It was an assault trial in the Douglas County Courthouse many years ago, and Judge John T. Grant was presiding.
An attorney in the case referred to an unusual strain of venereal disease named after the doctor who discovered it.
“Don’t you suppose he’d have rather had a bridge named after him?” the judge asked.
That question was talked about in the courthouse for years, one example of the Irish humor of a judge respected as much for his ability to keep competing sides calm as for the serious legal mind he possessed.
“He had a sense of humanity that was unmatched,” said State Sen. Tom White of Omaha, whose father, former Judge Thomas White, served with Grant.
“He knew how to see at least some humor in the cases he and the court had to deal with, and that helped them stay sane.”
Grant, a Nebraska Supreme Court justice from 1983 to 1992, died Tuesday.
“He got pneumonia, and he just couldn’t shake it at 89,” said the judge’s oldest son, Omaha lawyer John P. Grant, 58.
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine met Grant when Kleine was a trial lawyer in his mid-20s and Grant was a Douglas County District Court judge.
“He was the kind of guy who was very gracious and very understanding,” Kleine said. “Very patient with people, and he treated everybody equally, no matter who anybody was. He was a great mentor to a lot of lawyers.”
One of the most important lessons Kleine learned from Grant, he said, was that the adversarial relationship between lawyers ended at the courtroom doors.
“You respected the person on the other side, and everybody did their job to the best of their ability,” Kleine said. “But ... it was nothing personal.”
Richard Shugrue, a professor emeritus at the Creighton University School of Law, said Grant studied cases and reached conclusions based on a practical examination of the facts and serious legal precedents.
“That was the way he practiced law and judging,” Shugrue said. “A man of great practicality and a man of depth. He pretended that he wasn’t a scholarly guy, but he took the cases he had very seriously.”
Grant was born in Omaha, near 41st and Izard Streets.
“It’s one of the tragedies of my life that to this day there isn’t a monument or a big searchlight or a blessed thing (there),” he said during a 1996 interview with Shugrue as part of a legal oral history series preserved online at Creighton.
“Or a wanted poster ... .”
Grant’s father was a plumber and streetcar conductor, and his mother kept boarders. The judge attended St. Cecilia Cathedral Elementary School and later Creighton Prep.
He was the first in his family to graduate from college. He didn’t get there right away. He first worked for the Nebraska Power Co. before joining the Army, spending 30 months overseas during World War II.
He was in Okinawa when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
He originally planned to be an engineer, he said, but entered Creighton University Law School in the fall of 1947.
He married his first wife, Marian, in 1947. The couple had their first child, Martha, in 1948 — three hours before Grant was scheduled to take an exam. He did not perform well.
Over his last couple of years in law school, he worked as a bartender at the Elbow Room, then at 36th and Farnam Streets.
Grant had a lengthy career in private practice, was elected president of the Omaha Bar Association in 1973, and served on the Nebraska Court of Industrial Relations before being named to the Douglas County District Court. There, he handled some of Omaha’s best-known criminal cases, including the murder trials of C. Michael Anderson and Peter Hochstein, convicted of the contract killing of Omaha real estate broker Ronald Abboud, and that of racetrack worker Harold Otey, convicted of the rape and murder of Jane McManus in her home.
After Grant’s appointment to the State Supreme Court by then-Gov. Bob Kerrey in 1983, he was one of the judges who upheld the death sentence for survivalist cult leader Michael Ryan, convicted of the 1985 torture and murder of a man on a farm near Rulo, Neb.
Grant described the sentencing of Thomas J. Samson, then not quite 16, as the emotional low point of his judicial career. Samson was convicted of manslaughter in the 1978 slaying of a baby sitter at Towl Park, 93rd Street and West Center Road.
“He was so young,” Grant said of the boy he sentenced to one to seven years in prison, which was criticized as too lenient.
“Sentencing is very difficult,” Grant told The World-Herald in 1992. “If you ever get to like it, you’re not fit for it.”
Two of Grant’s five children followed him into the legal profession. Wife Marian died in 1995. He is survived by his second wife, Zella Grant.
World-Herald staff writers Juan Perez Jr., Aaron Sanderford and Tony Ferguson contributed to this report.
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