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California and the West

14th Time Is Charm for Passing Bar

Education: Newport Beach man got sidetracked a few times. Now, he may be the oldest person to become a lawyer in California at age 74.

January 28, 1998|JANET WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEWPORT BEACH — At age 74, Benjamin Fred Roll had been able to get his arms around pretty much everything life presented him: World War II battlefields, Appalachian oil fields, and the raising of eight children.

But one thing kept eluding him: passing the California bar exam. Thirteen times, Roll, a retired lieutenant colonel and real estate agent, failed the grueling three-day test.

On the 14th try, he used a different approach for tackling the lengthy essays.

"My whole life, I'd say, 'You got a problem? Here's the answer.' But that's not what lawyers do. They dance all over and argue all the pros and cons. So I tried it," he said. It worked.

In May, Roll, now 75, finally passed the exam. Others have taken the test more times--former Compton City Councilman Maxcy Filer tried 48 times before succeeding--but Roll may be the oldest person ever admitted to the state bar, according to a state bar spokesperson.

Roll first entered law school in 1978, after challenging his sixth child, Thomas, to stop fooling around in college and get a real education. Thomas Roll finally called his father and said, "If you'll go to law school, so will I."

His son, now an in-house counsel at Xerox Corp., said he proposed the idea because "I figured he would never go for it, and he'd leave me alone."

Benjamin Roll, at the time a real estate office owner, chuckled about the challenge to his wife, Garnet, and their other children. To his surprise, his daughter said, "Go. It will get you out from in front of the television set."

Father and son were admitted to Western State University College of Law in Fullerton and began commuting together to classes.

After 18 months, an elder at the Rolls' Mormon church took Benjamin Roll aside and said, "The Lord needs you in Hawaii."

Although he had to leave law school to undertake the missionary work, he and his wife were delighted to return to old friends, he said. The Rolls had lived there in the 1960s when he was in the Army.

When the couple returned to the mainland, Roll was offered a job in Kentucky supervising an oil field. When they finally settled back in their Newport Beach home, Roll decided to return to law school.

That was in 1986. For four years, he studied at the kitchen table, graduating in May 1990. Finally, he drove to Los Angeles to take the bar exam.

"It was hard, but actually I felt very comfortable that I had passed," Roll said ruefully. "When the large envelope came from the state bar saying, 'Sorry, send another $325 and you can try again in six months,' I was devastated. I'm not used to failure."

He tried again. And again.

Twice a year for six years, it became a midweek ritual for Ben Roll and his wife. They would drive to San Diego and she would drop him off at the Civic Center, where the test was given.

One day in July, Roll's wife was out shopping when the mail arrived.

"Here it was, this little legal-size envelope," recalled Roll. "I knew right away. Before, they always sent me a large one with the application for a new test."

When his wife returned, Roll told her the state bar had called and said she should stop making overnight reservations in San Diego.

"I knew right away," she said.

Roll doesn't plan an active practice.

"Hey! I'm 75 years old. I like to play golf," he said.

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