Enjoyable work in law leads to Hall of Fame
By Reggie Ponder
Sunday, June 9, 2019
For Tony Hornthal, doing enjoyable work has been the most rewarding part of his 56-year law career.
And while it’s been enjoyable, he’s apparently inspired many law colleagues along the way, as he learned recently of being named to the N.C. General Practice Hall of Fame. In addition, a Justice Fund endowment with the North Carolina Bar Foundation has been created in his honor.
Hornthal, 82, who retired from the local firm Hornthal, Riley, Ellis & Maland, was interviewed last week at his home where he talked about his life-long work.
“Anybody who gets to do work that’s fun is blessed,” Hornthal said. “Every case, every client’s problem, presents a problem to be solved -- and to them it’s the biggest problem in the world. The satisfaction of being able to help people solve those problems has been a great blessing to me.”
He recalled that when his son first mentioned he was thinking about going to law school, he asked him if he hadn’t noticed how hard he worked and how long the hours were.
“And he said, ‘but dad, you always seem to be having so much fun doing it,” Hornthal said.
A Justice Fund is established with a minimum gift of $50,000 directed toward the North Carolina Bar Foundation’s unrestricted endowment. Since its establishment in 1985, the NCBF Endowment has awarded nearly $7 million in grants to deserving programs and projects throughout North Carolina, according to information provided by NCBF.
The Hornthal Justice Fund was established by gifts from Hornthal’s law partners, family and friends.
“It was extremely generous of my law partners to make this significant contribution to this Justice Fund and I am deeply grateful to them,” Hornthal said. “It meant a lot to me that they were willing to do this as a way of honoring me.”
Hornthal is a past president of the NCBF and the North Carolina Bar Association. He was recruited to the firm in Elizabeth City by Dewey Wells in 1965.
“(Wells) was the best lawyer I ever knew, and I think he was one of the most decent men I ever had any association with,” Hornthal said.
Wells was in Raleigh interviewing for an associate to join his Elizabeth City-based law firm and encouraged Hornthal to interview for the position. At the time Hornthal was working in the State Attorney General’s Office and had met Wells when he was arguing the other side of a case that Hornthal was arguing for the state.
“He said to me, ‘you owe it to yourself to come to Elizabeth City,’” Hornthal recalled. “And he was right.”
Hornthal said when he and his wife were moving to Elizabeth City they were cautioned by some friends that they would find “a closed society” in Elizabeth City, but “we never found it that way at all.”
Hornthal said he had the utmost respect for Wells.
“He was the best lawyer that I ever knew and I think of the most decent men that I ever had any association with,” Hornthal said.
Hornthal said he had wonderful colleagues in the law firm.
“It’s a blessing to have the chance to practice law with people that you like and people you know are going to stick with you through thick and thin,” he said.
Hornthal repeatedly returned to the word “blessed” as he reflected on his life and career. He used the word when he spoke about his wife of 56 years, the former Harriet Lang of Kinston, and their two sons, Phil and Lang. It was also a word he used to describe his family’s long association with Christ Episcopal Church in Elizabeth City.
He said his sons “are both nice guys and they both married really wonderful women.
A Tarboro native, Hornthal worked as an insurance adjustor in the Charlotte area after earning a degree in history from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He attributes his interest in law to attorneys he met while working in the insurance industry.
He graduated from the UNC School of Law in 1963 and clerked for N.C. Supreme Court Justice William B. Rodman Jr. before going to work for the N.C. Attorney General’s Office.
One insurance industry lawyer in particular -- James “Moon” Mullen -- made a major impression on Hornthal and influenced his decision to become a lawyer.
“When I was thinking of going to law school he was the first person I talked to,” Hornthal said of Mullen. “He told me, ‘Tony, you were meant to be a lawyer.’”
Mullen was a wonderful example, Hornthal said.
“He was a brilliant lawyer, really, but he also had a wonderful humility about himself,” Hornthal said, adding, “...he never seemed to take himself too seriously.”
Hornthal said lessons he learned from his own father were to not take yourself too seriously and to look for the humor in any situation.
Hornthal has served as president of the UNC Law Alumni Association, as a member of the University of North Carolina Board of Visitors and as a trustee of Elizabeth City State University. He received the John B. McMillan Distinguished Service Award from the North Carolina State Bar in 2012.
He has served as as president of the Elizabeth City Rotary Club, the Elizabeth City Boys and Girls Club Board of Directors and the Albemarle Area United Way.