Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

John Wahl, attorney to Harvey Milk, dies


John Eshleman Wahl
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John Eshleman Wahl, a longtime California gay activist and an attorney for the late Harvey Milk, died April 26 at his home in Palm Springs. He was 76.

The cause of death was an apparent heart attack, according to Mr. Wahl's former domestic partner, Larry Hughes.

Mr. Wahl was as much an activist as a lawyer. He coordinated the AIDS awareness demonstration held during the historic visit of Pope John Paul II to Mission Delores Church in San Francisco in 1987. He was an active participant for many years in both the Stonewall Democratic Club and the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club in San Francisco. He also was instrumental in the Concerned Market Street Merchants of San Francisco.

Mr. Wahl also served as the attorney for Milk, the San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated, along with then-Mayor George Moscone, in his City Hall office in November 1978.

Bay Area Reporter publisher Thomas E. Horn knew Mr. Wahl when he lived in the city. "I met John when I first came to San Francisco in 1976," Horn told the paper. "Harvey was gearing up to run for supervisor, and John was trying to keep him straight, so to speak. He was well known and respected in San Francisco's legal community, and all the young lawyers looked to John for guidance." Horn added that Mr. Wahl "played an important role in the early days of the gay rights movement in San Francisco and will be sorely missed."

Born in Red Bluff, California on November 16, 1933 and a lifelong state resident, Mr. Wahl was preceded in death by his father, G. Albert Wahl; his mother, Katherine Eshleman Wahl; and his grandfather, Jack Eshleman, who served as the lieutenant governor of California and the district attorney for Imperial County, California.

Mr. Wahl completed his undergraduate work at UC Berkeley. Upon graduation he enlisted in the United States Navy and served as an aircraft commander pilot. During his 12-year Navy career, Mr. Wahl flew radar recognizance missions over China and enjoyed a life-long interest in ships and aircraft. Upon his discharge from the Navy, John attended the Hastings Law School in San Francisco, California. Upon graduation, John received his Jurist Doctorate degree.

While in law school, Mr. Wahl served as the editor of several legal newspapers. Much of his law practice included a great deal of pro bono work for various human rights issues. Friends said that Mr. Wahl felt passionately about the fair administration of justice and found himself representing clients who were unable to pay or pay very little.

His high level of community consciousness, responsibility, and dedication resulted in many contributions of his time and legal expertise to many nonprofits, organizations, and faith communities through the years. Among his many accomplishments, Mr. Wahl served on the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, one of the nation's oldest and well respected pioneer human rights groups for the LGBT community; the president of the San Francisco Night Ministry of the San Francisco Council of Churches, a program which continues today to serve the down and out and homeless; the primary counsel for the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, winning a landmark case which insured the rights of this primarily gay and lesbian Christian church to minister to inmates at state and federal prisons; the lead counsel for the partnership of the California Council of Churches, the Northern California Association of Rabbis, and the Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church in San Francisco representing the families of those lost to the violence of Jonestown.

Mr. Wahl was able to secure and release funds from the Reverend Jim Jones's personal financial resources to transport, process, and bury the hundreds of corpses that were the result of this horrendous, infamous tragedy that rocked the nation and world in November 1978.

In southern California, Mr. Wahl served faithfully with the Desert Business Association, the Desert Outreach Foundation (formerly the Desert Rainbow Foundation), the Golden Rainbow Senior Center, and served as secretary for the Desert Business Association Foundation.

Mr. Wahl received certificates of honor and recognition from the California State Assembly, the California State Senate, the City and County of San Francisco, and then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein for his extensive pro-bono work.

In addition to Larry Hughes, Mr. Wahl is survived by his brother, Geoffrey and sister-in-law, Judy Wahl of Brown's Valley, California; and several nieces and nephews.

A celebration of Mr. Wahl's life was held May 15 at Metropolitan Community Church of the Coachella Valley. Those wishing to honor Mr. Wahl's memory may choose to make a contribution to the Critter Coalition (an animal rescue nonprofit), PO Box 1841, Joshua Tree, CA 92252 or the Building Fund of the Metropolitan Community Church of the Coachella Valley.

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