Marietta attorney Van Pearlberg, warrior for justice, dies at 72

Helped campaign for Leo Frank’s exoneration

Credit: courtesy

Credit: courtesy

At close to 6 feet tall and north of 230 pounds, Marietta attorney Van Pearlberg was a giant for justice. He served as a trial lawyer and a prosecutor before becoming a deputy Georgia attorney general in charge of the Office of Medicaid Fraud. He also was a Marietta City Council member for six years.

“He was very deeply Jewish in his commitment to justice,” said Steve Lebow, rabbi emeritus of Temple Kol Emeth. “He lived and breathed it every day of his life.”

Irvan “Van” Alan Pearlberg died on January 20 from colon cancer. He was born on Feb. 2, 1951, in Brooklyn, New York, to Lawrence and Marion Pearlberg, and came south after finishing Long Island University to attend John Marshall Law School in Atlanta — he loved telling friends it was the only school that admitted him. In class, he met fellow student Michael Kramer, and the two remained close friends their entire lives.

“When my daughters were born, and even my granddaughter, Van was right outside the delivery room,” said Kramer. “The kind of guy he was, he wanted to be the first person to congratulate you on a momentous event. He was the nicest man I ever met.”

Pearlberg was also an expert on the infamous Leo Frank case — he was lynched in Cobb County in 1915. Frank, who was Jewish, was tried and unjustly convicted for the murder of a girl who worked in an Atlanta pencil factory. After the governor commuted his death sentence to life in prison, a mob broke into the Milledgeville prison where Frank was held, took him to Marietta and hanged him. A posthumous pardon issued in 1986 didn’t address the matter of guilt or innocence, and Pearlberg tried for years to get Frank posthumously exonerated as well. He talked about the underlying well-documented antisemitism that led to his lynching. He joined forces with Rabbi Lebow, and the two made presentations across the state.

July 18, 2019, ATLANTA — Georgia Deputy Attorney General Van Pearlberg, a former Marietta City Councilman, is an authoritative scholar of the Leo Frank case who lectures about it often. He has researched the case for years and has an incredible trove of historic items dating from the time of the trial. (TYSON HORNE /TYSON.HORNE@AJC.COM)

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Former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes has also been involved in the exoneration effort.

“We worked on the case continually and talked about it all the time,” Barnes said. “Van was very committed to clearing Frank’s name.”

Pearlberg was revered not only for his legal prowess and his willingness to mentor young lawyers. He also had a starring role in numerous productions at Marietta’s Strand Theatre. His neighbor and friend Ann Roland said he told her that he liked to do acting because it helped him in the courtroom. People who appeared on stage with him said he was the consummate professional, cool and collected, fully embodying every character, encouraging fellow cast members. Many said he could have worked professionally.

Pearlberg wore a mezuzah every day, but he attended the Methodist church with his wife Patti. The rabbi consecrated and blessed ground in an Episcopal Church cemetery so Pearlberg could be buried next to Patti, who died of breast cancer in 2018.

The entire Church Street neighborhood is grieving for Van Pearlberg as they did for Patti. Years ago, said Patti’s son Scott Pearson, Pearlberg, who was a coach, spotted Patti at a little league game and subsequently drafted Scott onto his team so he could meet her. Scott said Pearlberg wasn’t anything like the other men his mom had dated, “he was far and away much better.” They married in 1993.

From October through March, the Pearlberg front yard was peopled with giant seasonable inflatables — witches, pilgrims, turkeys, Santas, menorahs, and leprechauns galore, depending on the holiday being celebrated. Cars slowed on Church Street to take in the sights. On Halloween, Van and Patti dressed in costumes and kids lined up to receive the full-sized candy bars they gave out.

“Van was larger than life, just like the inflatables,” Ann Roland said. “He had such a serious and important job, but as a friend and neighbor, he was the life of the party. He took so much joy in making people laugh.”

When the weather was mild, Church Street neighbors gathered on the Pearlberg’s front porch for cocktails and conversation or for one of their legendry parties. When the Rolands’ sons were young, Van and Patti added pint-sized Adirondack chairs to the front porch so the little boys could be comfortable. Van would strap on an accordion and tell Ann he could play any song, “As long as it was ‘Happy Birthday,’ the only song he could play.”

The Pearlbergs and their two sons and their families took annual trips together, to Breckinridge, Colorado, before the grandchildren arrived and to Captiva Island, Florida, afterward. Van always managed to bring goofy shirts or crazy hats for the men to wear, said Richard Pearlberg. He loved spending time with his grandchildren, who called him “the silly granddad.”

Both sons remembered the tender care with which Van carried for Patti as she was dying. She told her sister Nancy she was worried that Van would become a hermit after she died, something she didn’t want to happen.

Pearlberg was always affectionate with his family and friends. In almost every picture of him, he’s hugging someone. Scott Pearson remembered that even when Van was lying in a hospital bed, unable to talk, he grabbed Scott and embraced him and kissed the top of his head.

“I’ll never forget, when my mother was very sick, during the last few weeks of her life, Van figured out how to get her to the south of France for one last trip,” Pearson said. “She loved to travel and he wanted to give her that.”

In addition to his sons, Van Pearlberg is survived by his sisters Ronnie Dinin and Andrea Weiser, his daughter Erica DeSimone, six grandchildren, nieces and nephews. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in honor of Pearlberg to The Strand at