In Memoriam -- H. Jesse Arnelle (Staff)
Oct 21, 2020
Jesse Arnelle, Pathbreaker in Corporate Law, Dies at 86
years after he led the Penn State basketball team to the Final Four, he and
a friend started one of the few Black-owned firms catering to blue-chip
H. Jesse Arnelle with President Bill Clinton at the Penn
State University commencement in 1996. Mr. Arnelle, who helped start one of
the first minority-owned corporate law firms, was president of the
university’s board of trustees at the time.Credit...Paul
J. Richards/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
H. Jesse Arnelle, who helped
start one of the first minority-owned corporate law firms in the United
States three decades after gaining acclaim as a two-sport star and the first
Black student body president at Penn State University, died on Oct. 21 at
his home in San Francisco. He was 86.
His wife, Carolyn Block-Arnelle,
said the cause was congestive heart failure.
Historically, Black lawyers
had found little acceptance among blue-chip companies. They tended to
gravitate instead to civil rights, criminal defense, personal injury and
family law. But when Mr. Arnelle and William Hastie established Arnelle &
Hastie in San Francisco in 1984, they wanted a corporate clientele.
“It was an audacious plan,”
Mr. Arnelle told The New Yorker in 1993. “It was pretty darn presumptuous of
two guys like us to say they were going into a corporate practice.”
Slowly they did,
building a firm that at its peak had as many as 60 lawyers in cities around
the United States and that served major corporations like RJR Nabisco
(defending it in tobacco litigation), AT&T, Coca-Cola, du Pont, Chrysler,
Levi Strauss and Merrill Lynch, as well as the Federal Deposit Insurance
Corporation during the savings-and-loan crisis of the 1980s. The firm also
started one of California’s largest public-finance practices.
“What we had was gumption,”
Mr. Hastie said in a phone interview, “and we knew a lot of people.”
Arnelle & Hastie’s success
led to recognition from Black
Enterprise magazine as
one of the nation’s top 12 Black-owned law firms. The magazine noted that
Black firms still had to take “nickel and dime” work from corporations in
the hope of securing more lucrative work.
The two partners, Black
Enterprise added, “stunned clients with their courtroom skills.”
Mr. Arnelle — a power
forward at Penn State who stood 6-foot-5 — was a charismatic figure, in a
courtroom or a boardroom.
“He had an incredible
trial and advocacy style and a great presence, which was partially his size,
manner and deep voice, which you can’t undersell as a trial lawyer,” Mr.
Hastie said. “He had a warm handshake and knew how to get close to people
and listen — or appear to listen.”
A 6-foot-5 power forward, Mr. Arnelle led Penn State to the N.C.A.A. Final
Four in 1954.Credit...Penn
Hugh Jesse Arnelle was
born on Dec. 30, 1933, in New Rochelle, N.Y. His father, also named Hugh,
had a hauling business. His mother, Lynne (Chevannes) Arnelle, was a
domestic worker. The family, which included two other sons, lived in a
government housing project.
At New Rochelle High School, where
he was on the football, basketball and track teams, Mr. Arnelle stood out as
a quiet force of nature who was widely admired,” George
Hirsch, a former classmate who
is the chairman of New York Road Runners, the organization that runs the New
York City Marathon, said in a phone interview.
Yet, Mr. Arnelle told The
New Yorker, he was not as self-possessed as he seemed. As a sophomore, he
recalled, he had come unprepared to a Spanish class and stumbled when asked
questions by his teacher. After he left the classroom, feeling humiliated,
his teacher, who needed crutches to walk, grabbed him and pushed him against
By his account, she told him
that he had humiliated himself by not preparing adequately and said: “You
have the ability to master any subject in the same way you have mastered
that silly game you play — basketball or football or whatever they call it.
I will help you.”
He was recruited by the Penn
State football coach Rip
played wide receiver for the Nittany Lions. He had greater impact on the
basketball court, leading Penn State to the N.C.A.A. Final Four in 1954 (the
team lost in the semifinals to La Salle University), and he was named most
valuable player of the tournament’s east regional.
Over four seasons, Mr.
21 points and 12.1 rebounds a game.
In 1954, he was elected
student body president with 74.5 percent of the votes cast. He graduated the
next year with a bachelor’s degree in political science.
He continued his athletic
career with a focus on basketball. Rather than play football for the Los
Angeles Rams, who chose him in the 10th round of the N.F.L. draft in 1955,
he played for the Harlem Globetrotters on an overseas tour, then joined the Fort
Wayne (now Detroit) Pistons,
who had taken him in the second round of the N.B.A. draft. He averaged
4.7 points in 31 games in
his only season in the league.
After serving in the
Air Force, Mr. Arnelle graduated from the Dickinson
School of Law in
Carlisle, Pa., in 1962. A job as a lawyer with the Labor Department in
Washington led to a meeting with R. Sargent Shriver, the director of the
Peace Corps, who assigned him to serve in Turkey, then to India.
When he returned to
Washington, he worked on Senator
Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign before
starting his legal career with a corporate firm in San Francisco.
In May 1968 — a month after
the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and a month before
Kennedy’s — Mr. Arnelle was invited back to Penn State to receive the Alumni
Association Award at the annual football awards banquet. But he surprised
his host by rejecting the honor and delivering a speech that excoriated the
school’s record on race relations.
“For it is now more than a
century since the commencement of this land-grant college and there has
never been a Black American on the faculty with tenure,” he said. “There has
never been a Black dean of a Penn State faculty; there has never been a
Black vice president of the university in any capacity; there is no known
Black Penn State graduate appointed, assigned or consulted at the
policymaking level of the University.”
He added, “Should the
university’s president call his immediate staff in conference, there
wouldn’t be a Black face in the room.”
Mr. Arnelle was named
to Penn State’s board of trustees in 1969 and served for 45 years.
Mr. Arnelle in 2012. “He had a warm handshake,” his former law partner said,
“and knew how to get close to people and listen — or appear to listen.”Credit...Rich
He continued his legal
career as a trial lawyer for the federal public defender’s office and as the
head of his own firm, where he practiced civil and criminal law for 15 years
until starting Arnelle & Hastie. Mr. Hastie had also been a solo
The firm remained
independent for a decade, until it merged with another Black-owned firm,
McGee Willis & Greene, in 1994. Mr. Hastie said the merger became a lifeline
after federal banking work dried up, the affirmative action initiatives that
had brought work from blue-chip companies faded, and some bond lawyers left
Mr. Arnelle remained at the combined firm until 1997, when he became of
counsel to the law firm now known as Womble Bond Dickinson, which
represented RJR Nabisco’ in tobacco litigation. Before retiring, he served
on various corporate boards, among them that of Gannett, the newspaper
In addition to his wife, he
is survived by his daughter, Isis Bastet, and a son, Michael. Another son,
Hugh Paolo, died in 2008. Mr. Arnelle’s marriage to Xenia Sorokin ended in
Mr. Arnelle recognized that
his firm had sometimes been hired because the plaintiffs or witnesses in
cases in which he was defense counsel were Black. But, he
told The Los Angeles Times in
1994, he did not feel used.
“They made the same
kind of value judgment I would have made: ‘Where can I best use the talents
of this firm?’” he said. “That’s logical, good, lawyerlike reasoning. I
don’t look on that as disparaging at all.”
(New York Times, Nov. 3, 2020