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Peter Hearn, 84, Philadelphia lawyer who ran for mayor in 1991

He really wanted to make Philadelphia a better place, one fellow lawyer said.

Peter Hearn
Peter HearnRead morePhiladelphia Bar Association photo

Peter Hearn, 84, of Society Hill, a prominent Philadelphia trial lawyer and former chancellor of the bar who ran a quixotic campaign for mayor in 1991 as a reformer, died Saturday, May 20, of a heart attack at his home.

Mr. Hearn died while sitting in his favorite chair, midway through reading his morning newspapers, said his wife, Gail. "He loved this house, he loved Philadelphia, he loved his neighbors. He always said, 'I want to go out of this house feet first,' " she said. "And he did, at a time in his life when he was enjoying everything."

A Rockville Centre, N.Y., native, Mr. Hearn moved to Montgomery County as a child and graduated from Lower Merion High School. He earned a bachelor's degree in history from Cornell University in 1956 and a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law in 1961.

He immediately joined the law firm of Pepper, Hamilton & Scheetz, and during the next 35 years assumed various leadership roles, including partner. As chair of the finance committee, he helped stabilize the firm's bottom line while also devoting a third of his time to pro bono legal work, his wife said.

In December 1988, Mr. Hearn was elected chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, a job he took on with almost biblical fervor. He told a gathering of the bar on Jan. 4, 1989, that he saw his role as "guiding this flock of superb people to a year of attainment, of collegiality, of justice."

Deborah R. Gross, chancellor of the 12,000-member Bar Association, said Mr. Hearn was passionate about making merit selection of judges a priority. Under his leadership, a proposal for a political action committee was approved to financially support the campaigns of qualified judicial candidates seeking election and retention.

"He was truly a remarkable man," Gross said in a statement. "Peter was still in touch with, involved, and engaged in our association and legal community. He was always present, even from afar. We are deeply saddened by his loss, and he will truly be missed."

In 1991, he ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for mayor.

Seeking to distance himself from career politicians, Mr. Hearn emphasized that he had no political aspirations beyond serving as mayor. "I don't want to be governor," Mr. Hearn was quoted in the Daily Pennsylvanian as saying.

"Peter Hearn really wanted to make Philadelphia a better place, and that was in evidence when he ran for mayor on a civic-minded concern for the city," said Howard B. Haas, a fellow lawyer in the city.  "He was a gentleman. He was nice, diplomatic, he was trying to do good. He wasn't one of those people who was back-stabbing."

He suggested renegotiating with the city's unions, privatizing some services, reducing the wage tax, and setting a two-term limit for members of City Council. "Then I spend a lot of time waiting for the laughter to die down," he told Philadelphia Magazine.

In the run-up to the spring primary election,  the common wisdom was that former District Attorney Ed Rendell was the Democratic front-runner and Mr. Hearn was drawing little support.

But Inquirer columnist David Boldt was not willing to dismiss Mr. Hearn as an also-ran.

"It is none too soon to recognize that Peter Hearn is a phenomenon worth examining," he wrote. Philadelphia Magazine headlined its story on Mr. Hearn's campaign, "Fanfare for a Decent Man."  Ultimately, Mr. Hearn received about 9 percent of the primary vote and Rendell became mayor.

In March 1996, Mr. Hearn announced that he was leaving Pepper Hamilton to strike out on his own. "At age 62, I decided this was the time to do it, rather than at 65, when it might be construed as retirement," he told the Inquirer.

He established a one-man practice on the 18th floor of the Fidelity Building on South Broad Street, Pepper's home for many years before the firm moved to Two Logan Square in the late 1980s. His office was in a former Pepper conference room.

"It's a room I've been in a million times, and I love it," Mr. Hearn said. "It has the element of going home."

He planned to dabble in Democratic politics, "though not as a candidate," he told the Inquirer, and step up his fundraising efforts for the Free Library of Philadelphia. He served as cochair of the library's capital campaign, which raised $60 million by 1997.

He retired in 2016.

Mr. Hearn remained active in legal and civic matters, holding frequent fund-raisers for local and national politicians and charities. He was a founder and longtime board member of Gaudenzia House, one of the city's earliest drug treatment and rehabilitation programs.

In 2014, when Howard Haas, as president of the Friends of the Boyd Theatre, tried to save the art deco movie palace from demolition, Mr. Hearn pitched in without pay. "He was willing to volunteer his services, both behind the scenes as well as publicly, for the cause," Haas said.

Mr. Hearn's interest in history and music led him to spearhead the 2008 concert in which the Philadelphia Orchestra performed alongside the historic Wanamaker organ to premiere a symphony concertante – a symphony plus concerto - written for that organ.

A longtime resident of Society Hill, he was active in its civic organization. He also was a vestryman at historic Christ Church.

Mr. Hearn was married to Anne Hearn, and the couple had three children before divorcing. In 1973, through mutual friends, he met Gail Walker, a professor at what is now Arcadia University, who also had been divorced.

"On May 1, 1973, when I saw him standing on my doorstep, I knew right away he was the one for me," she said. "He was a wonderful guy." The couple helped rear the children, who at that time were 4, 6, and 8, and had a child of their own.

Besides his wife and former wife, he is survived by children Caroline Nairn, Elizabeth Hearn  Harrison, David, and Josephine Wilson; seven grandchildren; and two step-grandchildren.

A funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 27, at Christ Church, 20 N. American St., Philadelphia 19106. Burial will follow in the churchyard.

Memorial donations may be made to the Christ Church New Organ Fund at the address above, or Friends of the Wanamaker Organ Inc., 630 Hidden Valley Rd., King of Prussia, Pa. 19406.