Raising seven children can be challenging enough, especially when they are busy with school and after-school activities, and their father is a busy trial lawyer. So how do you get them all together every night for dinner?
“You make it a priority,” smiles John McNicholas who with his wife Diana, known to friends as Dede, managed to do exactly that. “We sat down every night in the dining room for dinner. It might be 7 o’clock, but they waited for me to get home, and we were together.”
And not just to eat a meal, but — without really thinking about it — to practice exactly what was modeled at Sunday Mass.
“It was a time to heal those who were wounded, and to bring down to earth those who were maybe a little too full of themselves,” John says with a chuckle. “The key was to be with each other at the table, breaking bread, having a conversation. To paraphrase Father Patrick Peyton, ‘the family that has dinner together stays together.’”
For John McNicholas — a former vice president of the State Bar of California whose clients have included the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Vatican — there could be no greater reward than to have helped raise a strong, loving and faith-filled family. “Actually, Dede — who always prepared a wonderful dinner — gets all the credit for our successes, mine and the kids’,” he says warmly of his wife of 56 years.
But, so too has their father had an impact on their children’s lives, and on those he has worked with and served, whether professionally as a lawyer or pastorally as a parishioner of St. Brendan in Hancock Park. It comes from a determination to practice courtesy, decency and integrity as vigorously as he practices law.
“It’s all about what kind of a mark you want to leave,” he explains. “Your professional and personal lives must be the same in how you carry yourself. It’s so much easier to take the high road, and if you lose your temper, it never works out well. Turn the other cheek, and don’t get involved in petty bickering.”
The oldest of five, John attended Cathedral Chapel School, taught by the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters. “I got all my faith in grammar school from the IHM nuns,” he recalls fondly. “They were terrific, progressive, wonderful women who embedded the Latin prayers in me. And Sister Mario who taught me in sixth and seventh grade was one of my greatest influences — happy, jovial, loving and warm.”
He graduated from Loyola High in 1954 and went to UCLA “without the foggiest idea of what I wanted to do. My parents’ expectations simply were that we would complete college.” He entered Loyola Law School “because law looked like fun” — and found, to his delight, that “it is fun.”
Not that it wasn’t a challenge. “I was worried I wouldn’t pass the bar,” he laughs. “But I had some great professors.” One was Otto Kaus, who became a Superior Court judge and served on the Court of Appeals and later on the California Supreme Court. “I co-defended cases with him and argued cases before him,” says John. “His personality and his ability to teach made a great impact on me and other newly-arrived lawyers.”
By this time, John had been married to Dede for six years, having met at Cathedral Chapel. Both Dede and John’s mom attended Immaculate Heart High School. They lived in Glendale and later Hancock Park where they raised Erin, Brigid, Patrick, Courtney, Monica, David and Matthew.
Patrick, Courtney and Matthew became attorneys, and John and Dede are proud of all of seven, and of their 14 grandchildren. “Our hopes for our kids were simply that they practice their faith, get educated, and be good citizens. They seem to have fulfilled those goals.”
As a trial lawyer and then a partner in the firm, he represented the L.A. Archdiocese for twenty years, and from 1996 to 2005 he represented the Vatican — “a fabulous experience, the chance of a lifetime for an Irish-American trial lawyer.”
His work in law and for the church, and his willingness to give of himself, has led to multiple affiliations and responsibilities. Among them:
Trustee of the State Bar of California, Chair of the Committee of Bar Examiners, Director, Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, Loyola Law School’s Board of Overseers and the Loyola Advocacy Institute; Executive Board of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick and the Orders of St. Gregory, Malta and the Holy Sepulcher; and a lector and member of St. Brendan’s Finance Council.
In 1993, he and Patrick started their own firm, McNicholas and McNicholas, a smaller-sized trial firm that operates “somewhat informally,” but always, says John, with an attitude of respect.
“It’s part of maturing, being able to say, and ‘I’m not going to let a situation get to that point where I lose control.’ And if you come out ahead, don’t take advantage of someone else’s situation; don’t rub their nose in it.”
“It’s like we’ve always told our kids: Kindness is an inexpensive gift; just treat everyone like you would like to be treated. And give back generously in gratitude for what you’ve received.”