Tipping the Scales

February 19, 2021

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Buffalo, NY - Ask Alvin J. McKenna ’63 to encapsulate his five decades as a trial and appellate litigator in Columbus, OH and he’ll answer with the most modest reply, “Rewarding.”

Such a low-key characterization is contrasted by a series of high-stakes courtroom cases in which McKenna’s focus, dedication and years of practice have made the winning difference in any number of trial, labor and employment disputes heard at the federal level.   

McKenna’s gritty determination and perseverance on behalf of clients have earned him numerous accolades over the course of his half century of practicing.  Still, there is one that eclipses all others. 

In 2001, the Black Law Students Association at Notre Dame Law School inaugurated the Alvin J. McKenna Alumnus of the Year Award.  The award recognizes an alumnus who has a record of accomplishment and service to the African-American and legal communities.  It is named in honor of the law school’s first black graduate. 

“When they introduced me at the ceremony, I stood up and said ‘No, there’s not a mistake here.  I am African-American,’” recalled McKenna. 

Born and raised in the inner city of New Orleans, LA, McKenna’s educational journey might never have reached Notre Dame or even Canisius were it not for the Josephites. 

This order of priests, whose mission was to serve the young African-American community in the segregated South, offered McKenna a scholarship to its newly opened, all boys St. Augustine High School.  “They then worked hard to ensure that all their students continued on to college,” recalls McKenna of the Josephites, who found him a full-tuition, room and board scholarship available at a small Jesuit school in Buffalo.

McKenna was just 16 years old (he skipped the third grade), 1,000 miles from home and utterly impervious to his new surroundings. 

The chemistry-turned-political science major embraced campus life.  He became a class officer, a member of Little Theatre, played intramural basketball and joined the Debate Society; excellent preparation for a future lawyer.  McKenna’s academics coupled with extracurriculars afforded him his choice of graduate schools.  In spring 1963, he accepted a scholarship to Notre Dame’s eminent law school.

It’s been more than a half century since McKenna completed his education and embarked on a career highlighted by roles as a Law Clerk to a United States District Judge for the Southern District of Ohio, an Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, special counsel to the governor of Ohio, and first managing partner of the Porter Wright Law Firm, originally founded in 1846. 

Still, he’s never forgotten where he came from or how he arrived there. 

In addition to his generous annual support to Notre Dame Law School and St. Augustine High School, McKenna has charitably and loyally donated to the Canisius Fund every year for 40-plus consecutive years. 

“My entire education, from high school on up, was financed thanks to the generosity of individuals and organizations that believed in the importance of educating young people,” McKenna concludes.  “Now it’s my turn to help support the next generation.  I owe it to them.”

McKenna lives in Columbus with his wife, Carol.  They have six children and 15 grandchildren. 

To make your gift to the Canisius Fund, visit www.canisius.edu/canisiusfund