John French argued complex cases from Minnesota courtrooms to the U.S. Supreme Court for nearly 40 years of practice at Minneapolis-based Faegre & Benson.
Tom Morgan, a former managing partner of what is now Faegre Baker Daniels, said French's unassuming brilliance, coupled with his humility and skills as a recruiter and mentor, helped Faegre become one of the largest and most successful law firms in the Midwest.
French died Friday at age 79 at his Minneapolis home, surrounded by family and close friends, following a long illness.
French, the son of a minister, graduated with honors from the University of Minnesota, was president of the Harvard Law Review and came to Faegre in 1963.
"Much of the trial work that John did was appellate work in the federal courts," Morgan recalled. "He had a reputation for being a superb appellate lawyer with just flawless arguments. The tradition is the lawyer can barely get a word out without the court interrupting. ... John was seldom interrupted. He read the tea leaves, he understood the pivot points of a case and spoke to the issues at hand with eloquence.
"He also was such a fine person. I never heard John French say an unkind word about anyone. He brought out the best in everyone. He recognized the array of talent we had and helped people to excel at what they did best. He helped us collaborate. John French is revered around here."
French made his mark in DFL politics when party chair Warren Spannaus asked him to chair the troubled 1968 Minnesota DFL convention.
The faithful were split between the followers of Sen. Eugene McCarthy, the Minnesota maverick who had challenged President Lyndon Johnson over the unpopular Vietnam War, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the Minnesotan who won the party's nomination for president.
"I picked him to be the convention chairman in 1968, and he couldn't get out of it after that because he did such a wonderful job," recalled Spannaus, who went on to be Minnesota attorney general for eight years. "There was a big fight between the McCarthy and Humphrey forces. John knew how to listen carefully to both sides, to soothe people and to make the right decisions because he understood and because he was so fair. He was so smart and had such a nice easy way."
Spannaus could only recall French complaining once. Nicely.
After the divisive 1968 elections, in which Humphrey lost to Republican Richard Nixon for the presidency, Spannaus scheduled a fundraiser to unite Minnesota DFLers and replenish campaign coffers. It was a Guthrie Theater production, followed by a champagne reception.
"We were always short of money in those days, and we charged $50 or $100 a ticket and it was a big deal, and I got a deal on champagne that was about $15 a case, and it was about one step above vinegar," Spannaus recalled with a chuckle. "A couple days later John, who always wrote a generous check and volunteered to help, called to say it was a nice event. He also said that he'd been sick all night from the champagne. But he was even nice about that."
French, who served as a president of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association, supported myriad charities and human rights causes. In retirement, French wrote book reviews for the newspaper in Key West, Fla., and traveled with his wife, B.J. Along with her, French is survived by a sister, Catherine Klas, and stepdaughters Keri Pickett and Kim Mahling Clark.
A public memorial service will be held at Lakewood Cemetery Chapel at 10 a.m. Tuesday.
Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144