Former prosecutor to be honored

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 28, 2011

Listening to Harold Spears tell stories about his time as prosecuting attorney in the 1950s is like reading the pages of old crime and detective magazines.

As it so happens, some of his cases were in those national magazines.

It was a pivotal time in the history of Lawrence County and Spears was in the midst of it all.

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Nearly 60 years later, Spears, 92, is being honored for his service to Lawrence County as a recipient of the Ohio State Bar Foundation’s Honorary Life Fellowship Award.

The award is given annually to an Ohio attorney whose career has been exemplified by dedication to the goals and values sought to be furthered by the Foundation, a lifetime of service to the public and to the community, and integrity, honor, courtesy and professionalism.

Spears is the first attorney from Lawrence County to ever receive this award.

“I’m honored and a little bit humbled,” Spears said.

Spears said when the president of the Ohio Bar Foundation called him to tell him he had won the award he was shocked. Ironton attorney John Wolfe had made the initial nomination.

“I’ve known Harold for a long time and there was no question in my mind that he deserved it,” Wolfe said.

“A lot of people wrote letters in support of the nomination, and I didn’t know it,” Spears said.

Sharon Bradshaw was one of those people.

Bradshaw is the librarian for the Lawrence County Law Library and has been acquainted with Spears for many years.

“If anyone deserves an award, he’s it,” she said.

Bradshaw was only a child when Spears was prosecutor, but she remembers her parents telling stories of how he helped clean up the county.

“His goal was to make Lawrence County a better place for people to live,” Bradshaw said. “Free from a lot of things that were going on back then.”

So what was Spears up against when he was elected as prosecutor? Mafia syndicates, burglary rings, gambling, prostitution and more.

It was Jan. 3, 1953. There was a new sheriff in town, Carl Rose. And with him, newly elected prosecuting attorney, Harold Spears.

Together, the two pledged to clean up the gambling, vice and prostitution that had plagued Lawrence County for years.

They even issued a declaration that made headlines in The Tribune that day: “No special warnings to be issued to obey laws.”

The article went on to say that if anyone carried out illegal activities, “prosecution would inevitably follow.”

“It was nearly to the point when I think the public had gotten fed up with it,” Spears said of the crime during that time.

He was even personally warned by an FBI agent that his anti-gambling and anti-big-crime stance would put a target on his back.

“He told me my photograph would be in the hands of every big restaurant or nightclub from Cincinnati all the way up to Parkersburg,” Spears recalled. “He said, ‘If you went into a place like that and they identified you, if they put something in your drink, you’d pass out, and when you’re friends got up to dance or go the restroom, they would pull you out and no one would ever see you again.’”

Spears, a WWII Navy combat veteran, told the agent that if the Japanese couldn’t kill him in that war, he would take his chances as prosecutor.

“I think I had divine protection,” Spears said. “That may sound funny to some people but I really do believe my efforts were protected and guided.”

Spears and Sheriff Rose raided nightclubs and casinos, jointly investigated notorious murder cases, cleaned up burglary rings as well as prostitution.

And that was only the tip of the iceberg for Spears’ career.

After two terms as prosecutor, he went on to be elected probate and juvenile court judge and was instrumental in modernizing the court.

“The court did not have a courtroom. It did not have many of the things you would expect a court to need, like a jury room,” Spears said. “I went to work with the help of some friends and other people, we learned that you could get things built with penitentiary labor at a very, very reasonably rate. They built a bench and counsel tables and chairs and the other necessary things to create a courtroom.”

During his time on the bench, he lectured and was involved with the Ohio Mental Health Association and was also active in the Ohio Probate Judges and the Ohio Juvenile Judges Association, which required out of town trips.

Spears resigned before the end of his first term because he wasn’t able to spend enough time with his wife, Wanda, and his four children.

He practiced law privately from then until just recently. His son David joined him when he became an attorney, forming Spears and Spears. David’s son, Matt joined as well.

Spears said he felt pleased and satisfied that his son and grandson followed in his footsteps and keep the name Spears and Spears alive.

The Ohio Bar Foundation will honor Spears at a banquet on Nov. 4 at the Columbus Polaris Hilton.