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Legacy of Leadership

Jonathan Hollingsworth has an array of firsts, but helping others is what he’s about

Photo by Jodi Miller

Published in 2024 Ohio Super Lawyers magazine

By Jim DeBrosse on December 28, 2023


Jonathan Hollingsworth’s life has been filled with significant events. The grandson of sharecroppers, he was the first in his family to graduate from high school and college, and so the first to become a lawyer. In 2013, he became the second Black attorney to serve as president of the Ohio State Bar Association.

But he’s not one to go on about it. “I don’t need public accolades to feel fulfilled,” he says. “That’s not the kind of thing that drives me. What drives me is the idea of being a servant leader.”

Like many attorneys of his generation, Hollingsworth’s earliest career role model was Perry Mason. “He seemed like a person everybody looked to for help to solve their problems,” says Hollingsworth in his deep but gentle voice, seated in the conference room of his Centerville law office and wearing a perfectly tailored dark suit.

“He also appeared to be someone who actually did good and got paid for it. So, I’m thinking, ‘OK, you can do good for people. You might even make some friends. And oh, by the way, you can make a good living at it.’ At the age of 10, that looks pretty good.”

After some 40 years in the legal profession, it still looks pretty good to Hollingsworth, 66.

He has handled nearly every type of civil case: business, consumer, personal injury, employment, trademark, and legal and medical malpractice. For his community, he has volunteered untold hours on the boards of 20 civic and charitable organizations in the Dayton area, including the Family Service Association, the local public TV station, Sinclair Community College, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and the Urban League, where his duties included reading to children.

And for his profession, he has served as past president of both the Dayton and Ohio State Bar associations and as a member of the Ohio Supreme Court’s Commission on Grievances and Discipline, now the Board of Professional Conduct.

During his year at the helm of the state Bar (2013-’14), Hollingsworth established an Ohio State Bar Foundation fund to support civics education. He also made sure the foundation continued to fund diversity efforts among Ohio lawyers—including support for the Law and Leadership Institute, a nonprofit that works with Ohio high school students from underserved communities to prepare them for careers in the legal profession.

“The people we represent are diverse,” Hollingsworth says. “The U.S. is not homogenous. Seeing someone like yourself as a legal representative or as a judge is a positive thing. I think the opportunity should exist for everyone in that regard.”

Hollingsworth’s grandparents eked out a living growing cotton, okra, corn, sugar cane and beans in northeastern Arkansas along the Mississippi River. When he was 3, his mother moved with him to, as he quips, “the great metropolis of Lima”—a city then of about 65,000 in Northwestern Ohio, where his aunt and uncle had settled.

Hollingsworth’s grandparents, Clarence and Eunice Robinson, with their youngest child, Carrie.

“My mother was not the kind of person who wanted to spend her life working in the fields picking cotton and beans,” Hollingsworth says. “So, when the opportunity arose to relocate, she jumped at it. I’m just so thankful that she did, because I’m not sure I could have survived there back in the ’60s. … I’m not cut out for farming, and I think the race relations weren’t that good back in the ’60s. It was not the environment where I think I would have thrived.”

Not long after the move, Hollingsworth lost his only sibling when his older brother died of spinal meningitis. His mother later found work as a dietary aide at Lima Memorial Hospital and went on to marry his stepfather, who worked at the GM assembly plant in nearby Defiance. Neither parent had more than an eighth-grade education, “but they understood the importance of me being educated,” he says, “so that I could hopefully do well in life.”

Hollingsworth and his friend Mike Lawson grew up in the South Side neighborhood of mostly working-class families and attended Lima South Junior High together. “I can tell you that it was very apparent that Jonathan would be a success at whatever he did,” Lawson says. “He was a rare individual—high-quality, very ethical, with high moral standards. He was the kind of guy who would stand up if somebody was being bullied. Everyone who came in contact with him would say the same thing—I don’t care if they were the class president or the class dork. I don’t care what social status they came from. They were instantly comfortable with Jonathan.”

At Lima Senior, Hollingsworth was both an outstanding athlete and an honor student in the college prep program. In football, he used his speed and his solid 5’10”, 165-pound frame as a halfback to run through defensive lines—with a little help from his friends, including guard and linebacker Mike Lawrence.

“Usually, I would get to see Jon when his rear end was running down the field,” Lawrence says, laughing. “But he was just a great guy. He played with intensity. He was a leader.”

Hollingsworth and Lawrence started on the team as sophomores and went on to become co-captains. They have stayed friends ever since, spending time together every summer with other friends, including Lawson, at Lawrence’s summer home on Coldwater Lake in Southern Michigan.

In 1976, Hollingsworth graduated fifth in his senior class of 435, and when he was accepted to Harvard, he couldn’t refuse—even though his dream throughout high school had been to play football for Woody Hayes at Ohio State. He ended up playing at Harvard instead, helping beat a much-favored Yale team his senior year. He majored there in American intellectual history, an interdisciplinary program in which students examine U.S. ideals and scholarly institutions.

“When you’re looking at history, you’re looking at what’s driving people,” Hollingsworth says. “And that’s all I would be doing as a lawyer, trying to figure out what drives people.”

Another excellent prep for law: Hollingsworth would often debate with his classmates, some of whom were from privileged backgrounds and others from backgrounds like his own.

Hollingsworth at his college graduation.

“You can learn from those conversations,” he says. “You don’t have to agree with them, but you can learn. And it is the learning that’s important, because you figure out how to apply that knowledge in a way in which you can contribute to the community in which you choose to make your home.”

Lima was the home Hollingsworth returned to during summers in college, and it was where he met his wife, Linda, at a wedding reception. “She was working the gift table, and there was something about her that caught my eye.” The couple have been married for 37 years and have five grown children.

For law school, Hollingsworth attended “that school up North,” as Ohioans like to say, graduating from the University of Michigan in 1983. He was lured back to Ohio by Porter Wright, at whose Dayton office Walter Reynolds became his friend and mentor.

“Jon is a very proud individual,” Reynolds says. When Hollingsworth interviewed at the firm, a partner “asked him, if the firm were to hire him under the firm’s affirmative action program, would he accept? Jon told him no. He spoke: ‘If I don’t merit consideration under the same standard you consider everybody else, don’t hire me.’”

Hollingsworth soon developed a reputation for both toughness and fairness. “If you are on the opposite side, be prepared to do battle,” Reynolds says.

Hollingsworth takes on cases for both plaintiffs and defendants, depending where he feels he’s needed. Consider two contrasting high-profile cases he handled in Dayton a few years apart. In 1997, the state of Ohio alleged that then-Dayton City Superintendent of Schools James Williams had charged Wright State University $39,000 for services as an adjunct professor that were never performed. The accusations were part of a case against Wright State’s education dean and other employees, alleging $641,000 in fraudulent charges to the school. Hollingsworth successfully defended Williams and cleared him of involvement, though some Wright State officials were convicted.

Three years later, the state alleged that a severance agreement that put $325,000 in the pocket of departing Central State University President Arthur E. Thomas was $130,000 in excess of what the university was obligated to pay. At the behest of then-Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery, Hollingsworth agreed to represent the state. (Thomas ended up being exonerated at trial.)

Hollingsworth’s interest in representing both sides sometimes came up against the firm’s conflict-of-interest policy barring attorneys from working against any of the firm’s clients. So in 2001, he joined a firm with attorney Dwight Washington, who died in 2016.

Although Reynolds was saddened to see Hollingsworth leave Porter Wright, he believes it was the right decision for his colleague. “If he wants to accept a medical malpractice case on the plaintiff’s side, he can do that. And if he wants to bring a malpractice claim against lawyers, he can do that,” Reynolds says. “He has that freedom.”

Hollingsworth remembers well a medical malpractice case representing the family of a friend and colleague at Porter Wright who died following a routine hysterectomy. After surgery, the patient was moved to the post-anesthesiology care unit for observation. But after three hours, the anesthesiologist left the hospital, and the patient was transferred to a regular medical unit where Hollingsworth says she received less attention. She died, 14 hours after surgery, from internal bleeding and loss of blood.

The case settled favorably to the family under a non-disclosure agreement. Even so, Hollingsworth wasn’t entirely satisfied: “In my opinion, it wasn’t enough because the loss was substantial to the family. It impacted me as well. She was a good, close friend.”

Hollingsworth has no immediate plans for retirement, but when it comes, he imagines he’ll catch up on his reading—”I’ve become less and less of a reader as I’ve aged. Maybe if I’m retired, I’ll go back to reading novels. I like the Grisham stuff.” He also plans to continue his volunteer work. “I like the opportunity to be able to help where I can,” he says, “and make the community I live in better.”

The Road Not Taken

Most of us have some measure of regret over a path not taken in our youth. For Jonathan Hollingsworth, that path opened, and quickly closed, during an awards banquet honoring the best high school student athletes in the Lima area.

Hollingsworth (#15) at the 1979 Harvard-Yale game

The presenter was legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes.

It was April 1976 and Hollingsworth had already accepted admission to Harvard. “But I wanted to go to Ohio State badly to play football, right?” Despite being just 5’10” and 165 pounds, Hollingsworth had been a star halfback for Lima Senior. “I’m thinking, well, look at [two-time Heisman winner] Archie Griffin.” Griffin was 5’9” in college and weighed 182 pounds.

The sportswriters at the banquet talked up Hollingsworth to Hayes, who came over and asked which college he’d chosen. Hollingsworth feared telling the truth would elicit a surly answer but told him anyway. Instead of, “Well, why haven’t you sought us out at Ohio State? What’s wrong with you, kid?” Hayes told him, “Get a good education.” Hollingsworth recalls, “I was pleased with the comment, but he didn’t realize how much he’d burst my bubble. I wanted to go to Ohio State so badly, I would’ve walked on.

“What Woody Hayes said,” he continues, “was, in fact, correct.”

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