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Fellowship to Support Aspiring Public Defenders

10/18/2021

In the memory of renowned public defender Roland Thau, who escaped the Nazis during WWII and ultimately attended Brooklyn Law School and continued on to an illustrious legal career, his family has established a fellowship that will support Brooklyn Law students pursuing careers in criminal defense.

“He was an extraordinary man who lived an extraordinary life, and I want him to be remembered,” said Mary Farrington, Thau’s wife. Farrington is a retired attorney who had a long career in public service.

Thau, who died Nov. 10 at age 86, was born in France. Much of his early childhood was spent in hospitals because of prolonged illnesses, but the hospital stays kept him hidden from the Nazis. Finally, his mother was able to smuggle him into Switzerland, and he and his family eventually settled in Brooklyn after the war. He arrived on these shores with no knowledge of English and only two years of formal education.

When he turned 19, his family decided to return to Europe, but Thau remained in New York on his own. Despite his late start with education, he wanted to pursue his dream to become a lawyer and believed he had a better chance to do so in New York.

“He wanted to become a lawyer early on,” said Farrington, “The McCarthy hearings and their injustices really inspired him.”

He attended Brooklyn College at night while working full time. He then enrolled at Brooklyn Law School in 1957 and studied for a year. He completed his legal education by apprenticeship and “read for the law,” as is permitted by New York State.

His job at the Legal Aid Society began his life-long devotion to criminal defense. His commitment to his work would cause him to work all night at times, often waking Farrington to rehearse his summation arguments with her.

“From the time he was very young he was concerned with inequities here and in Europe,” said Farrington. “Roland was a talented advocate to the indigent, dedicated to his career. I thought that a fellowship that helps others become public defenders would continue that legacy.”

Colleagues considered Thau, who eventually joined the Federal Defenders of New York, “a giant of the Southern District of New York courthouse.” Among other honors, in 2010 he was recognized by the New York Council of Defense Lawyers with the Norman S. Ostrow Award.

The endowment will provide a permanent source of funding for a grant every year to a student who is dedicated to a career in criminal defense.

“Aside from the financial assistance, I also believe my husband’s story is an inspiration,” said Farrington. “So many people are concerned today about how COVID has hurt children’s education. Roland’s life is proof that you can overcome these setbacks.”