Spring 1998

People of the Century

The Law of the Land

The trial of Nicola Sacco, right, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti was a notorious episode in American legal history. Attorney William Thompson took their fight for justice all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

F or a number of WPI students, a preparation in science or engineering became the foundation for a career in law. One WPI attorney went on to play a pivotal role in one of the most infamous legal cases of the 20th century - the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti. William G. Thompson, Class of 1884, left WPI early when his father, Charles O. Thompson, resigned his post as WPI's first president to become the first president of Rose Polytechnic Institute. William Thompson started a legal practice in Boston and for a time was an assistant U.S. attorney. He later joined the firm of Thomas, Spring & Mears as a senior partner, developing a reputation as one of the city's best legal minds.

In 1921, Italian immigrants and radicals Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were convicted of the murder of a paymaster in South Braintree, Mass. When the judge denied them a new trial, Sacco and Vanzetti became discouraged by the performance of their defense attorney and asked Thompson to take over. Offended by what he and others saw as improprieties in the conduct of the trial and convinced of his clients' innocence, he uncovered new evidence and mounted appeals that ultimately took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. After every legal avenue had been exhausted, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed on Aug. 22, 1927. Vanzetti summoned Thompson to his cell that night to take down his final statement. In a 1927 article in the Atlantic, future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote of Thompson, "The espousal of the Sacco-Vanzetti cause by a man of Mr. Thompson's professional prestige at once gave it a new complexion and has been its mainstay ever since."

Harold B. Whitmore '21 began his law career soon after graduation, joining the staff of the U.S. Patent Office in Washington. He eventually became superintendent of the Examining Corps, the highest career post. He was elected a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and he received the Gold Medal, the highest employee honor bestowed by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Through the years, WPI graduates have served their towns, cities, states and nation as elected and appointed officials. One of the most remarkable stories of government service concerns two members of the Class of 1890 who were elected lieutenant governors of different states within a two-year span. In 1904, Francis W. Treadway was elected to the House of Representatives in Ohio, where he'd started a law practice that grew to become one of the state's largest. Early in his legislative career, Treadway caught the eye of the state's Republican leadership, which in 1908 placed his name in nomination for lieutenant governor, a post he won by a wide margin. At the end of his term, he left politics and devoted his energies to business. He was instrumental in starting WPI's Alumni Fund and was chosen its first honorary chairman. After his death, WPI named the principal account of the fund in his honor.

The political career of Everett J. Lake didn't stop at the Connecticut lieutenant governor's chair, which he won in 1906. Having served as a state representative, state senator and lieutenant governor between 1901 and 1909, he lost the Republican nomination for governor by 10 votes in a bitterly contested 1910 race. Discouraged, he dropped out of politics for a time, but agreed to attend the 1920 convention to nominate a friend. When a deadlock loomed, Lake's name was placed in the running and he won the nomination on the fourth ballot when his friend withdrew. He went on to become Connecticut's 67th governor, winning by the largest plurality to that time. His two-year term was marked by disputes with the state Republican Party leaders, and as a result, he was not nominated for a second term.

The eight-year political career of G. Albert Hill '13 was also spent in Connecticut, where he was a professor of chemistry at Wesleyan University for 30 years. In 1947, Connecticut Governor James L. McConaughy, a former Wesleyan president, appointed Hill state highway commissioner. His term was marked by public battles with two governors. He fought with Chester Bowles over the commissioner's right to present problems directly to the state legislature; during the term of John Davis Lodge, he defied an edict that required all state cars to bear special markers, believing he could be more effective in his duties in an unmarked vehicle. In 1948 Hill received the President's Certificate of Merit, the second highest White House honor, for his work on aerial night photography during World War II.

In 1923, Frederick M. Feiker '04 began a memorable foray into national government when Herbert Hoover, then secretary of commerce, chose him to be his assistant secretary of commerce. After that assignment, Feiker returned to McGraw-Hill Publishing Co., where he was vice president and editorial director of the company's 11 publications. Hoover had become acquainted with Feiker when the future U.S. president was the head of the American Engineering Council of the Federated American Engineering Societies and Feiker helped him develop a plan for the elimination of waste in industry. Hoover later asked Feiker to be vice chairman of a committee that studied national distribution systems. After he was elected president in 1929, Hoover tapped Feiker as director of the U.S. Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce. A decade later, Feiker joined the faculty of George Washington University, where he was named dean of the school of engineering.

In 1947, U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall proposed an economic development plan for war-ravaged Europe. Edmund M. Flaherty '11, an executive with E.I. Du Pont de Nemours & Co., was chosen to head the chemical division of the Marshall Plan, working to help Europe rebuild its chemical industry. At DuPont, he was one of a small group of chemists credited with inventing Duco nitrocellulose lacquer, which reduced the time needed for painting cars from weeks to hours, removing the last barrier to the mass production of automobiles.

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