As they have done regularly for 25 years, a group of Columbus attorneys gathered Thursday at 4th Street Bar and Grill.

But on this day, enough of them showed up to fill the establishment’s back room. They came to honor William G. “Bill” Garber on his retirement Wednesday after nearly a half-century of practicing law.

The soft-spoken Garber, 74, seemed genuinely puzzled why he was getting such attention.

“He’s very humble and modest,” attorney Joyce Thayer Sword said. “But his clients appreciate both the quietness and solidity of his demeanor.”

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Long-time attorney Tim Vrana described Garber as “a source of advice and enlightenment in the community.”

But most of the widespread admiration stems from the fact that Garber represents a well-respected generation that inspired many others to seek a career in the law, attorney Lannie Harmon said.

“Bill combines great intellect with integrity. But most importantly, he practices law with manners and civility,” Harmon said. “He’s a gentleman and a scholar – in the truest sense.”

Love of the law

Born in Muskegon, Michigan, a few weeks before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in late 1941, the mathematically gifted Garber said he can’t remember ever considering a career path other than the one he followed.

After earning his undergraduate degree in political science and accounting in 1963, Garber worked a few years as an accountant for the Chicago-based Motorola Inc. before taking the law school admission test.

Garber said he has never forgotten the advice he received from one of his first-year law professors at the University of Michigan.

“He said: ‘If the facts are on your side, argue the facts. If the law is on your side, argue the law. If neither one is on your side – just argue,'” Garber said with a smile.

After earning his law degree in 1967, the young attorney found himself a “small cog in the wheel” at the giant Dow Chemical Co., headquartered in Midland, Michigan.

“I’ve always liked the financial, accounting and tax side of law,” Garber said. “The nice thing about working with business people is that they are always oriented to get goals accomplished.”

But a career move emerged in 1971 when former law school classmate George O. Hamilton gave Garber a call.

He learned that his college friend’s family business, Hamilton Cosco in Columbus, was in need of a general counsel.

Arrival in Columbus

With the support of the former classmate, the son of corporate president and board chairman Clarence Hamilton, Garber landed the job.

After working for the world’s third-largest chemical company, Garber felt like a larger fish in a smaller pond after he began working for the family-owned manufacturer in Columbus.

“But the legal issues are the same – no matter the size of the business,” Garber said. “The difference is just the number of zeros involved.”

Encouraged by the Hamilton family, who built the city’s first ice-skating rink at Lincoln Park in 1958, Garber volunteered to serve his community on the board of directors for Foundation for Youth.

While on the board of what is now the Columbus Regional Hospital Foundation, Garber was actively involved in an initiative to attract more physicians to Bartholomew County.

But after catching himself contemplating how community service might serve his financial interests, the thought clashed with his sense of integrity.

As a result, Garber backed out of the spotlight and was content to work quietly for others without recognition.

“His name is never going to appear anywhere, but he’s done a lot of great work for the Columbus Symphony Orchestra in updating the organization and making it work better,” attorney Christopher Clerc said.

After witnessing most of the Hamilton family either retire or move away, Garber knew he was working himself out of a job by assisting in the company’s 1978 acquisition by Walter Kidde and Co.

For the first time in his life, Garber found himself in private practice. For about 11 years, he was in a local law firm known as Marshall, Thomasson & Garber with the late Mike Thomasson and C. Richard Marshall.

But his work for his former employer wasn’t over. As an independent attorney, he represented a group of investors who bought back Cosco’s housewares division from Kidde and eventually sold it to its current owner, Dorel Industries.

Several former co-workers, as well as members of his church congregation, soon became clients. Eventually, Garber was selected to represent prominent businesses such as Woods and Grooms real estate, the David R. Webb Co. and Developmental Services, Inc. during tremendous growth periods, he said.

As he reflected on his career, Garber said he saw himself primarily as a problem-solver who enabled others to achieve their goals.

“But the goal isn’t always getting what the client is asking for,” Garber said. “Often, it’s simply ensuring a just and fair result.”

While business law has always been most appealing to him, the retiring attorney does remember one family law case that he found exceptionally gratifying.

Representing an impoverished and unmarried pregnant woman, he was able to prove the dead father’s paternity – which enabled an unborn baby girl to receive Social Security payments until she was 18, Garber said.

In recent years, Garber has been part of an association of attorneys at 431 Washington St. that includes Alan Whitted, Alex Whitted, James Shoaf and Michael DeArmitt.

“He’s been a good friend, a brilliant lawyer and such a pleasant individual,” Alan Whitted said. “We’re going to miss him.”

William G. Garber

William G. “Bill” Garber

Retiring as: Attorney

Age: 74

Birthplace: Muskegon, Michigan

Moved to Columbus: 1971

Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science and accounting, Western Michigan University, 1963; Law degree, University of Michigan, 1967

Family: Wife of 52 years, Rosalind “Roxie” Garber; children Matthew, Ruth, Elizabeth and the late Michael P. Garber.

Community involvement: Former board member for Foundation for Youth and the Bartholomew County (now Columbus Regional) Hospital Foundation.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.