William Brent Maxwell, III, 93, passed away November 30 at The Ridgemont at Edgewood Summit, following an extended illness. Born in Clarksburg, WV, June 2, 1925, he was the second son of Frank Jarvis Maxwell, Sr. and Clara Gibson Maxwell.
After one year at Clarksburg’s Washington Irving High School, Maxwell attended Phillips Exeter Academy, graduating in 1943, Among his classmates at Exeter was the novelist John Knowles, author of the classic prep-school novel, A Separate Peace. Knowles, also a West Virginia native, would regularly ride with Maxwell on the train up to the New Hampshire school.
The journalist and editor George Plimpton was also a classmate and occasional dinner companion; both students smoked Camel cigarettes (which was allowed at the time), Plimpton being notorious for “bumming smokes” from friends and acquaintances, as Maxwell would later recall.
After one year at West Virginia University, where he was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, he transferred to Harvard College. In 1944, Maxwell was drafted. During World War II, he served in the Navy Reserve, working in Norfolk, Virginia on projects relating to the detection and neutralization of magnetic sea mines. His mother’s brother, Francis Gibson, was a Captain in the Navy, and Maxwell fondly remembered visiting with his uncle at the Army and Navy Club in Washington, D.C.
Returning to Harvard in 1946, as an undergraduate Maxwell was suite-mate at Eliot House with the poet Frank O’Hara, and through O’Hara, become an acquaintance of the future illustrator and writer Edward Gorey, Both were memorable figures even as students, though Maxwell would remember “Ted” Gorey as especially eccentric, even then. Maxwell himself was a member of Harvard’s Hasty Puddiing, a college social club whose contemporaneous alumni included the actor Jack Lemmon and (by no coincidence) George Plimpton.
With a focus on American history and literature, Maxwell graduated with a degree in General Education in 1950.
As a result of his particular interest in the state’s legal and political history, Maxwell chose to attend West Virginia University’s College of Law, receiving his L.L.B. degree in 1952; that same year he was admitted to the state bar.
After working for his brother Frank J. Maxwell, Jr. as an attache to the West Virginia House of Delegates, he joined the practice of Preston & Davis, working there with a specialization in chancery law for thirteen years. When Preston & Davis dissolved, Maxwell joined Spilman, Thomas, Battle and Klostermeyer, where he headed the real property department. He served as deputy commissioner of Forfeited and Delinquent Lands in Kanawha County from 1963 to 1979 and as special commissioner for accounts for nearly the same period.
Maxwell’s love of history led him to write several publications which discussed the law firm’s early members; one about its founders was entitled, “Benjamin Harrison Smith and the Quieting of West Virginia’s Land Titles.” With “an encyclopedic memory for detail,” as noted in Spilman Thomas & Battle’s History of Service: The First 150 Years, his law partners rightly considered Maxwell the firm’s distinguished historian. He retired in 1989.
Other published essays and talks by Maxwell addressed the subject of West Virginia’s first European settlers. Articles such as “Two James Craiks and the Early History of the Kanawha Valley,” published in the West Virginia Historical Society Newsletter, explored the area’s early leaders and landowners.
He was a lifelong supporter of the arts, though he had a special enthusiasm for music. Following from its beginnings the singing career of fellow Clarksburg native Phyllis Curtin, while a college student he attended her first performances with the New England Opera under the direction of Serge Koussevitzky. Such experiences made him a life-long opera enthusiast. Maxwell would attend performances at the City Opera and Metropolitan Opera in New York City (where Curtin also sang); Glyndebourne, England; Vienna State Opera; as well as, in later years with his brother, the Sarasota Opera season.
Also on his trips to Europe, he paid visits to the ski slopes of Austria, Switzerland and France. Music and skiing also nicely overlapped at Snowshoe, where for many years he had a condominium apartment; this allowed him to enjoy alternating seasons of winter sports and the summer residency of the West Virginia Symphony. Also an avid squash and tennis player, he played on the Edgewood Country Club senior tennis team well into his late eighties.
As well as the West Virginia Symphony and Chamber Music Society, Maxwell was a supporter of the West Virginia Foundation and the West Virginia Humanities Council, At his alma mater, the West Virginia University College of Law, he endowed the William Brent Maxwell Scholarship as well as the William B. Maxwell III Oil and Gas Research Fund. He was inducted as a Dean’s Partner this past August.
Predeceased by his brother Frank only last year, he is survived by his nieces Clara Gibson Maxwell and Mary Maxwell Keller; his great-niece, Saskia Maxwell Keller; step-niece Michelle Gales Berry and step-nephew Timothy William Gales; as well his cousins William Maxwell Davis and James Hornor Davis, IV. Many other local and far-flung Maxwell relatives will long remember him for his kindness and generosity.
A member of St. John’s Episcopal Church congregation, his funeral will be held there on December 6 at 3pm. The Rev. Marquita L. Hutchens will officiate. St John’s is located at 1105 Lee Street E, in downtown Charleston.
Barlow Bonsall Funeral Home has been entrusted to handle the arrangements.
In lieu of flowers, a donation in his name may be made to HospiceCare,1606 Kanawha Blvd W., Charleston, WV 25387 or at: http://www.hospicecarewv.org/make-donation/