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Cleckley honored for his career

Mar. 26, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

West Virginia University Law Professor Frank Cleckley -- a Huntington native who was the first black supreme court justice and law professor for the university -- is retiring following this semester and has left an incredible legacy for his native city and state, say those who know him.

"Frank was a heck of a scholar," said West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Menis Ketchum. "Everybody from Huntington ought to be proud. ... He is actually the foremost scholar on the law in West Virginia, particularly on evidence and rules and procedure."

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin is among the West Virginians who want to make sure the man is honored properly and spoke about Cleckley on the floor of the U.S. Senate Feb. 27, ensuring that Cleckley's accomplishments are now preserved in the Congressional Record.

Among Manchin's words of praise for Cleckley were these: "The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that 'the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.' And, in my view, one of the reasons it bends toward justice is there are people like Frank Cleckley bending it with their honesty, their integrity and their commitment to what is right," Manchin remarked in the Senate. "Mr. President, it fills me with great pride to stand here today and tell the Senate about the accomplishments of Professor Frank Cleckley and his service to West Virginia. He is a great lawyer, a great man, and a great West Virginian, and Gayle and I join his family and friends in celebrating his long and distinguished pursuit of justice."

Cleckley earned his law degree from Indiana University in 1965 and proceeded to serve as a lawyer in the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General's Corps during the Vietnam War. Following his service, he earned his L.L.M. degree at Harvard University and then pursued post-graduate studies at Exeter University in England.

His career with WVU's College of Law began in 1969.

"Not only was he the first African-American on the staff at the West Virginia University College of Law -- he was also the first full-time African-American professor in the history of West Virginia University," Manchin said. "As a law professor at West Virginia University, Frank literally wrote the book on practicing law in West Virginia. He wrote two books you'll find in every courtroom and every lawyer's office in West Virginia -- the 'Handbook on Evidence for West Virginia Lawyers' and the 'Handbook on West Virginia Criminal Procedure.' "

They've been described in the West Virginia Supreme Court as "the Bible for West Virginia's judges and attorneys," he said. Cleckley spent two years serving on the West Virginia Supreme Court in the 1990s, the first black justice in the state.

Along with his teachings and being an exceptional trial lawyer, his legacy includes reviving the Mountain State Bar Association -- which Manchin said is the oldest minority bar in the country -- and establishing the Franklin D. Cleckley Foundation to help former prisoners with education and employment opportunities. He also organized a program to bring in civil rights leaders for lectures at WVU.

His sister, Betty Cleckley of Huntington, who retired as director of Marshall University's Multicultural and International Affairs, said she's quite proud of her younger brother, who was among the first class of black students admitted into Huntington High after schools were integrated.

She described him as "a brilliant mind and a kind, giving, loving person who's community minded."

"He had made a wonderful contribution in his career -- as captured by Senator Manchin," she said. "I went to his (retirement) party, and it was excellent."

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