Lawyer remembered as ‘hidden gem’
July 23, 2013
When Bill Wetherall died last month at 102 years old, no funeral took place and his passing was only marked by an understated obituary, which he wrote himself.
"It was so scientific," said filmmaker Gregg Schiffner. "He was a guy that didn't think he was special. He thought he did his work just like a plumber or a carpenter."
But Wetherall had a profound impact on Nevada County — practicing law privately and for the city of Nevada City, as well as contributing to local land preservation efforts and the arts.
"The last couple years of his life, I took him out every week," Schiffner said.
"Everywhere we went, every third person was someone he knew or represented … Everyone respected him."
The Iowa-born Wetherall never knew his mother and went from working Nebraska farms in the summers to leading his Des Moines high school in debate. Wetherall earned his law degree from the University of Idaho, followed shortly thereafter with a clerk's position in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
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In April 1955, Wetherall moved his wife, Orene, and their three children to Grass Valley, and he partnered with Harold Berliner to practice law in an office in Nevada City.
Berliner once said the best thing he ever did for the area was to bring Wetherall to Nevada County, according to Frank Francis, a retired Nevada County Superior Court judge.
California Supreme Court Justice Raymond Sullivan once remarked that Wetherall was the finest lawyer he had ever worked with, Francis said.
"I reminded Bill of that three months ago. He just blushed. He didn't say anything," Francis said.
"He didn't look for any kind of notoriety in any way. He was just low-key but a hidden gem."
Wetherall served as city attorney for Nevada City from 1959 until 1979, helping to create the Downtown Historic District.
Former Nevada City Clerk Cathy Wilcox-Barnes described Wetherall as one of the two individuals most responsible for preserving Nevada City's historic character in the downtown district, the other being former City Manager Beryl Robinson, she said in a Nevada County Historical Society video filmed in March.
"His clients were served by a great talent at a very low cost. He wouldn't charge high fees on anything. Nevada City got a tremendous bargain for him," Francis said.
"He had a great legal talent. Among other things, he was a master craftsman of legal documents … he was a lawyer's lawyer, one everyone could look up to. Yet he had great humility."
Wetherall practiced law for more than seven decades, 54 years in Nevada County.
Much of that time he practiced across from the Nevada County Courthouse; he continued in private practice at that location until 2000, when he moved his office to his home in Grass Valley to take care of his wife.
"If Bill wrote your agreement or contract, it was air-tight," Schiffner said.
"There was no fussing around with it; he was meticulous in his practice of law."
Even after a small stroke in 2010, Wetherall continued to advise, those close to him said.
"When I was visiting him at the hospital, he had briefs all over his bed," Schiffner said. "It was mostly estate planning in the last years of his life."
Both Schiffner and Francis spoke of Wetherall as something of a mentor.
"Everybody that knew him respected him," Schiffner said.
"I don't think I have hardly ever met anyone like him," Francis said.
"I don't think there is anything that could be said negative about him."
In addition to his legal talents, Wetherall served as a director of the Nevada County Fair board for 12 years and on the board for Music in the Mountains for six years.
"The other thing about Bill was not only was he a guy with integrity, he was also so willing to share his time and expertise," said Terry Brown, former executive director of Music in the Mountains.
"Bill was the one that started our endowment fund and secured our first donations … He and his wife also donated to that fund."
Living a block away from the Empire Mine, he was known to run and walk for two miles on its trails daily, Schiffner said.
"One of the things that should have been added (to the obituary) is that he always referred to Nevada County as the second garden of Eden," Schiffner said.
"He loved the community and the environment."
The Wetheralls were also supporters of the Bear Yuba Land Trust. In June 2010, Wetherall donated funds to the organization, which enabled it to build the Orene Wetherall Trail, named in memory of his wife, who died in 2003.
Wetherall died June 19 in Nevada City. His personally crafted obituary said that contributions could be made to Music in the Mountains, the Bear Yuba Land Trust or, simply, a favorite charity.
To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4236.