94-year-old retired
attorney, community
leader reflects on an
eventful life

If ever there was a Brahmin name in Maine, it might well be Sewall. Prominent in a way similar to that of the Lowells and Cabots of Massachusetts, the Sewalls have exerted an influence that few if any families in the state’s history could surpass. The family includes, for example, the foremost builder of sailing vessels in America, Arthur Sewall, who in 1896 became the Democratic vice-presidential running mate of William Jennings Bryan. He was, as the Lewiston Evening Journal once remarked, “the epitome of gallant gentility.”

On the Republican side was Arthur’s son, Harold, who when not serving as a leader in the Maine legislature was one of the nation’s foremost foreign emissaries. Not to be left out would be Sumner Sewall, who governed Maine during World War II, Joseph Sewall, who holds the record as the longest-serving GOP Maine Senate president, not to mention Joseph’s nephew, two-term governor Jock McKernan and the husband of Sen. Olympia Snowe.

One of the more durable members of the clan, however, is their country cousin, former long-time Wilton attorney Calvin Sewall. Sewall, now 94, has managed during the last 25 years — even while in retirement — to maintain a brisk pace of activity. Next to state Sen. Tom Saviello, he has been one of the more ubiquitous patrons of club meetings, public dinners and other civic functions in Franklin County during this time.

This Sewall, however, was by no means endowed with a silver spoon in his mouth. The largesse visited upon Arthur, who ranked near John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan as among the wealthiest persons in the country, was not bestowed on the franchise of the Sewall family that settled in Franklin County. (They were descended from noted theologian Jotham Sewall.) The early part of Calvin’s journey features an education that begins at a one-room school house in a remote corner of North Jay, a quarter-mile from his parents’ beef cattle farm. Though the school was small, individual interaction with its teacher was parsimoniously provided: her attention was spread thin, attempting to teach all eight grades at once to the 15 to 20 students scattered throughout the condensed premises. A quick learner, however, Calvin did well enough to be eligible for grammar school graduation by the age of 12.

Though his family was not wealthy, his parents — who also worked at the G.H. Bass Shoe Company — summoned sufficient resources despite the Depression to pay for his $60-per-semester tuition at Wilton Academy. (Jay High would have been free, but was much further away from their home than the Academy in Wilton.) Summers Calvin spent working on the family farm.

His years at the Academy were followed by four years at University of Maine in Orono, where he majored in economics. The signature event his senior year was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Sewall’s graduation was thus quickly followed by three-and-a-half years with the Army Air Corps during World War II.

Sewall next — courtesy of the GI bill — embarked on a legal education at the prestigious Columbia University. There, he rubbed elbows with such premiere future luminaries as Judge Jack Weinstein, one of America’s foremost authorities on legal evidence who even today presides over federal trials in New York City.

A frequent seatmate — in part because the 150 students were initially arranged alphabetically by their last names — was John Seiberling, who won fame in the 1970s and 1980s as an eight-term Democratic Congressman from Ohio.

Though Sewall found his classmates scintillating and the curriculum stimulating, his time in Manhattan dampened his ardor for urban life, but helped fire up a desire to return to Maine.

By the end of 1948, then, Sewall was back in the Jay-Wilton region of Franklin County, hanging out his shingle in Wilton’s downtown. Not one to simply wait around for clients to show up in an era when lawyers were restricted from doing much advertising, Sewall moonlighted as the town’s tax collector for a couple of years and also later put in time as the county’s part-time clerk of courts.

As with most attorneys in America in this era Sewall had a general practice that might entail drafting a childhood adoption petition one day, a criminal case or settling an estate the next, and handling a real estate closing and a divorce on the day after that.

“You became an expert for whoever came through the door,” Sewall recalled recently.

A landmark event 10 years into his career was Sewall’s election as Franklin County attorney in 1958. For the next six years he was the prosecuting attorney for criminal cases.

“One case I will always remember was a case of embezzlement,” Sewall observed.

The case involved “a lot of money for that time,” but was very challenging since it entailed the theft of bearer bonds, which meant the securities involved were the practical equivalent of cash, and thus almost untraceable. Also rendering the case a bit elusive was that the victim by the time of trial had been dead for three years.

The defendant also had on her side two of the most prominent attorneys in this part of Maine, Lewiston’s Ben Berman and Rumford’s Fred Hanscom. After a week-long trial, however, Sewall’s case emerged triumphant and the jury found the defendant guilty.

With characteristic modesty, Sewall also recalled the down side of being a prosecutor in Maine, however, asserting that, “The county attorney back then was expected to lose the night-hunting cases,” an expectation he was not able to defy.

A big difference from practicing in his time versus today?  “There was almost nothing about drugs,” Sewell said.

Another difference from today is that in Sewall’s time cases didn’t get plea bargained. “One reason why was the judges weren’t that busy,” and thus had time to hear more cases.

“They wanted to hear the case and then decide it.”

Moreover, as Sewall recently recalled, “You would have hurt their feelings if you went and said ‘here’s what you want them to do.’ “

After stepping down as county attorney at the end of 1964, Sewall was able to devote more time to his private practice, one that was evolving into one of the most active among the 20 or so in Franklin County in this time. He was also becoming a respected mentor to newer attorneys who frequently sought out his guidance and counsel. (He also demonstrated to some of them his strategic prowess on the tennis courts.)

His steady hand was also deployed in wielding the gavel at town meetings in Wilton for over 30-years along with presiding at school budget meetings for the Farmington-Wilton-New Sharon area SAD 9. This was during the time that saw the place of the area’s three high schools taken by a regional secondary school and vocational center that has served one of the state’s larger geographic school districts.

Though his practice was more burgeoning than in earlier years, it was one that still upheld a tradition of private practitioners that dates back to Lincoln’s time as an attorney. This columnist can recall how during the 1980s, for example, Sewall accepted a significant caseload of court appointments for the frequently thankless tasks of representing accused in criminal cases as well as various parties in contentious Department of Human Services child custody proceedings.

In more recent years Sewall, though retired from practicing in the late 1980s, has continued his interest in organizations and activities, pursuits that have made him an institutional figure in this part of Maine. They include the Masonic lodge, Lions Club, area historical societies, the American Legion and various church functions.

Sewall’s routine in retirement has also included five or more miles of daily perambulations along the highways and byways of the Wilton area. Even though his pace in the last year or so has slowed somewhat and the duration of his walks has abated, he has left an indelible footprint in the soils of his part of Maine.

Paul H. Mills, is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail: [email protected]


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