Work in the news business provides frequent reminders that the breathtaking machine that is the human being, capable of extraordinary intellectual and physical feats, is also finite and fragile. We are, in fact, shown this with such regularity that we can lose our sense of the reality of it.
The jolt is severe when that sense is awakened. I experienced that with the loss of a son in late November 2019. A piece of your soul goes with the son who parts this life before you. You never get that back. I wish I could say I could not fathom Pat McGinley’s pain. But I know it too well. I know it every day.
A crash Thursday afternoon on Interstate 79 in Braxton County killed Pat’s son, Sean. He was 55. Both Pat and Sean long have been associated with the Charleston Gazette-Mail, one of two dailies published by HD Media, the other, The Herald-Dispatch in Huntington.
Pat is a law professor at West Virginia University and arguably the most knowledgeable open-government attorney in the state. Sean was among Pat’s most serious rivals for that title. He was a partner at DiPiero Simmons McGinley & Bastress PLLC in Charleston. Sean frequently represented the newspaper over the course of a sterling 30-year legal career.
His loss was felt in the Gazette-Mail newsroom, where he was both deeply respected and regarded as a good friend.
“Sean was a brilliant lawyer,” law partner Tim DiPiero told the Gazette-Mail’s Jared Serre. “Just amazingly talented. Had a keen sense of right and wrong and seeking justice. He would always improve any draft of writing I did. He could always make it better. He was incredible at research and writing and just had a way with words.
“What’s more important than all that is that he loved his family and was a great family man.”
Parallels between lawyers and journalists are abundant, except as they relate to bank accounts. Both groups include people with keen intellects and others whose keenness of intellect is mostly imagined. Both groups tend to esteem themselves more highly than others do. Both are increasingly reviled, sometimes justifiably and sometimes simply for telling a truth some people don’t want to hear. Both groups include what might be called crusaders and true believers, as well as what others might call poseurs and charlatans.
Sean McGinley, like his father, fit squarely into all the right categories. Over the years, I have known lawyers I admired and others who matched all the stereotypes about ambulance-chasing and huckstering. A smart, principled lawyer is one of the best allies anyone in our business can have. That description precisely matches both McGinleys.
Like other editors and reporters, such as the Gazette-Mail’s Ryan Quinn, who frequently consults Pat, I quickly came to think of the McGinleys as not only excellent lawyers but friends, people fighting the good fight with us, striving to ensure transparency in government, battling to help us get to facts so that we can deliver that information to readers.
Sean and I spent hours preparing records for a case and for a deposition that never happened. Pat and I talked over the phone, not only about records but about the craft of writing, which he understands and appreciates at a level I wish some reporters could reach. When I asked Sean how much he’d charge to present a libel seminar for our staffs, he said he’d do it pro bono. When you think about it, teaching us how to avoid a defamation claim could have cost Sean money, since maybe he’d prevent the need to defend us later.
That, of course, is not the sort of person Sean was. He reminded me of other lawyers I’ve known here and elsewhere, including Robert and Clayton Fitzsimmons at The Fitzsimmons Law Firm in Wheeling, Paul Farrell in Huntington, and Craig Merritt and David Lacy in Richmond, Virginia, among others. All are exceptional talents but also exceptional people.
Plenty of time and space is spent citing the failings and wrongs of people from every walk of life, no groups more than lawyers and journalists. For some, the criticism is warranted. But, once in a while, it’s worth recognizing the good ones. They are the ones who prize reason, facts and principle over personal gain, who believe the right thing is the important thing and the only thing.
Sean McGinley was such a one. This country needs more like him. Alas, he left us far too soon.