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ACBA Members Recall Bench-Bar Memories
By Daniel Casciato
For The Lawyers Journal
June 15, 2001

We want Seymour! We want Seymour!" Seymour Sikov still chuckles as he recalls the droning chants of his name echoing throughout the dining halls of Seven Springs Mountain Resort at the annual Bench-Bar Conference. They were chanting that for years, Sikov said, because of one fateful night many years ago.

Sikov was Master of Ceremonies at the opening comments the Thursday night of the conference and as was customary for all masters, Sikov made an attempt at telling a joke. "It was bad. The joke just fell flat. This was also during a time when I was a vice-chair (for one of the ACBA committees). The very next day, the chair was up on the stage and told an even worse joke," said Sikov. "Two of the judges immediately stood up and started chanting, 'We want Seymour. We want Seymour.'"

Sikov said that for years after, whenever someone stood up to speak at the luncheon or dinner, the crowd immediately burst into the Seymour chants. "Anyone who knows me, knows that I am a ham. One year, I was in the back of the room with a three-piece band. When the chants started up, I rolled into the room with them playing along to the chant," said Sikov.

Sikov is not the only one with fond memories of the annual Bench-Bar Conference. Bench-Bar is a time of year when so many memories are made and the Allegheny County Bar Association has 40 years of them. Forty years ago, the Allegheny County Bar Association set out to establish an annual conference of judges and lawyers that would provide a combination of quality continuing legal education along with social activities designed to forge stronger ties between the bench and the bar. However, Sikov said that attendance to Bench-Bar was only limited to personal injury attorneys and the bench for the first few years.

"Actually, that is my favorite memory of Bench-Bar. It used to be a much smaller group, maybe 90 or 100 of us at the most. It was a very intimate group. You got to know the judges very well and talked to them about problems in the court system," said Sikov. Before Bench-Bar hit its 10th anniversary, a decision was made to make it open to all members. Over the years, hundreds of attorneys and judges have attended Bench-Bar and have made lasting relationships, both professional and personal, enriching the camaraderie within the legal community. Many people have been back time and time again, some even attending each and every conference. Some of the memories last a lifetime.

For John L. Doherty, chair of the Bench-Bar Committee in 1978, one of those memories involved the late Nick Stone. Doherty spoke fondly of Stone. "Nick Stone was a great storyteller and kept you entertained for hours. He eventually joined the Big Show because of his great voice. He was one of the regular participants every year. After a number of years of doing the Big Show, he had an accident and couldn't do it one summer. We missed him. The following year, he returned and came on stage with his crutches. There was such an overwhelming response to his return and the crowd gave him a standing ovation. We were all moved by it."

G. Daniel Carney said his most moving memory occurred in 1989 when he had the privilege to chair the conference and to join Philip Amram by conference call from his hospital room. "Many correctly suspected that the call would be Phil's last participation in the Bench-Bar Conference. It was with genuine affection and pride that we announced to Phil the creation of the Philip Werner Amram Award to be given from time to time as appropriate at the Bench-Bar Conference in his honor.

Philip Amram was a profound contributor and is an enduring spirit of the Bench-Bar Conference." Years later, in 2001, Carney was selected to receive the Amram Award. "The emotions attendant on that award are not easily described in words and will, I am certain, always be treasured in my memory," he said. While Bench-Bar has been sentimental at times, it has also caused organizers a few headaches and laughs over the years. "During the first few years of Bench-Bar there used to be horses on the grounds. There was a stable on what are now the condominiums. Nearby was a recreational room for us to have fun-play cards, mingle and so forth," said Doherty. "Well, the one night, we were downstairs in the (recreation) room playing cards, when all of the sudden we heard a noise, looked up and saw one of the members trying to bring a horse down the steps and into the room. Jim Smith went crazy. He ran up and got the horse out of there."

Of course, Doherty continued, there are more stories that he fondly recalls. The fall before they began to construct the condos, Seven Springs had excavated a hole, approximately five stories in depth and almost as wide. Doherty recalled that it was pouring down rain that weekend. So the hole began to fill with water and mud. That's when the fun began. "One lawyer decided that he was going to slide down the huge mud hole," Doherty says. "Of course, it wasn't too hard sliding down, but he couldn't get back up. So Jimmy went out with a bunch of us. We rigged a rope from Jim's waist and we lowered him down the hole to rescue the guy."

When one thinks of Bench-Bar, memories of Smith usually come up. Carney said, "Who can ever forget, no matter how hard they try, the debut of James I. Smith, III singing 'Lawyer' to the tune of YMCA?" Carney's most vivid memory, however, was his first conference in 1968 as a young attorney. He said he enjoyed being able to talk one-on-one with the men and women who would someday be his colleagues. Sidney Baker, chair of the 1981 Bench-Bar, always had a great time at Bench-Bar and has many memories.

"To pick out just one memory is rather difficult. There are so many memories of the Bench-Bar. But one thing that I fondly remember occurred during my tenure as the chair of the Bench-Bar. That was the first year we decided to seat judges at tables with some of the younger lawyers for a 7 a.m. breakfast. It was a great opportunity for the younger lawyers to get acquainted with some of the judges. Each judge was appointed to a table where they were to sit. The morning of the breakfast came, and here it was nearing 7:00, and we had no lawyers. I remember we were rushing around to the rooms trying to round them all up for the breakfast."

Despite that rough beginning, over the years, the "Young Lawyers Section Breakfast with the Judges" program was perfected and was one of the favorites among the participants. The program was designed for young lawyers and members of the judiciary only, and gave them an opportunity to converse informally with one another at breakfast tables. Now, all Bench-Bar attendees are invited to this event. Allegheny County is fortunate to have members of the bench who support the conference year in and year out. Many attorneys said they believe that the relationship among the members of the bench and bar are formed at the conference.

"The Bench-Bar Conference has always been a forum where lawyers and judges could interact freely and exchange views. While from time to time the antics of some members of the bar cast questions about the seriousness of their intent to communicate, the serious mindedness of the bench will forever be emblazoned in the minds of those who watched in awe as Judges Dauer, Johnson, Kaplan and McGregor 'tripped the light fantastic' begowned and bewigged," said Carney.

On a final note, Carney said that one memory is interspersed throughout all of the conferences he has attended over the years. "Time and time again I have been impressed with the seemingly tireless energy and dedication of Dorie Schnippert and the staff who work with her to make the conference what it is, to have helped make it grow, and to have been its glue in many, many ways."

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