U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Richard L. Speer, who with an easy command of literary and historic references and a wit that could bite presided over a wide range of cases, died Wednesday in Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center. He was 71.
He completed his workday Wednesday and was getting into his van when he had a heart attack. A federal marshal who accompanied him summoned help. He was taken to St. Vincent, where he was pronounced dead.
Judge Speer presided over one of the longest bankruptcy cases in the Toledo court’s history — just shy of 14 years, prompted by the failure in February, 1983, of Bell & Beckwith, an 85-year-old brokerage, after federal investigators discovered a $47 million fraud. To close the “dark page in the financial history of Toledo,” as he called it, Judge Speer held a signing ceremony and invited guests afterward to share in cake and coffee.
“The case of Bell & Beckwith has come and gone. May we never see the likes of it again,” Judge Speer said.
He also regularly presided over naturalization ceremonies throughout northwest Ohio.
The Port Clinton resident was first appointed in 1975 to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court and was the second-longest active bankruptcy judge in the country, according to the federal clerk of courts in Cleveland. He had about 15 months left in his current term.
Most fulfilling was “to be able to help those people who were truly in need,” his wife, Anita, said, “to help them get through some difficult times that were financially challenging.”
In a memorandum to attorneys who practice in bankruptcy court, the chief judge for the northern district of Ohio, Judge Pat E. Morgenstern-Clarren, remembered Judge Speer for his “sharp wit and warm heart. [He was] the court historian who lived through so many twists and turns in the bankruptcy world over his 38 years on the bench.”
“Judge Speer spoke often about what a privilege it was to serve as a United States bankruptcy judge,” Judge Morgenstern-Clarren wrote. “To that, I add that it was a privilege to have him as a colleague.”
The northern district has eight judges, but the two in Toledo handle cases from 21 counties.
“He thought it was a really hopeful area of law,” Judge Mary Ann Whipple, also of the Toledo court, said. “He saw a lot of good in it because of the opportunity it gave people for a fresh start.”
He could be empathetic and fair and blunt, attorneys who practiced before him said.
“I think he had a larger-than-life presence on the bench. It was his courtroom,” said Elliot Feit, who represents debtors. “He commanded it.”
Judge Speer made no apologies for his style.
“I don’t think you have to be a potted palm to be a judge,” he told The Blade in 2001. “If I’m going to render a decision that’s going to affect someone, that person has the right to know why.”
He was born Aug. 14, 1941, in Norwalk, Ohio, to Ruth and Lyle Speer. He was a 1959 graduate of Fremont Ross High School and received bachelor’s and law degrees from Ohio Northern University. His father was a skilled trades worker for Ford Motor Co. and a United Auto Workers leader. For two summers, he worked on the Ford production line. He taught for a year at Margaretta High School and practiced law in Oak Harbor.
He was a 33rd degree Mason and a member of the Oliver H. Perry Lodge. He was an honorary past grand commander for the Knights Templar of Ohio. He read histories of the Civil War and World War II and mapped his family’s background.
Surviving are his wife, Anita, whom he married Nov. 9, 1968; daughter, Gretchen Sivinski; son, Richard L. Speer, Jr.; sisters, Leslie Wiswell and Debra Speer; brother, William, and six grandchildren.
Visitation is 2-7 p..m. Sunday and 1-4 p.m. and 6-7 p.m. Monday in Neidecker, LeVeck & Crosser Funeral Home, Port Clinton. A service by the Commanderies of the Sixth Division, Knights Templar of Ohio, will be at 4 p.m. Sunday in the mortuary. Services will be private.
The family suggests tributes to Knights Templar Holy Land Pilgrimage in care of the Rev. Duane Kemerley in Pandora, Ohio, or the Knights Templar Eye Foundation.
Contact Mark Zaborney at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6182.