Prominent attorney, generous philanthropist, and steadfast Reed trustee Ernie Bonyhadi ’48 died on Thanksgiving Day while visiting family and friends in Australia. He was 92 years old.
Ernie lived an astonishing life. He escaped the Nazis as a boy, fled to the United States, then returned to Germany with the US Army to search for war criminals. After graduating from Reed, he pursued a long and distinguished legal career, arguing before the Supreme Court, and became a stalwart Reed trustee, serving on the board for more than 25 years and remaining an active trustee emeritus until his death.
“He was not a typical lawyer,” says longtime friend and legal partner Charles Hinkle, who argued several cases alongside him. “He had a sort of effervescence. Nothing discouraged him. He could see the good in everyone. He always spread light when there was darkness.”
Ernie’s family was part of a small Jewish community in Salzburg, Austria—home of the renowned music festival. As a child he met luminary conductors Arturo Toscanini and Bruno Walter. In 1938, when Nazi Germany annexed Austria, Ernie’s father sent his 14-year-old son to Munich to apprentice as a waiter. All hell broke loose on November 9, later known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, when Jewish shops were vandalized, their homes and apartments destroyed, and synagogues set on fire. Ernie’s father, Fred, was sent to Dachau concentration camp but was released after promising to leave the Third Reich as soon as possible. The family was forced to evacuate Salzburg, and fled to Vienna to make permanent travel arrangements. During this year Ernie had the prescient notion to learn English. In the end, the family was invited to join a German war bride from WWI who had married an American doctor and was living in Portland.
In October 1939, the family boarded a ship to New York, arriving a day after their passports had expired. Detained on Ellis Island until their passports could be returned to Vienna for the necessary extensions, the family gathered around the long tables every morning for breakfast.
“They had big bowls of cornflakes, which I had never had before,” Ernie remembered. “Somebody told me, ‘You don’t eat them dry. Put some sugar and milk on them.’ My first lesson.”
Penniless, the family had to borrow money for the bus fare to Portland. It took three and a half days to get across the country.
In Portland, Ernie attended Lincoln High School and began earning money with a paper route. He liked to report that he arrived late for class because he kept opening doors for the girls. When it came time for college, his teachers told him, “You should go to Reed; it’s the only game in town.” As a carrier for the Oregon Journal, he was awarded a $150 scholarship, but tuition at Reed was $250. In order to earn the extra money, he worked for a year at Montgomery Ward and in a photography darkroom. He started at Reed in 1942 as a chemistry major. The following year he and his buddy, Bill Gittelsohn ’48 (now deceased) were drafted into the Army. After basic training in California, Ernie was sent to the University of Chicago to study Japanese (he was already conversant in German, French, Italian and English) but wound up back in Germany as part of a team assigned to interrogate prisoners of war.
“We were looking for certain war criminals,” Ernie remembered. “I often had sort of a nightmare that I interrogated Eichmann and missed him. When we interrogated prisoners, we had them strip to the waist and raise their arms because all of the SS, the Nazi elite forces, had their blood type tattooed on their armpit.”
Ernie and Bill both returned to Reed on the GI Bill, but Ernie was done with chemistry. “I figured this world had enough mad scientists,” he said. “What they needed were political scientists so there wouldn’t be any more wars.”
With Prof. Frank Munk [political science 1939–65] advising, Ernie wrote his thesis on the de-Nazification of Germany. He claimed the writing was easy because de-Nazification was what he had done in the Army, but in those pre-computer days, the process was difficult mechanically. It had to be typed with nine carbon copies; every mistake had to be corrected on every single sheet.
Justice James Brand of the Oregon Supreme Court [1941-1958] served on Ernie’s oral exam board. Brand had just returned from Nuremberg, where he was the presiding judge at the Judges’ Trial, the third in a set of 12 trials known collectively as the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials. One of the chapters in Ernie’s thesis was about the impact of de-Nazification on international law.
“Well, young man, it’s a pretty good thesis,” the judge said to Ernie. “But if you ever want to really publish it, you ought to go to law school and rewrite the chapter on international law.”
After his finals, Ernie asked about going to law school and discovered that the entrance exam was the following week—and that he would need to finish his applications prior to taking the test. He stayed up all night with his fiancée, Ilo Lehmann ’51, filling in law school applications. In the end, he was accepted at Stanford, Columbia, Michigan, Chicago, and Northwestern. But due to overcrowding, the only colleges that offered housing for married veterans were Columbia and Stanford. His Reed professors thought that Columbia was the better law school, and he would be able to live in veteran’s housing for $30 a month and enjoy the culture of New York City.
He met Ilo when she was a freshman and he was a senior at Reed. Her family were also refugees from Germany. He got a job slinging hamburgers in the student union coffee shop, where Ilo was the night manager. Their first date was a trip to Mount Hood to harvest Christmas trees for the social rooms on campus. The couple married after Ernie graduated in 1948. His pal, Bill Gittelsohn, married Shirley Georges ’49 around the same time and the couples attended each other’s engagement parties.
Ernie graduated with his JD from Columbia University and was admitted to the Oregon Bar in 1952. He practiced law at a number of firms, specializing in litigation, antitrust law, libel law, international business law, international dispute resolution, and transnational litigation, joining Stoel Reeves in 1979.
“He was a gutsy guy and a man for all seasons,” says former legal partner Bruce Hall. “In the field of human relationships, he was superb. He could talk to people better than anyone.”
“He knew everybody,” says his former legal partner, Charles Hinkle. “He always looked for, and usually found, just the right thing to make you feel better if things didn’t go well that day—whether it was the judge ruling against you or something at home.”
In the course of his career he argued cases before the United States District Court Oregon, the United States Court of Appeals (9th circuit), and the United States Supreme Court. He served as a trustee at Reed from 1971–1995, was vice president of the Columbia University Law School Alumni Association, and was a member of the American Society International Law, the Multnomah County Bar Association, the Oregon Bar Association, B’nai Brith, the Marines Memorial Club (San Francisco), the Arlington Club, and the Multnomah Athletic Club.
The Bonyhadis and the Gittelsohns built homes three doors apart from each other in Raleigh Hills and were neighbors for five decades. Their kids went to school together and the families vacationed together. Ernie and Bill both served on the board of trustees at Reed. When Ernie was president of the alumni board, Shirley was secretary. The couples celebrated their 50th wedding anniversaries together in 1998 at Cannon Beach with all of their children attending. Bill died in June 2000. Ilo Bonyhadi died of pancreatic cancer the same year.
When she was diagnosed, Ilo researched the disease and told her husband, “You know, pancreatic cancer—that’s it, kid.” She cooked a freezer full of meals for him and counseled, “Go on the trips we planned, but don’t go alone. You’re no damn good by yourself. You know that.”
When Ernie replied, “Well who would I go with?” Ilo suggested Shirley Gittelsohn. “You’ve known her since before you knew me. You won’t have to BS her. She’ll either want to go with you or she won’t.”
Ernie and Shirley got together in 2001. They were lunching with their assorted offspring in Paris, when Shirley’s daughter asked, “What’s dejeuner d’affaires?”
“Dejeuner is lunch,” Ernie replied. “D’affair is what your mother and I are having.”
The couple married in October 2007, and enjoyed sharing travel and experiences until Shirley’s death in 2015.
“I feel a great debt to Reed for helping educate me,” Ernie said. “Reed really helped me be what I am. In the first place, it feeds you intellectually. I had role models—not in terms of any one guy, but in the combination of people who were so diverse as Arthur Scott [chemistry 1923–79], Maure Goldschmidt ’30 [political science 1935–81], Ed Garlan [philosophy 1946-73], Bob Rosenbaum [math 1939-53], and Dick Jones [history 1941-86]. They were all different, yet each had something to contribute. Ilo and I enjoyed what Reed had to offer, and we assisted in it. And most of our friends have gone to Reed.”
Ernie was a steadfast supporter of Reed, and established the Ernie and Ilo Bonyhadi Scholarship in 2000.
He is survived by his children, Mark Bonyhadi ’82 and Lyn Bonyhadi, and by his travel companion and partner, Dr. Gloria Reich ’54, whom he had known for over 60 years.
A memorial service will take place at noon, Monday, December 19, in the Main Sanctuary of Congregation Beth Israel, 1972 NW Flanders, with a reception following in Goodman Hall.
The family has requested that donations in his honor be made to the Ernie and Ilo Bonyhadi Scholarship, the Southern Poverty Law Center, or Planned Parenthood.