Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The closest thing to a museum of Arlington’s legal establishment is the law office of Earl Shaffer. During a visit to his longtime suite across from the courthouse, I was stunned to behold his frozen-in-amber wall filled with photographs – 60 years of rubbing elbows with the county’s notable jurists, celebrities and less-savory characters.

“Every picture has a story,” says the 87-year-old attorney who, though retired from the bar, still frequents the courthouse and is greeted by a nonstop parade of former colleagues.

Shaffer is “a courthouse institution,” I was told by Arlington attorney George Dodge. “He’s one of the few to serve as attorney, prosecutor and judge.”

He’s probably the “only lawyer left in Arlington who practiced in the old red brick courthouse back in the 1950s,” says George Varoutsos, the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court judge whose swearing-in is documented in the photo gallery. Shaffer was a “substitute judge for over 40 years, the longest ever in the state,” Varoutsos adds.

Shaffer’s “Who’s Who in Arlington Law” showcases such legal talent as Paul Varoutsos, Lou Koutoulakas, Bob Arthur, Harry Lee Thomas and Paul Brown (father of the late astronaut David Brown).

There’s a photo of Thomas Monroe, Arlington’s first African-American judge, and Circuit Court Judge Walter McCarthy, for whom the courthouse law library is named. There’s the announcement of Shaffer’s first law partnership, with Berton Kramer, the juvenile judge during my youth who terrified my less law-abiding classmates.

On the fun side, Shaffer has photos of superathlete Jim Thorpe with Arlington politician Frank Ball Sr. There’s country music star Jimmy Dean with his band, along with impresario Connie Gay, the radio mogul who gave Dean his start at Arlington’s WARL.

Shaffer is most associated with being assistant, during the 1960s, to famed Commonwealth’s Attorney William Hassan. “We were inseparable friends,” Shaffer says, recalling the time a furious Hassan called a staff meeting to say the county manager had found an error in a memo. “Who’s the SOB who prepared the memo?” he demanded. Later Hassan called another meeting to admit the SOB was himself.

It was with Hassan that Shaffer came to know George Lincoln Rockwell, the notorious head of the Arlington-based American Nazi Party whose Williamsburg Blvd. home he and Hassan raided for weapons in 1959.

Shaffer points out another iffy personage on his photo wall – Debra “Muffin” Mattingly, a sweet-looking mom sitting for a portrait with children. In 1970, she was a 14-year-old runaway who returned to her home in Arlington with two hippie-biker friends from downtown who proceeded to strangle her father.

That Shaffer’s career involved heinous crimes is driven home by a panoramic photo of the last public hanging in West Virginia, in Ripley, 1897. The drama involved a John F. Morgan, who murdered a widow Green and two kids, who was dispatched before a crowd of 5,000. When asked about it, Shaffer plays a Flatt and Scruggs song dramatizing the hanging.

Gentle in retirement, Shaffer sits surrounded by his collection of dozens of pigs – ceramic, stuffed, plastic. He looks back in gratitude that a West Virginia boy in the 1940s could graduate from Potomac State College and then use the GI Bill to attend George Washington Law School.

“Those were certain advantages we wouldn’t dream of now,” he says. “I did about anything one can do in practicing law.”