Victor Cardwell of Roanoke is the first black president of the Virginia Bar Association
Victor Cardwell’s parents came into this life at a time and place where opportunities for black people were limited.
Her mother, Jean Swanson Beverley Cardwell, and her father, Thomas Cardwell, were both born in Lynchburg in 1937. They married shortly after high school. Jean Cardwell became line supervisor at General Electric and Thomas Cardwell became head janitor at EC Glass High School.
They lived on Monroe Street in the Diamond Hill neighborhood. Two girls came first, then three boys.
“I was lucky,” said the second son, Victor. “They were both hard working people, amazing parents, great leaders for our house. At different times, the two would have been college graduates and more likely, but they didn’t have those opportunities presented to them.
Victor Cardwell had better opportunities, and he made the most of them. In January, Cardwell, chairman of the board of Roanoke’s Woods Rogers law firm, became the first black president of the Virginia Bar Association. (In April, Woods Rogers announced a merger with Norfolk law firm Vandeventer Black.)
The seeds of success were sown early.
“I’ll tell you that without any factual basis” – meaning the idea was implausible – “we knew we had to go to college,” said Victor Cardwell, 61. “My parents didn’t go to college, but we knew… what their plan and intention was, for each of us. Even more precisely, my mother had planned that we all go to the UVA. I don’t really know why she thought it was possible for four or five of her black grandchildren to leave Lynchburg and go to the University of Virginia.
UVA admitted its first black undergraduate in 1955, but integration went slowly.
The eldest, Renée – six years older than Victor – was the first to fulfill her mother’s dream of being admitted to Thomas Jefferson’s school, where she became an Echols scholar. The next sister, Reva, also became a Cavalier.
Victor Cardwell’s chances of admission were helped by his outstanding defensive play at Heritage High School. Recruited by football coach Dick Bestwick, Victor became the next Cardwell to enroll in the Charlottesville school.
Cardwell and Howard Lewis, who played it safe, were teammates, classmates and roommates. The Cardwells have become a second family to Lewis. “I came to UVA from New York,” he said. “And so when some holidays we didn’t have a lot of free time, I ended up in Lynchburg with his family. His brothers, his sisters, his mom and his dad, they treated me like family.
Lewis and Cardwell stayed in Charlottesville for summer school, in part so they could train at the team’s facilities. “Victor was very driven then, as he is now,” Lewis said. “You know, he likes to have fun, but he knew how to prioritize. And that hasn’t changed.
Away from the pitch, Cardwell found he enjoyed classes that gave him the chance to speak.
After graduating from UVA, Renée Cardwell embarked on a career in law (she later became a judge). Victor excelled on the LSAT pre-law exam and was about to follow Renée to Georgetown Law School, when he got a call from Washington and Lee University. “A guy from Lynchburg that I had raced on the track with…went to W&L. And I think he may have mentioned to them that I was over there looking for an opportunity to go to law school. I was close to [enrolling at] Georgetown and the next thing you know things fell into place and I ended up in Lexington for three years.
Cardwell was one of only three blacks in his class of 130 freshman law students.
“‘Lexington is a beautiful and amazing city today,’ Cardwell said. “That mid-’80s was a little different than it is today. It was hard. I was at UVA and I had great teammates and I had friends of all races and abilities and disabilities…but going to Lexington in 1984…and getting into a class where there were only two other black women, it was at least illuminating. I mean, as a minority in America, you see that. You know, you grew up with it, it’s OK. I usually walk into rooms or buildings where I am the first or only black person in the room. But when you go to law school, and you experience that, and you’re in Lexington, which is very historic…I remember some comments from people about the constitutional basis of various things, including movable slavery at one time. You have to be strong enough to feel good about these things, intellectually, academically, and personally.
One of Cardwell’s classmates was David Carson. “We worked hard academically, as you would expect in law school, but the law school, at least at that time, took its intramural athletics very seriously,” said said Carson, now a Roanoke Circuit Court judge. “We played undergraduates and played flag football in the fall and basketball in the winter and softball in the spring. So one of the first things I noticed was that he was kind of dominant on every sports field, football, basketball and softball. And I would say the other thing I noticed about him is that he has a quiet confidence and leadership abilities. Thus, people tend to gravitate around him and admire him. And I think that same quality carried over into his professional days as well.
Most weekends, Cardwell traveled to Washington, D.C. “It was a chance to get out and be me in a larger environment,” he said.
After graduating from law school, Cardwell worked for the Department of Labor in Washington. In 1991, he joined Woods Rogers as an associate in labor and employment law.
“He probably didn’t have the best working relationship with a few senior partners early in that period,” Cardwell said. “But the good news is that I had some very good friends who kind of went through this law practice with me. And what I also had was, despite some of these difficult relationships, people which I loved a lot. And labor and employment law.. is perhaps the most interesting job you can do, because it deals with people, in all aspects of their lives and in all aspects of what they do.
“I like the opportunities to help correct policies, if they need to be corrected, and practices. And more importantly, make sure work environments allow people to succeed. Because contrary to popular belief, companies do not win when they lose their good employees because of a bad work environment. They have invested a lot. And what they need to do is make sure they create a work environment where people are willing to stay and grow together.
A sensitive case Cardwell is currently dealing with involves a supervisor who inadvertently offended an employee.
” It is going to be difficult. And I don’t know how to solve it. He is a very high level person. And the problem is that they had a conversation with a subordinate. They were dealing with a condition with a subordinate that is considered a disability. And the high person probably thought they were offering to help by offering to take them and help them get treatment or something. But the disabled person perceived a real denigrating tone. And it’s tricky, because no one supports a work environment where subordinates… feel like they’re being harassed or bullied by high-level people. Conversely, a higher level person whose heart is in the right place, but, boy, does it feel like they did it in a very clumsy way, created an environment in which I don’t know how we will survive this. ”
Cardwell’s work earned him the respect of his colleagues.
“As I tell young lawyers, your reputation is paramount,” Carson said. “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. And I think Victor [reputation] has always been excellent. So he makes great first impressions, he chases them, and I think [he is] very, very respected, both personally and professionally.
Cardwell became a manager at Woods Rogers in 2006.
The Virginia Bar Association is a voluntary association founded in 1888. About 5,000 of the Commonwealth’s 32,000 lawyers belong to it, Cardwell said.
Virginia’s first documented black lawyer, Withall Wynn, practiced in the 1870s, according to the Allen, Allen, Allen & Allen website.
“The election of Victor Cardwell is a significant milestone for the VBA,” wrote Bernard Goodwyn, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia, in a statement for Cardinal News. “It is a strong symbol of acceptance of the ever-increasing diversity of the legal profession.
Says Cardwell: “When I was passed the gavel, and I will say this anytime, I sit in the president’s seat of the Virginia Bar Association because of the great work of many people before me, many, many, many black lawyers from the Commonwealth of Virginia, who were qualified, and many women and many different minorities.
Outside of Woods Rogers, Cardwell volunteers with numerous charities. He particularly appreciates the opportunity to talk to young people.
“I think any young person that’s going through this really complex society today is at risk. I think the socio-economically disadvantaged kids, who don’t see the opportunities, are the ones I’m trying to make sure I see, that even though I was blessed with two hard working parents, I wouldn’t say we weren’t at risk I would tell you unequivocally that risk is all around you, depending on where you live in. And it doesn’t matter where you live today.
“And so what I’m telling you is you have to believe that you can control your future, you have to believe that people want to support you. You have to believe that there are opportunities here that are greater than what you see right now. And you have to be patient enough to want them to take them, because it’s very easy, unfortunately, to get caught up in quick return. And when you don’t have much and you don’t see much in your present or your immediate future, you start thinking, ‘How can I do this today?’
The next generation of Cardwell learns how to make it. Victor Cardwell and his wife, Joann, a nurse, live in Salem; their son Max will attend VMI this fall, and daughter Ariana will attend Clemson.