Northwoods Commerce: Hitting the century mark
On a Friday evening in February, 1961, Rhinelander’s Fenlon Hotel was the site of a celebration that commemorated the long and illustrious career of Albert “A.J.” O’Melia. Over five decades, A.J. had tried countless cases, some sensational, like the notorious George “Jiggs” Perry case in the 1930s, in which he successfully prosecuted a bigamist who had murdered one of his wives. The case, tried in the glare of the media spotlight, was just one highlight of A.J. O’Melia’s career and it further cemented his reputation among his peers.
The celebration was an event, drawing numerous colleagues from around the region, including Wisconsin Supreme Court justices. It also prompted a blizzard of letters and telegrams from a number of dignitaries, including U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
That evening at the Fenlon 50 years ago was only one milestone in a long career that began back in 1911, shortly after A.J. O’Melia, fresh out of Marquette Law School, decided to return to his home town of Rhinelander, hang his shingle and create a firm that would provide legal services to people in this area.
Although that celebration was the culmination of a 50-year career, it certainly didn’t mark the end of A.J. O’Melia’s law firm, which is now one of the largest in the region. Many attorneys, among them several of A.J. O’Melia’s descendants, have practiced law there, building distinguished careers of their own and volunteering their time and effort to the community. Three sons-John, Richard (Dick) and Don-followed in A.J.’s footsteps. Now, as the firm has reached the century mark, his grandson, John O’Melia Jr., and six other attorneys-John Schiek, Todd McEldowney, Jeff Jackomino, Larry Wiesneske, Andy Smith and Mike Schiek-are continuing the tradition.
And it’s a hallowed tradition. Both A.J. and Donald served as presidents of the Wisconsin State Bar Association, and Don participated in forming Wisconsin Judicare Inc., and his son, Mike, practiced with the firm for a few years before moving to Phoenix, Ariz., where he was eventually appointed a circuit court judge. A.J’s son John didn’t join the firm immediately upon graduating from law school but instead joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation and worked in Washington, DC, and Miami, Fla., before eventually returning to Rhinelander and his father’s law office. Dick chose a different route. He opened the firm’s Milwaukee law office in 1948, then became assistant city attorney in Milwaukee and eventually general counsel for the U.S. Senate Operations Committee, which was at that time chaired by Senator Joe McCarthy. Eventually, President Richard Nixon appointed Dick assistant general counsel for the Civil Aeronautics Board. And in 1994, he co-founded U.S. Africa Airways.
With that kind of family history, one might expect that John O’Melia’s sons, John Jr. and Patrick, would be expected to follow in the footsteps of their father and grandfather. But that wasn’t the case at all.
“There was no pressure for me to go to law school,” John says, but he saw that his father and uncles enjoyed their law careers and decided while he was in college to pursue the same course. “It’s something I just grew up with. I wanted to come back home and live in Rhinelander,” he adds. “I wasn’t cut out for the cities.”
So he came back home and joined the law firm, as did his brother, Patrick, who later served as Oneida County District Attorney before being appointed Oneida County Circuit Court judge in 2007.
While the firm’s history is held in high esteem at O’Melia, Schiek and McEldowney, the partners there aren’t afraid to embrace change, and that could be part of the reason why the firm has been around for so long. In 1989, when the firm was known as O’Melia & McEldowney, it merged with Melby & Schiek, co-founded by attorney John Schiek. That merger resulted in the name by which the business is known today. The O’Melia and Schiek families had been friends for years, and at one time John Schiek had worked for the O’Melia firm. “It just seemed like our two firms matched and would fit together,” John O’Melia recalls.
Then in 2006, O’Melia, Schiek & McEldowney merged with Mouw, Krueger & Smith to create one of the region’s largest law firms. As a result of the merger, the O’Melia firm added another attorney, Andy Smith, and was also able to provide a broader range of services to clients.
The attorneys at O’Melia, Schiek and McEldowney are a pretty diverse crew with varying areas of specialization, and different backgrounds, personalities and interests-John and Mike Schiek, for example, served in the Marines before becoming attorneys, and Larry Wiesneske sails and plays the blues-but in conversations with them, the desire to help people and a deep attachment to the community are the common denominators.
The ways in which they volunteer their time are about as diverse as they are. John Schiek is a past president of the Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce; Jeff Jackomino has coached and officiated for the Rhinelander Basketball Association; Mike Schiek has been involved in Rotary and with the Rhinelander Area Scholarship Foundation; Andy Smith served as chairman of the Oneida County Board of Supervisors; Todd McEldowney, among his other activities, has served on the Rhinelander Police and Fire Commission, and has been heavily involved in coaching basketball and officiating at volleyball and basketball games; and John O’Melia served on the State Bar of Wisconsin Board of Governors, coached Pop Warner football, officiated at high school basketball games and has served on the boards of the Rhinelander Area Scholarship Foundation, the YMCA and Rotary. By no means is this a complete list of activities.
“I grew up in the 1960s,” says Larry Wiesneske, “and I was inspired by that era.” He was further influenced, he explains, by President John Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” speech. “I think that resonated with a lot of people in my generation,” Wiesneske says. Among other commitments, he has served on local and state bar organizations, chaired the organization that operates the Rhinelander Youth Center, has been a Boy Scout leader, a volunteer tutor for Project Literacy, is a member of the Rhinelander Kiwanis Club, and cooks and serves at “The Table,” a program that serves free meals at St. Augustine’s Church.
The enthusiasm for community involvement flies directly in the face of the self-centered, combative image of lawyers often portrayed in movies and on television. So does the recognition that things go much more smoothly for everyone involved in a case when attorneys can find common ground.
“I’m active in sports and competitive by nature,” Todd McEldowney says. But, he adds, “I would hope as lawyers that we understand that collegiality is important.” He quickly points out that he does fight for his clients; however, a good settlement is preferable to a hard-fought trial. “When that collegiality exists, it’s a lot easier to reach an amicable agreement for your clients.”
A common thread in conversations with the attorneys at O’Melia, Schiek & McEldowney is their satisfaction in helping to make the community a better place. Doing so can go a long way toward making a community attractive to young people who are getting out of college and getting ready to start building their careers. “Brain drain,” the loss of young people who leave this area to seek their fortunes, is something the attorneys readily acknowledge.
“You see so many students graduate from high school, top students in their class,” McEldowney says. “They go to college, they like the challenges and the money in a different community and they don’t come back.”
McEldowney, who joined the firm in 1980, recalls that at that time there was an influx of young professionals in Rhinelander. “It’s those kinds of people who help make this a dynamic community,” he says, adding that he doesn’t see as much of an influx of young professionals now. “I think the more the community has to offer, the better the likelihood would be that we could keep students coming back.”
While Rhinelander’s smaller size might put off some young people who are starting their careers, it was an asset for Andy Smith, a Milwaukee native who realized early on that he would prefer to build his career in a small town. In 1991, he chose to move here to practice law, rather than Elkhorn, where he had been offered another job. As someone who was involved with local government for several years, he’s very much aware of the need to attract members of the next generation to this area.
Providing a diversified economy, so that this isn’t strictly a tourist destination, is a goal of organizations like Grow North and the Oneida County Economic Development Corporation, he explains. And, Smith adds, having Nicolet College in the area is important as the cost of education increases. “Technical schools provide a wonderful avenue for education and lifestyle,” he says. Nicolet, in fact, is one of what Smith refers to as this area’s “crown jewels,” assets in the community that attract professionals and young families. The other three are the airport, the YMCA and the hospital. “That’s phenomenal for a community this size,” he says.
For Mike Schiek, the youngest member of the firm, there wasn’t any question about returning to Rhinelander after law school.
“My father’s an attorney, so I think that had an impact,” he says of his decision to choose the legal profession. “It’s a good opportunity to try to help out.” Being able to work with the other attorneys in the office was an advantage when he was starting out, he says. Like them, he volunteers his time in different ways, including sharing his time with young people who have an interest in law, by judging mock trial tournaments.
The fact that people will always need legal services is no doubt a part of the reason that O’Melia, Schiek & McEldowney has been around so long-but only a part of it. A strong attachment to the community could well be the secret to the firm’s longevity. “Those generations,” says John O’Melia, “come back home and continue.”
Note: This article appeared in the August/September 2011 issue of Northwoods Commerce magazine.