Friends mourn gay attorney ‘with big heart’

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A gay Atlanta attorney who worked with LGBT non-profits and often put the needs of friends and clients ahead of his own has died. 

John Israel (photo right), 50, died on Jan. 8 after a massive heart attack while at home with his partner of 11 years, Robert Cooper (photo left). He operated a solo legal practice on Piedmont Avenue, offered legal counsel to Joining Hearts and served as president of the Stonewall Bar Association of Georgia in 2003-2004.

As friends work to close down his legal practice, they will also celebrate his life during a memorial service on Saturday at St. Mark United Methodist Church. A reception at the church will follow the 2 p.m. service and then friends will have drinks in his honor at Amsterdam. In lieu of flowers, Israel's family requests donations be made to Joining Hearts.

A close friend, gay Atlanta attorney Keith Eady, said Israel was known for putting the needs of friends ahead of his own. 

“John always put everyone's needs before his. He never knew how to say no,” Eady said. “He could keep you laughing with the stories he told. I still cannot believe he is gone. I have picked up the phone many times this week to call him, then remember he is no longer with us.”

Israel was a longtime patron of Joining Hearts and had served as legal counsel to the non-profit for more than a decade beginning in 2004, according to the organization.

“I am very saddened by the news as is everyone in the Joining Hearts family. He was a great man with a big heart. Our thoughts are with his close friends and loved ones,” said Wes Berry, Joining Heart's president.

Jon Santos, a longtime fundraiser for HIV non-profits and a former Joining Hearts president, described Israel as “kind and generous.”

“The things I loved about John was that whenever you asked him for anything – as a friend or non-profit – the answer was always ‘Yes! Whatever you need,” Santos said. “The other thing was that he had a wicked sense of humor and loved a good laugh. I will never forget him dressing up as ‘Super Watusi’ for a themed Super Hero party at Opera.”

“I will miss John dearly. He was always kind and generous. John had such a big heart, and it just couldn’t keep up with how much he loved others. I am so very blessed to know him, and humbled and honored to call him my colleague and friend,” Santos added.

Gay Atlanta attorney Randy Fry said he first met Israel when the two were law students at John Marshall Law School in Midtown.

“We quickly became very good friends,” Fry said. “John was from South Carolina, and had a quick wit and hilarious stories. This accompanied with his southern twang always kept me rolling with laughter. For some reason, why I can't remember, I always called John 'John-Boy.' which stuck throughout our friendship. He, in turn, called me 'Fry-Daddy.'

Fry said Israel sat front and center in their classes and turned out to be a star student.

“John was one of the smartest attorneys, and men, that I knew.  We had many law school classes together. John usually sat in the very front of each close, sharply dressed, and his hand would go up to answer almost everything the professors could throw at us. I, on the other hand, sat in the very back, baseball cap and muscle pants on, not prepared, hoping that I was never called upon,” Fry said.

“We never let each other forget, and chided each other often, about our perspective roles and memories as law school classmates,” he added.

Fry also credited Israel with helping to build the Stonewall Bar Association of Georgia. It's just one example of how Israel put others before himself, he said.

“John was also one of the kindest men, and attorneys, that I have ever known. He was always helping others with legal matters, while often charging them much less than would be normal for legal fees,” Fry said.  

“I often would tell John that he needed to take better care of himself, both financially and emotionally, due to the legal profession being such a high-stress career. However, John's desire to help others in need was simply a big part of who John was, regardless of the sacrifices that he made for others,” he added.

Longtime gay Atlanta business owner and activist Philip Rafshoon said Israel's extensive knowledge of the legal system convinced him to send friends and customers his way for help.

“John was a very engaging and friendly person who was always involved in community organizations and had a tremendous knowledge of the legal system,” Rafshoon said. “I have referred multiple friends and customers to him for counsel. He not only served them well in their critical times of need but advised them on how to move their life forward so they would not need his counsel again. He will be sorely missed.”

Fry said he last ran into Israel at a grocery store in December.

“The very last time I saw John was last month at the grocery store, at which time he asked about my recent back issues, and assured me of his continued prayers and concern for me. We then both hugged and parted with smiles. I miss John terribly, but I do look forward to seeing him again in heaven, and listening to many more stories with his familiar South Carolina twang,” Fry said.


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