J. W. Avirett, lawyer, safety advocate


John W. Avirett, a longtime partner of the Baltimore law firm Piper & Marbury who drafted and successfully led the fight for adoption of the Maryland Fireworks Law in 1941, died Saturday of coronary artery disease at Roland Park Place.

The former Ruxton resident was 91.

As president of the Maryland Society for the Prevention of Blindness, he claimed that 13 percent of eye injuries were caused by fireworks. It took four sessions of the General Assembly before the legislation to control the sale of fireworks could be passed.

"Opponents of the bill will characterize proponents of the bill as fanatics and reformers," he wrote in 1941. "But public authorities charged with protecting children and charged with their education and training, the volunteer firemen of the state, persons charged with fire prevention and members of substantially every group in the state interested in public safety can hardly be classed as such."

He also worked for the passage and adoption of the Maryland law requiring the use of shatter-proof glass in school buses.

"No one knows how many boys and girls have their eyesight today because he could not be discouraged," said a 1949 editorial in The Sun.

He was born in Cumberland, the son of Col. John W. Avirett, owner and editor of the Cumberland Evening Times. He graduated in 1919 from Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va., and received a bachelor's degree in 1923 and a master's degree in 1924 from the University of Virginia. While at Virginia, he was co-founder and editor of the Virginia Reel and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He was a 1927 graduate of Harvard Law School. He was admitted to the Maryland Bar that year and began his legal career with the then-Piper, Casey & Hall. He was then a partner from 1933 until his retirement in 1976.

His practice was in public utility, estate and patent and administrative law and he frequently handled legislative matters before various state and local commissions and the Maryland General Assembly.

Said Roger Redden, his associate at Piper & Marbury, "He was optimistic, kept his sense of humor to the end. He was a real smart guy -- and, my God, did the clients love him."

Decatur H. Miller, chairman of Piper & Marbury, said, "He was a man who had an amazing interest in the firm and young people. Even though he was retired, he remained very close to the firm."

One young law school graduate who caught his attention was Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke who joined the firm in 1976.

"He was not only a great lawyer, he was very kind and friendly man. I liked him because of the attention he paid new associates in the firm and I also liked him as a teacher," said Mr. Schmoke.

During World War II, Mr. Avirett served in the U.S. Naval Reserve in the office of general counsel of the U.S. Navy and as special assistant and aide to the assistant secretary of the Navy. He retired with the rank of captain and was awarded the Legion of Merit.

In 1947 he married the former Barbara Brooke Dennis Rawlins of Frederick, a novelist, poet and lecturer, and the couple made their home for many years at Cock's Crow on Bellona Avenue in Ruxton. They moved to Roland Park Place in 1984. Mrs. Avirett died in 1990.

Mr. Avirett was active for many years in the Maryland Society for Medical Research, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Hammond-Harwood House in Annapolis.

G. R. Dennis Rawlins of Baltimore, a stepson, said, "He was one of those incredible people who wanted to help people and always took people as individuals. That's why he held onto life in spite of the pain. He died prematurely at 91."

Mr. Avirett was a member of the vestry of the Church of the Redeemer and served on the Standing Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. He was also on the board of managers of Uplands Home for Church Women and was a trustee of St. James School in Hagerstown.

His club memberships included the Maryland Club, the Elkridge Club, the Merchants Club, 14 West Hamilton Street Club and the Merchants Club. He was also a subscriber to the Bachelors Cotillon.

Services will be at 11 a.m. tomorrow at the Church of the Redeemer, 5603 N. Charles St., Baltimore.

Mr. Avirett is also survived by another stepson, William M. Rawlins of Copenhagen, Denmark; a brother, James A. Avirett of Cumberland; two stepgranddaughters; and several nieces and nephews.

The family suggested memorial contributions to the Avirett Fund at the Gilman School, 5407 Roland Ave., Baltimore 21210.

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