‘He cared about his community’: Friends, colleagues recall Northampton attorney Joseph A. Wilhelm 

  • Joseph Wilhelm, at far right, with fellow Lions Club members at a Memorial Day parade in Northampton.  CONTRIBUTED

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  • Joseph A. Wilhelm CONTRIBUTED

Staff Writer
Published: 6/24/2022 5:25:51 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A longtime city attorney active in politics and the community has died from his injuries after he was struck by a car on King Street on the morning of June 1.

Joseph A. Wilhelm, 75, died on Monday, according to the Northwestern district attorney’s office. Although he died in a hospital, his cause of death is being investigated by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

The Massachusetts State Police Collision Analysis and Reconstruction Section is investigating the crash, and is awaiting the results of the medical examiner’s report. Police said the vehicle that struck Wilhelm was a 2018 Chevrolet Cruze.

Wilhelm maintained an office on King Street and Donna McGill, a longtime paralegal and friend of Wilhelm’s, said he was struck in the street across from it. She said she must have crossed the street thousands of times in the same place where Wilhelm was hit.

“We did that every single day,” said McGill, who worked as a paralegal for Wilhelm from 1985 until he closed his law practice in 2016.

“He was absolutely amazing to work with,” McGill said. “He always respected the fact that I had young kids.”

Because of this, she said that she had essentially unlimited time off to put her family first.

Wilhelm practiced real estate law primarily, and he developed strong relationships with his clients, she said.

“Everyone who walked in the door of that office was just made to feel like a friend,” she said.

Originally from New Orleans, Wilhelm moved to Williamsburg with his wife, Phyllis, in the 1970s and began practicing law. He earned his undergraduate and law degrees at Tulane University and a master’s degree at Central Michigan University while in the U.S. Air Force, according to an earlier Gazette report. He established a partnership with lawyer Arthur J. King in 1974. 

Wilhelm leaves his wife, and the couple also had two golden retriever dogs together at the time of his death.

“He treated those dogs like they were his children,” McGill said.

Wilhelm had been a member of the Water Commission and Select Board in Williamsburg before moving to Northampton, where he remained active in the community. He also served in Hampshire County government, was a longtime colonel in the Air Force reserves and was a founding board member of the Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School. He served on active duty for four years during the Vietnam War era.

In a March 25, 1983, Gazette story, Wilhelm explained his approach to serving as a town leader when he announced his candidacy for Select Board in Williamsburg.

“I do not feel that ‘personalities’ should be allowed to create conflict between the boards,” he said at the time. “I think that the role of Selectman is as a mediator, encouraging cooperation so we can get things done.”

Real estate attorney Margo Welch, who practiced at the same time as Wilhelm, described him as both likable and sharp.

“He was generous with his expertise,” Welch said.

Despite retiring from his law practice, Wilhelm still maintained a tax preparation business.

“It kept him young,” said John Rhoades, a friend of Wilhelm’s.

Rhoades and Wilhelm had been friends for more than four decades, and they both served as presidents of the Northampton Lions Club. Both men were serving on the board of directors of the Lions when Wilhelm died.

“He was president of the club when I came in in 1980,” Rhoades said.

He said Wilhelm’s volunteerism was a good example to his fellow club members, and that he was still picking up trash as part of a club project.

“He cared about his community,” Rhoades said.

Mike Cahillane, another Lions Club member, said his friend’s death has hit him hard.

“I’ve been distraught thinking about it for days,” he said. “It’s a loss for his family and his community.”

Cahillane said one could count on Wilhelm to volunteer at every Lions Club event, and that he “was a very mild mannered, soft-spoken gentleman,” who was smart and would make people feel welcome.

“He was just like a magnet attraction to people,” he said. “You saw Joe, you wanted to talk to him.”

Lynn Reynolds said she first met Wilhelm in 1976, when the real estate office she was working in shared a building with the law office Wilhelm was practicing in.

She said she had been Wilhelm’s client ever since, and that he had a talent for making complicated legal matters comprehensible to a layman.

“He always was willing to talk to you,” she said.

She described Wilhelm as one of the best real estate attorneys she had ever seen in action, saying he was a master negotiator who was firm but “always gracious.”

“And he was funny,” she said.

She also noted Wilhelm’s love for his wife, and that the peace rose that he brought to dinner with her and her husband in 1985, which they planted, is still blooming.

“I just can’t believe that we’ve outlived him,” Reynolds said. “It just doesn’t seem possible.”

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.

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