Paul Durbin: Compassionate Advocate, Decorated Veteran, Stellar Athlete – Dead at 94

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Paul Durbin, 1917-2012, died on March 31 in his home a few months after celebrating his 70th wedding anniversary. He was 94.

As a solo practitioner, Durbin ranked among Hawaii’s courtroom legends. “He was a disciplined attorney, with a heart of gold, a smile that brightened your day, and a Kentucky twang that could at times break your ear drums,” recalled Judge Marie Milks (RET.). “He never wore himself outside his clothes.” In 2003, the Hawaii State Bar Association honored him with its annual President’s Award for his tireless representation of the destitute and the disadvantaged.


He could emphasize with their plight. The youngest of four children, Durbin was born June 25, 1917, in Clarkson, Ky., and was tragically orphaned at age 3. But he always wanted to be a lawyer and would not let poverty hold him back. He worked his way through college and law school at the University of Kentucky during the worst years of the Depression and still found time to excel in boxing, golf, cross-country and track and manage the football and basketball teams.

Boxing talent landed Durbin in advanced ROTC. As a rookie in an Army tournament, he scored a first-round knockout against the collegiate champion and was promptly accused of being a professional. An investigation, headed by a general, confirmed his amateur status. But sports fans with money on another boxer saw to it that Paul was confined to the infirmary for the rest of the matches.

Durbin was admitted to the Kentucky Bar in 1940. When as a brand-new second lieutenant, he reported for active duty in July 1941, others in his unit advised him that he belonged in the Judge Advocate General Corps, not the infantry. “I graduated from law school and am a member of the Bar,” Paul told his sergeant. “Son,” replied the sergeant, “the Army’s not suing anyone.”

Lt. Durbin married his college sweetheart, Margaret Abel, in Camp Shelby, Miss., a week after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Within a year, he was on the front lines with the 70th Division in Germany and France. During one battle, he and his buddies fought for four days without sleep. The hostilities over, he managed a camp for displaced Poles and participated in trials of war criminals.

After the war, Paul opened a law office in Fulton and ventured into politics. In 1948, he was elected railroad commissioner with more votes than the victorious incumbent governor. A stunned Democratic Party, which also had not bet on Paul, suddenly took an interest, but Margaret balked at a future as a politician’s wife. So Paul sacrificed his ambitions to accept a commission as a JAG officer.

Major Durbin was reported to General MacArthur’s staff in Tokyo. The couple by then had a daughter and son (now deceased). The family left Japan when Durbin was assigned to the Inchon Landing Force. He famously took his golf clubs with him on the amphibious invasion. “How were the greens, sir?” a soldier quipped as Durbin boarded a ship to leave Inchon.

At 37 Durbin received his Parachute Badge. He was the first JAG officer in Vietnam, a culture the family loved. After hours, he taught American literature in the leading language school. His course at Saigon University introduced a generation of Vietnamese lawyers to American trial practices. Students from his wife’s English classes acted as witnesses and jurors.

Other postings as Staff Judge Advocate included Fort Shafter as well as the 7th Infantry Division, the 1st and 4th Armored Divisions, and the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions.  By the time Durbin retired with the rank of colonel in 1968, he had been judge, lawyer or board member (juror) in more than 2,000 courts martial. (One in which he presided was dramatized in the film “Casualties of War” starring Sean Penn and Michael J. Fox.) His many decorations include the Combat Infantry Badge, four Bronze Stars and the Legion of Merit.

An avid runner into his 70s, Durbin was president of the Korean Golf Club for many years. In the 1970s and 1980s, he advised Margaret and her friends who had successfully organized to save Fort DeRussy from development for industrial-scale tourism.

Paul Durbin was descended from the first families of Kentucky and English Catholics sponsored by Lord Baltimore to found the colony of Maryland. He is survived by his wife, Margaret, and daughter Paula. He was predeceased by son James Michael and siblings Walter, Clarice, and Virginia. A memorial service is planned for June.

Submitted by Adrienne King