Feb. 24, 1954 – April 17, 2020
Holly Lee Wiseman ’76 was deeply affected by the example set by her parents, civil rights activists who, in the 1960s, founded an organization to help peacefully integrate the schools of Mobile County, Alabama. Standing out became the norm for Wiseman’s family, and as her mother’s obituary later noted, with understatement, that activism “was not appreciated by all.”
The oldest of six, Wiseman took after their mother, says her sister Valery Wiseman Smith. “There was never a moment in her life when she was not working on a cause, whether it was through her career or in her personal life,” she recalls.
At Princeton, Wiseman majored in French, hid a pet cat in her dorm room, and spent a semester in Paris. “At that time in our lives, any conversation could become an avenue for learning something new about friends, the world, some academic subject, the pop culture of the day, or oneself,” says classmate Mark Soich ’76. “She enhanced the Princeton experience of anyone she spent time with.”
Wiseman became a prosecutor in Alabama, where she was one of a few women practicing law. In a biography, she recounted an experience with a judge who refused to allow women in his chambers: To participate in a pretrial conference, she brought a male law clerk who attended the conference while she stood outside the judge’s chambers and answered questions. “She used to say it was always incredibly difficult because a woman was not treated equally in the courtroom,” her sister says.
As a lawyer with the attorney general’s office in Alabama, Wiseman prosecuted political corruption; as director of the Texas attorney general’s antitrust division, she won the largest antitrust judgment obtained to that point. She spent 15 years at the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice handling cases close to her heart: voting-rights cases, hate crimes, police brutality, and human trafficking, which she viewed as an opportunity to fight for women. She received the Department of Justice’s highest honor, the John Marshall Award. “Her greatest gift was her ability to relate with and communicate to the victims of crimes,” says her colleague Gerard Hogan ’77, who notes that her empathy reached across class lines.
She advised foreign governments fighting human trafficking; when she returned to the United States in 2009, she helped New Orleans establish a new agency to monitor the city’s police department. In her free time, Wiseman worked with underprivileged kids, taught creative writing to inmates in the Mobile County Metro Jail (she had an MFA degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop), and sang with a women’s chorus.
Like her mother, Wiseman constantly sought solutions — even if they ended in failure, Smith says. “Our family motto was: Often wrong, never in doubt.”
Carlett Spike is a writer and assistant editor at PAW.