Frank Tuerkheimer, a UW law professor and attorney who served on the legal team that prosecuted Watergate scandal co-conspirators during the 1970s and was the chief federal prosecutor in Madison during the Carter administration, died Saturday of pancreatic cancer at 84.

Tuerkheimer’s career took him from New York City, where he was born, raised and began his law career, to shaping the minds of generations of lawyers who studied at the UW Law School, where Tuerkheimer joined the faculty in 1970.

“When all is said and done, to have done all those things and affected all those people,” said former U.S. Attorney John Vaudreuil, who began his career working for Tuerkheimer and remained his friend. “He’s there when his history is being made, he’s a child of the Holocaust, he’s writing about it, he’s teaching about it.”

Tuerkheimer’s parents settled in New York City after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939. His daughter, Deborah Tuerkheimer, said Tuesday that her father’s personal connection to the Holocaust was important to him, and something he studied and taught extensively in his later years, including at the University of Giessen in Germany.

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“To be back in Germany as a professor and teacher was profound,” she said.

He also co-wrote a book, “The Forgotten Trials of the Holocaust,” published in 2014, about 10 Holocaust-related war crimes trials that were not well known.

Tuerkheimer’s UW teaching career had two important gaps.

National duty

In 1973, Tuerkheimer became an associate special prosecutor for a team first led by Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Thirty-five years old in 1975, he led the prosecution during the trial of John Connally, the former Texas governor who had been President Richard Nixon’s treasury secretary. Connally was alleged to have taken $10,000 from a dairy industry lawyer in exchange for influencing the government to increase federal dairy price supports. He was acquitted.

President Jimmy Carter appointed Tuerkheimer the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin in 1977. Vaudreuil, who was hired by Tuerkheimer as a law clerk and later served as an assistant U.S. attorney before heading the office from 2010 to 2017, said Carter appointed many of the Watergate special prosecutor’s team to similar jobs to combat corruption.

Before leaving the post in 1981, Tuerkheimer prosecuted a number of memorable cases, among them a bizarre accidental bombing case involving a scion of the Joyce Beverage Co., which owned a large 7-Up bottler in Madison. The bomb, designed to disrupt a Joyce stockholder meeting set to take place at a Joyce-owned estate in Minocqua, went off prematurely and killed Joseph Banno and blinded William Joyce Jr., who had been at odds with his family.

“He was really smart, but he was also a really fine lawyer,” Vaudreuil said. “He could build cases. He knew how to bring witnesses and collect records and organize those things.”

Vaudreuil said he last saw an ailing Tuerkheimer in July. Tuerkheimer, he said, told him with some excitement that if his cancer treatments progressed well, he would present a weekly five-part presentation on the 50th anniversary of the Saturday Night Massacre. The Oct. 20, 1973, series of events saw Nixon order the firing of Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor.

Tuerkheimer’s own experience during that event, Vaudreuil said, was going out to dinner with friends that night and going back to their offices to find the FBI raiding their file cabinets and taking the files.

“He said, ‘I remember thinking, this is how democracy falls, because the guys on your team are not on your team,'” Vaudreuil said.

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Early years

Tuerkheimer graduated in 1956 from the Bronx High School of Science and in 1960 from Columbia University before getting his law degree from New York University Law School in 1963.

After serving as clerk for a federal judge in New York, Tuerkheimer helped write the constitution for the African nation of Swaziland (now called Eswatini) as an assistant to the newly independent country’s attorney general.

In 1965, Tuerkheimer became an assistant prosecutor to Robert Morgenthau, then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. Morgenthau would later serve for 34 years as the Manhattan district attorney.

In a 1975 New York Times profile of Tuerkheimer, published as Tuerkheimer led the Connally trial, Morgenthau reflected on how the young Tuerkheimer had taken on a mission to fight fraud and corruption, citing a particular case that dealt with process servers who were illegally dispossessing people of their property.

“He believes that people who hold positions of trust should be held strictly accountable,” Morgenthau said at the time. 

Morgenthau also said of Tuerkheimer’s departure for Madison that he was at heart “not a city boy.” 

‘Very fortunate’

Deborah Tuerkheimer said in moving to Madison, her father “was very conscious about choosing a place to raise a family,” and a place where he could be closer to nature and the outdoors, which became his passions. He especially loved to bike, she said.

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“My dad always had a way of looking at things that was very practical,” she said. “Teaching at the law school was something he felt very fortunate to do.”

Morgenthau, who died in 2009, remained a friend of Tuerkheimer, and Deborah Tuerkheimer worked in Morgenthau’s office as an assistant district attorney from 1997 to 2002.

Tuerkheimer is survived by his wife, Barbara Wolfson Tuerkheimer, also an attorney, whom he married in 1968, and their children, Deborah and Alan. Like Deborah, who now teaches law at Northwestern University, Alan is an attorney and owns a trial consulting firm in Chicago.

Deborah Tuerkheimer said her father is to be buried in a family plot in New York City. A memorial service in Madison is planned for Oct. 8 at Temple Beth El, she said.

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