William Green Kerbin Jr., 94, attorney


William Green Kerbin Jr., a former Worcester County state's attorney and newspaper publisher who practiced law for 71 years until suffering a fall six weeks ago, died of congestive heart failure Monday at Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury. He was 94.

"He was one of the classiest guys you could think of and an example for all of us," said Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, a longtime friend. "To him, the law wasn't just making a living. It was a calling that he took very seriously."

Mr. Kerbin - who was born, raised and spent his life in Snow Hill - was the son of a lawyer who began practicing in the community in 1898.

He was a 1928 graduate of Charlotte Hall Military Academy and after earning his law degree in 1932 from the University of Baltimore joined his father's practice.

At 28, he was the youngest elected Worcester County state's attorney when he took on the job in 1938 and carried a .32-caliber automatic pistol for protection. He served until 1946.

During his tenure, he prosecuted five killers who received the death penalty. He also gained fame as the creator of "Billy Kerbin's Flying Squad." In a six-month period, the squad made 143 arrests - 54 for bootlegging, 57 for gambling, 28 for operating slot machines and four for dancing on Sunday.

"Ocean City was a wide-open gambling resort then with casinos, bookmakers and slot machines," said John Purnell, a Worcester County Times writer who profiled Mr. Kerbin in a January article. "Local moonshiners had stills deep in the Pocomoke cypress swamps, and he'd been shot at several times."

Mr. Kerbin was credited with thwarting a lynch mob in 1940 after Harvey W. Pilchard, a Stockton farmer, was killed and his wife wounded. Two black men were charged.

As racial tensions flared and an angry mob gathered, Mr. Kerbin, aided by several state troopers, managed to get the suspects safely out of the jail's back door and into a car. They were held in Bel Air until being tried in Towson. Arthur Collick was sentenced to death and hanged. His accomplice, Charles Manuel, was sentenced to life.

"We had to call in about 50 Maryland State Police troopers to help stop the thugs," Mr. Kerbin said in the January profile. "Snow Hill was such a small community, we couldn't handle the situation."

In 1945, Mr. Kerbin purchased the Democratic Messenger in Snow Hill, which had been founded a few years after the end of the Civil War. He served as its publisher while his wife - the former Margaret Howard, whom he married in 1934 - directed the daily operation of the newspaper and print shop. They sold the newspaper in 1973.

"He was always dressed in a coat and tie and was quite a dapper dresser," said Mr. Purnell, who was hired by Mr. Kerbin in 1965 as a $75-a-week reporter. "He was always dressed for court."

Mr. Kerbin - who was the oldest continuously practicing lawyer in Maryland, according to the University of Baltimore Law School - drove each day in his Lincoln to his West Green Street law office in Snow Hill, where he shared space with the firm of Coates Coates & Coates.

"He was semiretired and worked from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and then 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. but stopped going to court about six or eight years ago," said a daughter, Charlotte K. Cathell of Ocean Pines. "He always said the busier he was, the happier he was."

Mr. Kerbin also was known for handling many pro bono cases and was described by his daughter as "selfless."

"We used to say, 'Daddy, can't you find some clients who have some money?'" Mrs. Cathell said with a laugh.

"He was a diminutive bulldog and courtly man who combined Southern manners with brisk Northern efficiency," Mr. Purnell said.

"I never saw him in the courtroom, but I can imagine he was very comfortable there because he related to people well," said Judge Bell. "He was also a very humble guy who didn't tell you how great he was or talk about himself. He really didn't have to."

Mr. Kerbin, who had headed the Maryland Bar Association's Lower Shore Character Committee for more than 30 years, was still serving as its chairman at the time of his death. He was a past president of the Worcester County Bar Association and was a former member of the board of the University of Baltimore Law School.

His civic activities were numerous and included serving as a volunteer firefighter and chief of the Snow Hill Volunteer Fire Department. He was a 60-year member of the Snow Hill Rotary Club and had been active with the Boy Scouts and Red Cross.

His recipe for a long life?

"Keep working," Mr. Kerbin said in the January profile.

Mr. Kerbin was a communicant of All Hallows Episcopal Church in Snow Hill, where services will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow.

Survivors, in addition to his wife and daughter, include a son, William H. Kerbin Sr. of Pocomoke; another daughter, Susan K. Delano of Salisbury; and five grandchildren.

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