All his life Michael Charles Darnell was a nerd. He graduated from St. Augustine High School, earned his bachelor’s and law degrees from Yale University, and became a partner in one of New Orleans’ most prestigious law firms.
But in 1995, Darnell left Adams & Reese to start a law firm with Edwin Murray. “He’d rather work for the little ones than the big corporations,” said Joanell Darnell, his sister. “He said, ‘It makes me happy because I’m helping those who can’t help themselves. If you have the skills and abilities, why not?’”
Darnell, who also served on a number of government and charitable committees and was appointed to two provisional judgeships and a city council seat, died Aug. 31 at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center in Houston. He was 72.
The cause was respiratory arrest, said his sister.
“He was a guy of integrity who really believed he should serve. It was the cauldron in which it was cooked,” said Warren Bell, a longtime friend and roommate at Yale.
That became apparent shortly after Darnell received his law degree in 1977. He returned to Louisiana to provide legal and management services for the Southern Cooperative Development Fund, a nonprofit, Lafayette-based philanthropy that promotes rural economic development in 14 states.
Darnell was also an assistant district attorney for the parishes of St. Martin, Iberia and St. Mary before returning to New Orleans to work at Adams & Reese.
Retrace a path
When he made that move in 1987, Darnell was retracing the path he’d taken as a teenager. Born in Franklin, he was one of three children to a single mother – her parents had separated – when a nun who tutored him at Thibodaux “knew that Michael is intelligent and needed to get to where he could be more challenged.” said his sister.
That meant St. Augustine, a school known for its academic rigor and as an incubator for black male leaders. He started in the eighth grade and lived with family friends in the Lower 9th Ward for the next five years.
Darnell was a star on the debate team, graduating with honors and earning a scholarship to Yale, where he majored in African American Studies. As a student, he worked part-time as a reporter and public affairs producer for WTNH-TV, the ABC affiliate in New Haven, Connecticut, where he was the weekend anchor and producer and host of a weekly public affairs show. “Black is…”
Judge, City Council
In addition to practicing law in New Orleans, he was appointed an interim judge in the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court and the Orleans Parish Traffic Court, and was appointed to the city council to complete Oliver Thomas’ term after Thomas resigned in 2007 was.
Darnell has also served as Commissioner of the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad, Assistant City Attorney and Assistant City Attorney, and Vice President and General Counsel of the Regional Transit Authority. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he helped rebuild the New Orleans Recreation Department.
He has taught at Loyola University College of Law and Dillard University, chaired the St. Augustine High School Alumni Association, served on the board of directors of the New Orleans Youth Action Corps, and was a member of the Louis Martinet Society of New Orleans and the Sigma Pi Phi fraternity .
In college and in his career, “he juggled so much,” his sister said. “When he thought about how he was going to do something, that was it.”
Survivors include his wife Maria Darnell; a son, Christopher Begnaud of New Orleans; two daughters, Lauren Darnell of New Orleans and Lindsey Darnell Marshall of Vancouver, British Columbia; a brother, Kemper “Butchie” Darnell Jr. of Denham Springs; a sister, dr. Joanell Darnell of Metairie; and three grandchildren.
Mass will be held Thursday at 11 a.m. at the Transfiguration of the Lord Parish Church, 5621 Elysian Fields Ave. Visitation begins at 10 a.m