Bill Youmans: The Best Person in My High School Class

August 25, 2020

It’s been over 20 years since Bill Youmans died. In the winter of 1999, I happened to be doing laundry at student housing at UCSD, and as I was waiting for clothes to finish drying, I spotted a loose section of the San Diego Union, and began to peruse it. The headline for his obituary spanned five three-inch columns at the top of page B-5: “Bill Youmans; public defender for the underdog.” The article noted that he had been the class valedictorian for Marian High School in 1965, and that he went on to study law at UC Berkeley, where he was a founding member of the Ecology Law Quarterly. He went on to become a public defender, arguing on behalf of some of the more reprehensible criminals to be brought into a courtroom. Youmans had the gift of advocating for the basic humanity of every person, no matter how heinous. In 1998 he was recognized as Public Defender of Year by the California Public Defenders Association.

He died on Feb. 23, 1999, and the memorial service took place a week after the obituary appeared. I didn’t see anyone I recognized, but the First Unitarian Universalist Church was packed. In addition to being survived by his spouse, he had three daughters and two sons, and I hope that all of them are still living. I also hope that they realize how much of an impact Laurens William Youmans had on the people with whom he generously shared his life.

My sister remembers him as an outfielder who literally ran through a fence in order to catch a fly ball. I remember him as someone who was already preparing to act in front of other from a very young age. He played the part of the “Gentleman Caller” in a production of “The Glass Menagerie” at Marian High School. I had done very little acting up to that point, and I still have no idea of how I ended up being cast as Tom in that play. Here is a photograph from that production. I don’t remember the last name of the woman who played the Mother, but I believe her first name was Virginia. Bill Youmans is rising from the table; in the role of Tom; I am catching Alana Milton as she plays Laura.

I hadn’t seen him since we graduated, 55 years ago, but the memory of his integrity and kindness continues to inspire me. It’s so easy to be a bully in this society and for people to admire those who engage in that kind of behavior. Tens of millions approve of such behavior to the extent that they are enthusiastic about re-electing a bully to be this nation’s president. “The United Bullies of America” — that’s what this country’s actual name is.

The other major obituaries in the Union that day were for Jose Quintero (age 74) ; Charles Bates (age 79); Lorin H. Tryon, Jr. (age 71); and Charles Blitzer (age 71).