Lee Smith McKeithen '35

June 28, 2010Duke Law News

Lee Smith McKeithen, a North Carolina native who practiced law until her 90th year, died of natural causes on June 21, 2010 in Albuquerque, N.M. She was 97 years old.

Mrs. McKeithen was born in Albemarle, N.C., on April 24, 1913, daughter of R. L. Smith and Ora Burgess Smith. She attended public schools, graduating from Albemarle High School as Valedictorian of her class at the age of 16. She received her bachelor's degree from Duke University in 1932 and commenced law school the same year, at age 19. In 1934, while still a law student, Mrs. McKeithen sat for and was admitted to the North Carolina Bar. The next year, 1935, she and a classmate were the first women to graduate from Duke Law School.

After graduation, she practiced with the R.L. Smith & Sons law firm in Albemarle, representing local individual and business clients, and arguing a number of cases before the North Carolina Supreme Court. She was elected a vice president of the North Carolina Bar Association in 1938.

In 1939 she married Edwin T. McKeithen Jr., a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, whom she had met through his twin brother, a fellow law student at Duke. With her husband she moved to New York City, becoming the first woman admitted to the bar on motion in the First Judicial Department of New York State. She became affiliated with the Legal Aid Society in New York City, and continued to do appellate work in the North Carolina courts until her first child was born in 1941. Over the next 30 years, she devoted herself to her husband, their four children, and the communities in which they lived.

In 1950, she and her family moved to Old Greenwich, Conn., where she was active in many school, church and civic affairs. She served as an elected member of Greenwich’s Representative Town Meeting for more than 20 years, trustee of the First Congregational Church, president of the Greenwich Association for the Public Schools, head of the Greenwich chapter of the American Field Service Committee and a board member of the YWCA and the American Red Cross. She loved classical music, attending performances of the Metropolitan Opera or listening to their Saturday afternoon broadcasts for all of her adult life.

When her youngest child left home for college, Mrs. McKeithen resumed her legal career. In 1968, she joined the Greenwich office of Cummings & Lockwood, one of Connecticut’s largest law firms. In 1970, her husband, then an executive with the American Can Company, died suddenly of a heart attack. Three years later, Mrs. McKeithen sat for and passed the Connecticut Bar examination and was admitted to the Connecticut Bar just before her 60th birthday. In 1979 she was appointed by the Governor of Connecticut to the Committee on the Selection of the Judiciary, serving until 1986.

In 1980, Mrs. McKeithen became Cummings & Lockwood’s first female partner. She continued as a full-time partner until the age of 75, and thereafter practiced in an of-counsel capacity. At the age of 90, advancing macular degeneration prompted her retirement from the firm and the practice of law.

Upon her retirement, Mrs. McKeithen moved to Albuquerque N.M., near the homes of her two daughters, Mollie Reddington of Tijeras, N.M., and Elizabeth Smith of Sapello, N.M., who survive her. She is also survived by two sons, Edwin T. McKeithen III of Chiang Rai, Thailand, and R. L. Smith McKeithen of Atherton, Calif.; nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Mrs. McKeithen will be interred alongside her late husband in Old Bethesda Cemetery in Aberdeen, NC on July 10. In lieu of flowers, Mrs. McKeithen’s family requests that donations be made to The American Red Cross, Greenwich Chapter, 99 Indian Field Road, Greenwich, CT, 06830, or to Duke Law School, Box 90389
Durham, NC 27708-0389.
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