple you will ever be privileged to meet or call your friends."

Being a judge and a farm owner allows O'Hanlon to combine the history of law from his father's side of the family with farming from his mother's family. "I have the best of both worlds here in West Virginia."

"Dan O'Hanlon's is truly a modern Renaissance Man," says Perry. "His breadth of interests and talents are endless. Everyone is aware of this highly respected jurist and the many complex cases he has handled. However, not everyone is aware of his interest in raising sheep and herding them with his own trained sheep dog."

In addition to raising sheep, O'Hanlon keeps bees and has an experimental vineyard. He has just made his first wine from his Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Now he gets to wait three years to see how it turns out.

Numerous people in the area have contributed to O'Hanlon's success with his farm. "There are a lot of people in Cabell County who have a background in farming and a lot of them have helped me understand the process."

Farmer Dennis Dunkle and John Marra (Cabell County's West Virginia University extension agent) encouraged O'Hanlon to keep bees. He gives the honey away as a Christmas present.

The O'Hanlon home has a natural greenhouse facing due south. An orange tree in one corner of the greenhouse produces fruit each year at Christmastime and it's an O'Hanlon tradition to eat the homegrown oranges on Christmas Day.

As a child in Chicago, O'Hanlon says he was envious of his cousins growing up on farms in Nebraska, especially of all their 4-H efforts. He was 30 when he moved to Huntington and began keeping his bees. That initial year of keeping bees saw him win first place for honey in the Cabell County Fair. He proudly displays the blue ribbon, the two dollar prize and a container of honey from each year of production on a shelf in his kitchen. He took his own picture with the blue ribbon and sent it to his cousins, saying he finally had a blue ribbon like they did.

"They said, `We used to envy you living in Chicago.' While I was envying them, they were envying me. I've got the best of both worlds here. I have the rural life my cousins had and with Huntington being a university town, there are a lot of cultural activities."

O'Hanlon said the major drawback to life in Chicago is, of course, the wintertime.

"It is unbelievably cold. It starts snowing in October and doesn't thaw until May."

Those Chicago winters inspired O'Hanlon to attend law school in a warmer climate. So he headed to Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., where he earned his law degree, with honors, in 1973.

During an internship with a judge in Phoenix, O'Hanlon became fascinated by the system. "I saw how they helped people. And there wasn't an important issue in our society in 25 years that had not been decided in a court of law. I wanted to be in the center of that action. I never regretted that decision. I do something I love and it doesn't feel like work to me."

After getting used to the great weather in Tempe, O'Hanlon says an offer in 1974 to be an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice pried him away. "The lure was such a great temptation, I gave in and went."

By 1978, O'Hanlon was ready for another change. He had already become introduced to the Mountain State through trips for whitewater rafting and a visit to the Berkeley Springs baths. "I thought West Virginia was wonderful. I started looking to combine the natural beauty of living on a farm with a town that had some culture.

Then Marshall University offered me a job."

He visited Huntington during May for the job interview and the city was in its spring glory with dogwoods in full color. "In spring, this is one of the most beautiful towns on earth. I was very attracted to this town from the first moment I got here."

O'Hanlon came to Marshall in 1978 to start the Paralegal training program and remained there until 1984. "It was a wonderful way to come into the community. The folks in the Marshall community were very open and pleasant to work with and made me feel right at home."

Teaching was fulfilling. "I really loved teaching. I loved affecting the lives of students. But in the end, I thought my talent would be better served going into the judicial arena."

The love of knowledge and learning was instilled in O'Hanlon by his father, who insisted that his children tell him each evening something they learned that day.

"I realized that I am supposed to learn something everyday. I am very grateful to my father for that. I have an incredible curiosity about how things work, how to get things done, to make them work from the smallest level to the biggest level. I open up the bee hive to understand how a society like that works."

Currently, O'Hanlon spends his spare time reading about technology issues and banking. He is studying how technology can assist Huntington as it continues to become a regional center for banking and health care.

It's important for O'Hanlon to step out of his role as a judge to just be himself at times. When playing chess on Saturdays at the YMCA, opponents are more concerned with the moves he makes on the chess board rather than the decisions he makes in court. "One of the reasons I enjoy chess so much is that every problem has a solution. People problems are messy and there is not always a simple solution."

And it should come as no surprise that O'Hanlon is an exceptional chess player. In 1993, he was part of the four member U.S. Amateur Chess Championship Team. O'Hanlon and teammates, representing the East, won over 600 matches defeating the North, South and West competitors en route to capturing the crown. In 1995, O'Hanlon was on the National Postal Chess Championship team, a two year competition, where he went undefeated in all his matches.

The art of juggling is another outlet that O'Hanlon uses to reset his mind. A set of juggling balls sits on his desk in his chambers at the courthouse. "So much of what I do is cerebral, all verbal, all analytical, all left brain. Juggling is more physical and uses both sides of my brain. That's why I like it," he says.

O'Hanlon also likes wearing hats. Wearing a hat has become a quirk associated with him.

"If I don't have a hat on, people ask me about it. Harry Stone on `Nightcourt' ruined me. He was a judge who juggled and had a hat. When I went on the bench, I was young and he was too."

Comparisons naturally followed. Public figures are supposed to be a little out of the ordinary. Wearing a hat is O'Hanlon's idiosyncrasy, he says.

Many people have seen O'Hanlon and his hat during community projects that he has undertaken in the Tri-State.

Having served on numerous committees and continuing to participate in several others, O'Hanlon is one of those who puts his love of community into action.

"Whenever you come into a new community, you wonder if you will be accepted. I'm not from here. But, this town opened their homes and their hearts to me. The irony is I always thought I would leave in four or five years."

Having moved as a child from Omaha to Denver to Chicago, O'Hanlon says he was used to learning how to begin again. Opportunities to move on did present themselves, but O'Hanlon chose to stay.

"I'm a West Virginian by choice rather than by birth. When you're not from here you realize how great this place is." Because he cares so much for his adopted community, O'Hanlon says he gives of his time to make Huntington and the Tri-State an even better place to live.

"Technology is a big part of the answer to the future."

As founding president of the Community Learning Information Network of the Tri-State (C.L.I.N.T), O'Hanlon was instrumental in helping to locate the computer network in downtown Huntington.

"I love getting things started and bringing people together."

Keeping people focused on creative ideas and getting something good off the ground are good feelings, O'Hanlon says. In a few short minutes, he draws a historical picture of Huntington's economy.

"Wherever you had the confluence of more than one river, you generally had a good location for a community. This area benefited from the fact that Huntington was located at the confluence of two rivers."

The next economic wave came in the form of railroads and Huntington was successful yet again.

"Collis P. Huntington came down here and made Huntington what it was and established railroad lines here. You could take advantage of the new industrial economy without having to let go of the old economy. You still had the rivers."

Huntington's problems began when it missed the next economic wave, O'Hanlon says.

"The city leaders let the interstate go by us. People fled to Pea Ridge and Barboursville, communities located right off the interstate. Our city leaders clearly missed the boat."

Although the interstate highway system skirts Huntington, O'Hanlon says he was determined that the Information Superhighway would come right through the center of town. "I was bound and determined that it was coming to downtown Huntington. My primary focus in seven years has been technology and trying to make sure Huntington has been at the table when the technology pie has been divided statewide."

O'Hanlon says most people can't see yet how vital CLINT will be to Huntington.

"In 20 years people will look back and say this is one of the greatest things we did to revive Huntington."

In addition to technological interests, O'Hanlon is also a strong supporter of social services. He is a past member of the board of directors of Huntington Area Food Bank, the Prestera Center, Branches Domestic Violence Shelter, and Family Resource Network. He currently sits on the board of the YMCA.

Setting goals is something O'Hanlon does every May on his birthday. One of his long-range goals involves unifying efforts of municipalities in our region.

"I would like in my lifetime to bring about much more cooperation between various governments in our region - the city governments of Milton, Huntington, Barboursville and county government."

O'Hanlon has swapped idealism for attainable goals. Idealism is the fuel that helps young people get through the early parts of their careers, O'Hanlon says. "I was very idealistic. I was going to change West Virginia, change corruption. In the end, 20 years later, I feel the responsibility for my corner of the world. I'm not going to change the world. I'm going to change my little part of the world. For me, that's enough."

John Gillispie is an assistant city editor for The Herald-Dispatch.

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