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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Legendary Lawyer

When Charles E. (“C.E.”) Oswald was a senior at Bosse High School, a school newspaper reporter asked the class of 1940 what careers they wanted to pursue. Oswald’s answer: “An attorney.”

Today, after more than 50 years of legal practice, Oswald still wants to be an attorney. At 88 years old, he keeps regular hours at Bamberger, Foreman, Oswald & Hahn, the Evansville law firm he helped found. Oswald’s colleagues have dubbed him the “Titan of Titles” for his practice focused on real estate, and this fall, Oswald earned another title: “Legendary Lawyer,” a prestigious award presented by the Indiana Bar Foundation.

Oswald was admitted to the Indiana bar in 1948 after his graduation from Indiana University School of Law. (Prior to law school, he served in the Navy for three and a half years.) While practicing in the now-defunct Downtown Evansville firm of Ortmeyer, Bamberger, Ortmeyer & Foreman, he met the young, ambitious Robert Hahn and the more seasoned Fred Bamberger and William Foreman. In 1959, the four attorneys broke away to start their own firm: Bamberger, Foreman, Oswald & Hahn. Oswald is the only surviving founder.

In the early days, “we struggled and struggled,” Oswald recalls. The founding partners returned to their Hulman Building office most evenings, every Saturday, and many Sundays to build a reputation that began with litigation. Hahn and Bamberger were legendary tour de forces in the courtroom, and while the litigation team’s high-profile cases often drew more attention, Oswald and Foreman found their own successes as they quietly handled the firm’s business work.

Oswald focused his practice on real estate law. Among his career milestones are completing the work for hundreds of miles of utility pipeline and electric lines for SIGECO, Vectren’s predecessor, and Washington Square Mall, the first covered shopping mall in Indiana. Before the Eastland Mall area boomed, South Green River Road was the retail scene’s center of gravity, and Oswald and Foreman were at the heart of it. Oswald also has worked with SIGECO to establish gas storage fields in Kentucky, still in use today by Vectren, and helped lay the groundwork for Kentucky’s first condominium on Kentucky Lake.

The fact that Oswald was sought out for the projects across state lines was significant, says Terry Farmer, managing partner at Bamberger, Foreman, Oswald & Hahn (“Bamberger” for short). Now, around a dozen of the firm’s 42 attorneys are licensed to practice in Kentucky or Illinois. When the firm began, attorneys rarely practiced outside of their home states.

Another major change Oswald has seen is technology. Today, the firm’s attorneys blog and use Blackberry devices to communicate; Oswald has an e-mail account. Before the advent of smartphones and other innovations that allow attorneys to streamline their work and correspond electronically, Oswald and the firm’s founding partners worked countless hours to conduct everyday tasks. “C.E. still can remember the day where if you did an appellate brief on a manual typewriter and you had to file 14 copies of it with the court of appeals,” Farmer says, “you were using a lot of carbon paper and pounding very hard on the keys.”

Farmer, who joined Bamberger in 1982, has worked with all four of the founding partners and witnessed the firm’s evolution to a regional powerhouse (in addition to its Evansville office, Bamberger has offices in Indianapolis, Mount Vernon, Poseyville, Princeton, and Vincennes, Ind.). Most of the firm’s younger attorneys missed that opportunity, but Oswald is a living link to the firm’s history. “C.E. always has been very generous about his time,” Farmer says. “He really can help younger lawyers understand issues that people kind of blow past, but they still are good law and requirements that need to be observed. He always has taken the time to sit down with people and help them through those kinds of problems.”

Oswald earned a reputation for meticulously studying every page of a title that could be inches thick. He had a knack for spotting typographical errors, missing deeds, inconsistencies, and loopholes, and his peers often called him in as vacation backup because they didn’t trust anyone else with their files. One of his favorite sayings for young attorneys is, “Don’t touch a title without trying to improve it.”

For all his expertise, Oswald says he still is learning. While many of his fellow octogenarians retired decades ago, abandoning their offices for sunny beaches and leisurely lifestyles, Oswald still comes to work because “I enjoy the atmosphere,” he says, “and I do learn, just from being around, what’s happening in the practice.”

His commitment to the profession is part of what earned him the Indiana Bar Foundation’s Legendary Lawyer award, given annually to one attorney in the state. The award honors not just longevity, but major contributions to the legal profession. This fall, the Indiana Bar Foundation hosted an afternoon reception in Bamberger’s offices to present the award and honor Oswald. His colleagues gathered to honor his half-century in practice and his role in growing Bamberger, Foreman, Oswald & Hahn.

In the years that have passed since a teenage Oswald confidently told a school newspaper reporter that he wanted to be an attorney, he has built “a wealth of knowledge over time that I doubt we’ll ever see again,” Farmer says. “He’s a tremendous resource.”

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