University of Southern California

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Lifelong and Worldwide

James "Jimmy" Reese Class of 1946


Fostering Literacy

James “Jimmy” Reese ’46 is a busy man. He’ll do some stock market trading, arbitrate a dog bite case and set up meetings for a new education intervention program at USC - all in a day.

At 92, Reese doesn’t plan to slow down any time soon.

“You have two choices when you wake up in the morning: Live life or stay in bed,” he says with a chuckle. “I choose to stay busy and enjoy every day. You never know if it’ll be your last.” Reese, an active member of the State Bar of California for 66 years, currently is helping USC to launch an intervention program for 7- to 10-year-old, low-income boys attending public schools in Los Angeles. He has pledged $100,000 to the effort..

““Many of them are in fourth grade and can’t read,” Reese says. “If you can’t read, you can’t write and you can’t communicate. I think we have given up on these boys, and eventually they wind up incarcerated. I think a case may be made that their constitutional rights to a good education are being violated. I want to create a program that will teach these boys once and for all how to read.”..

Reese grew up in racially segregated New Orleans. A pivotal moment came when he was about 10 years old, and his father made an ugly, drunken scene at his elementary school.

“My teacher took me in her arms and said, ‘Jimmy, you’re not your father. You can really be someone one day.’ I always remembered that. It carried me through,” Reese says, tearing up.

“I came out to California while I was on active duty in the military during World War II, and I met Crispus Attucks Wright [class of 1936 and 1938], who was one of about a dozen black attorneys in Los Angeles. I talked to him and saw what he did and wanted to do the same thing.

“I said I wanted to go to law school,” Reese says, recalling a visit to USC Gould School of Law dean William G. Hale’s office in 1943, the Friday before classes were scheduled to start. “The dean’s secretary looked at me and gave me a test and told me to show up for classes on Monday. That was that.”

After graduating from USC Gould, Reese opened his own firm. In 1952, legendary singer Ray Charles asked him to work on retainer and later persuaded him to join Ray Charles Enterprises as in-house counsel.

Reese worked for Charles through the 1960s, although from 1965 to 1967 he received a special assignment from former Gov. Edmund G. Brown to head California’s Office of Economic Opportunity. In this position, Reese increased free legal aid from two programs to more than 100.

“This is one of the proudest accomplishments of my career,” he says.

In 1970, Reese became the first African-American Los Angeles Superior Court commissioner. Five years later, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him as judge to the Municipal Court and, eventually, Superior Court.

At 70, he retired from the bench to work for Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services Inc., where he has heard more than 1,000 cases and developed a reputation as a skilled mediator.


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