William D. Symmes, who died last week at age 74, belonged to a group of Spokane attorneys who in the decades after the Korean War were known for their professional dedication and their commitment to treating others with dignity.
According to retired Spokane County Superior Court Judge Paul Bastine, Symmes never abandoned that dual capacity.
“He was of that old school where he would be a fierce advocate in court and still be a gentle person in his personal dealings with everyone else,” Bastine recalled.
Bastine, who remains active with the Washington and Spokane County bar associations, said it’s hard to find people like Symmes today.
“The practice of law has become more of a business now and less of a profession,” Bastine said.
Symmes died on Oct. 3 following a prolonged illness. He’s survived by his wife, Jayne; a daughter, Ashley Talarico; a son, William Symmes, who practices at Witherspoon, Kelley, Davenport and Toole, the firm where his father worked for 43 years; and five grandchildren.
After becoming a partner at Witherspoon Kelley, Symmes was the firm’s managing partner from 1990 to 2009.
He grew up in Spokane, attended Columbia University, then went on to earn a law degree at Stanford. Outside the courtroom, Symmes’ activities were focused on his family and on sports.
In 1978 Symmes and his legal partner, Robert Magnuson, joined a group of other area investors who bought the Spokane Indians minor league baseball team. He remained an owner until 1982, when some members wanted to keep the team in Spokane, while another faction wanted to sell it to a Las Vegas partnership.
Developer John Stone, who was part of the latter group, said Symmes was a great partner but also realistic about the team’s future. Symmes sided with those willing to sell, and Stone had to agree.
“It came down to the economy and to Spokane not having enough company sponsorships needed for a AAA level team,” Stone said. That sale, in 1982, marked the last year Spokane had a AAA minor league baseball team. Because of the size of the community, the Spokane Indians have been a single-A team ever since.
Symmes was committed to giving back to the community’s sports programs, especially by being a youth baseball and football coach, Stone said.
Spokane attorney Bill Etter, who was a starting quarterback for the University of Notre Dame, became a lawyer and took a job at Witherspoon Kelley because Symmes urged him to stay in his hometown instead of moving to Seattle, his original plan.
The two men worked together as coaches of seventh- and eight-grade football teams for several years. Etter said Symmes was solid and smart as a youth coach.
“He was phenomenal at presenting the fundamentals to young football players and at the same time exposing them to very creative offensive plays that he knew they could execute,” Etter said.
Etter and Stone both said Symmes had an incredible memory. Etter recalled one time when Symmes and a younger partner were in a courtroom during a civil trial. A witness was answering questions and Symmes was diligently taking notes. The younger lawyer looked over and wondered, since he thought the witness’ comments were fairly routine and unimportant.
So at the next break that partner asked Symmes about his notes.
“But he wasn’t taking notes,” Etter said. “Bill told him he was writing down every Heisman Trophy winner from 1950-whatever forward. He was just doing that to test his memory and to kill a little time during the trial.”