Donald E. Showalter: First EMU Grad to Earn Law Degree

By Steve Shenk | July 20th, 2015

Donald E. Showalter

Donald E. Showalter ’62, the first alumnus to earn a law degree, has been EMU’s attorney for decades. (Photo by Mike Miriello)

The ink was hardly dry on the law diploma of Donald E. Showalter ’62 when the local court appointed him to defend a young woman accused of murder. In the end, after the jury deliberated for only 20 minutes, the woman was acquitted.

“I was instantly Perry Mason,” says Showalter, referring to a lawyer on a popular TV show. But he wrestled with the moral dilemma of seeing his client go free even after she admitted guilt at the subsequent trial of another suspect in the murder. This is called “double jeopardy,” and a person cannot be re-tried. Showalter vowed to never again take a murder case.

A few years later a more high-minded and groundbreaking case came his way – Wisconsin vs. Yoder – that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The state of Wisconsin was trying to force its Amish citizens to comply with the mandatory school law, and the Amish wanted to continue their practice of quitting school after eighth grade.

At the request of John A. Lapp ’54, his college history professor and later Mennonite Central Committee executive director, Showalter filed an “amicus curie” brief that defended the Amish on the basis of the religious freedom clause of the First Amendment. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Amish, with Chief Justice Warren Burger using words from Showalter’s brief in his majority opinion.

Now 74, Showalter is the oldest and longest-serving active attorney in Harrisonburg, working 50 years for one of the Shenandoah Valley’s largest and oldest law firms, Wharton, Aldhizer & Weaver. For most of those years he has been the official lawyer for the town of Broadway, where he was born and raised and still lives. For most of those years he has also been EMU’s attorney and served the Mennonite Church in tax and insurance regulatory issues. He is a founding trustee of Mennonite Praxis Mutual Funds.

For 35 years Showalter taught business law at EMU, taking pleasure in seeing some of the accounting and business majors go on to law school. His daughter, Anne Showalter ’90, also became a lawyer (see page 8).

Two other distinctions for Showalter are that he was the first EMU graduate to earn a law degree and he was elected a “fellow” by the Virginia State bar, which places him among 1% of the practicing lawyers in Virginia.

George Aldhizer II, a Broadway attorney, state senator and friend of the family, was Showalter’s mentor for much of his life. He influenced him to overcome his sense of intimidation and enter the University of Virginia law school. Upon graduating in 1965, Showalter joined Aldhizer’s firm. Founded in 1845, the firm has 17 attorneys and satellite offices in Lexington and Staunton.

Showalter has been involved in almost every aspect of his full-service firm, but in the last 25 years he has narrowed his practice to corporate issues, agricultural cooperatives and administration of estates. He is one of the few agricultural attorneys in the state, specializing in co-ops in milk, tobacco, poultry, feed and fertilizer.

At EMU, Showalter majored in history and English and met his wife, math education major Marlene Collins ’62, who taught mathematics and psychology at James Madison University and the University of North Carolina before retiring. As for Don, “I’m having too much fun to retire.”