06/27/2016

Five of the Greatest: Donald S. Graham (1909–2003)


Last year, Davis Graham & Stubbs LLP celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding as Lewis & Grant in 1915. From the time he joined the firm in 1940 until his death in 2003, Donald S. Graham was one of three giants upon whose shoulders the firm stabilized, grew, and prospered. The lives of the other two—Richard Davis and Donald Stubbs—have been memorialized in earlier editions of the “Outstanding Lawyers in Colorado History” series.1 It is our honor to include Don Graham’s story in the series.

The Early Years

Don was born on January 5, 1909 in Pittsburg, Kansas, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Harrison Canfield Graham. When Don was just a youngster, his father’s work in the oil business took the family to Oklahoma, first to Bartlesville and later to Tulsa. After finishing high school in Tulsa in 1926, Don worked for a couple of years to save money for college.

Don started college at the University of Tulsa, but after one year he transferred to the University of Colorado at Boulder. There, he completed his undergraduate and law school work—on an accelerated basis—in 1932. As those of us who knew him would have guessed, he graduated first in his class, was managing editor of the Rocky Mountain Law Review (later renamed the University of Colorado Law Review), and was a member of the Order of the Coif.

In law school, Don was a classmate of Don Stubbs. They studied together in preparation for final examinations and for the state bar exam. To help pay their expenses, they worked various jobs at the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority house in Boulder—they waited tables, stoked a coal furnace, and shoveled snow from the sidewalks. Thus began a close friendship between these two promising young lawyers that would only strengthen once they joined the same firm several years later.

And, of course, it was Don Stubbs who introduced his sister Lucile Stubbs—known to all as “Luke”—to Don Graham. Luke and Don were married in 1947. This was truly a wonderful marriage that blossomed and flourished for more than 50 years. Theirs was a true friendship and a rare partnership that was marked, among many ways, by their shared love of the arts and opera.

Following graduation from law school in the depths of the Great Depression, Don found work in the legal department at the Federal Land Bank of Wichita, Kansas. In his six years there, he became an expert in real estate and related legal problems.

He was lured back to CU Law School to teach courses in conflicts of law and federal court procedure during the winter quarter of 1940. A deal had been struck, however, between the Lewis & Grant firm and the dean of the law school (Robert Stearns, who previously had been a lawyer at Lewis & Grant) that Don would join the firm as an associate following his brief sojourn as a member of the CU faculty. So in April 1940, Don Graham began his 63-year association with the law firm that one day would proudly bear his name. He later described his starting salary of $175 per month as “not substandard for the time” but at the “prevailing or above prevailing wage.”

Military Service

Not long after joining the firm—in 1942—Don was drafted as a private in the U.S. Armed Forces. His first assignment after basic training was to Lowry Air Force Base for a course in the maintenance of the machine guns used in Air Corps heavy bombers. Upon completion of the course, he was assigned to an Air Corps base in Salina, Kansas. He later was commissioned as an officer in the Judge Advocate General Corps and saw service in London, in Paris and, after World War II hostilities ceased, in Frankfurt, Germany. While in Germany, Don was allowed to visit the war crimes trials in Nuremberg, and in his later years, he recalled with great admiration the leadership of that tribunal by the chief prosecutor, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson. He was discharged from military duties in 1946 with the rank of Major.


Don Graham in his office.

 

Building a Law Firm

When Don returned to Denver in 1946, he rejoined Lewis & Grant—as did Don Stubbs upon his discharge from the Navy. Within a year, that firm of six attorneys merged with the small firm of four lawyers that Richard Davis and Quigg Newton had started a few years earlier to form Lewis, Grant, Newton, Davis & Henry (later Lewis, Grant & Davis). This began the professional association of three remarkable men—Dick Davis, Don Graham, and Don Stubbs—who would go on to build one of the Rocky Mountain region’s finest and most durable law firms. In recognition of their singular leadership of the firm over the next two decades, the firm name was changed to Davis Graham & Stubbs in 1964.

The early years were not easy ones. The war and other events had decimated the two merging firms, and the loss of key lawyers such as Jim Grant, who died in 1947, Quigg Newton, who was elected Denver mayor in 1947, and Steve Hart, who departed to found Holland & Hart, left the firm in precarious condition for several years. But Dick and Don and Don, with the help of newcomers Byron White, Robert Harry, Howard Rea, and Don Hoagland, steered their new firm through those very difficult years. That the firm survived and prospered is a tribute to their determination, hard work, commitment, and clear-headed thinking—but above all, it was their loyalty and respect for each other and those around them that held the firm together. In a speech to the firm during a retirement celebration for Dick Davis and Don Stubbs on December 31, 1981, Don reflected on those early days and how things have a way of coming around again:

The practice of law in Denver and more specifically in our firm, 35–40 years ago was no bucolic experience; stresses and strains were abundant. Moreover, in finding solutions to our problems I have no recollection of being helped by serendipity; rather, the problems were solved by willing, continuous hard work, and innovative thinking by first class brains, in the course of which Don, Dick and the rest of us extended our loyalty to, and our respect for, each other. Without having done that we would have been turned back by some of the difficult problems, especially those occurring about 1952–1955. Many of the problems of those years come around again, and still again, sometimes with different “English” on them. Most of them are recognizable, however. I’m not suggesting there are not new, puzzling ones, but most of them yield, new or recurring, under an attack containing the ingredients of which I’ve spoken, which ingredients, I am gratified to say, are still in evidence.

It is not possible to explain Don Graham’s specific role in the firm from those early years without a brief mention of the remarkable relationship between all three of the named partners. Individually, they were outstanding lawyers and gracious and compassionate people. Together, they were an unbeatable team. They truly personified the adage that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” Our partner, Don Hoagland, described it this way:

If you think of Davis Graham & Stubbs during those years as an organic entity, Dick Davis was its heart, Don Graham was its brain, and Don Stubbs was its backbone. These three individuals symbolize the firm’s humanity, its professionalism, and its integrity. Together, they made Davis Graham & Stubbs a very special place to be.2

Don was the longtime chair of the firm’s Finance Committee, and his decisions on matters of budgets, expenses, and hourly billing rates were rarely challenged. We remember well the thorough performance reviews Don would give a young lawyer nervously waiting to find out whether he would get a salary increase for the next year—and, if so, whether it would be the customary $50 per month or the $75 to $100 per month raise that sometimes came with an exceptionally good year.

Lawyer, Mentor, Friend

At the beginning, Don’s law practice was general in nature. He once described it this way:

As general practitioners most of us drew wills, we examined titles to real estate and handled real estate conveyances and re­lated financing transactions. Moreover, we assumed responsibilities for diverse problems of corporate clients, and we handled litigation.3

But over the years, his practice evolved toward corporate work—especially after he became the longtime general counsel and a member of the board of directors of one of the firm’s most important clients at the time, American Crystal Sugar Company. He treasured the relationships he established with the prominent business leaders of that company—people like Cris Dobbins and Charlie Briggs—and they relied on him for his good judgment and no-nonsense approach to the business and legal problems of the day.

Other clients that he was instrumental in bringing to the firm and served include Snowmass Corporation—the developers of the Snowmass Ski Area—El Paso Natural Gas Company, and J.C. Penney Company. In all of his client relationships, Don was quick to introduce younger lawyers to the clients, giving them freedom and opportunity to learn and grow under his watchful eye. Perhaps his greatest legacy to the firm and the profession was the young people he mentored and helped to become top-flight lawyers and judges—people like George Hopfenbeck, Donald O’Connor, former Colorado Supreme Court Justice George Lohr, Les Woodward, Richard Freese, and Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge David Ebel. His standards of excellence and sense of professionalism and fair play lived on through them.

He was a special person to all who knew him. Our partner, George Hopfenbeck, with whom Don worked closely for many years, once described Don as “a lawyer’s lawyer, a meticulous attorney, a man who treasured the precision which good writing can bring to confused thoughts.” He was a formal person who believed it was important to honor customs and traditions, but he never stopped learning and he accepted the realities of changing times and changing tastes. Somewhat shy and reserved, he nevertheless had a wonderful, wry, understated sense of humor and enjoyed a good story and a good laugh. If you could get him to talk, he loved to reminisce about the early days at the firm, but he made it clear that he was not living in the past, he was merely reporting on it.

Don loved the English language and took great pride in its precise and correct usage. Young lawyers who studied at his side learned early on that one does not split one’s infinitives, and that poor punctuation could be as costly as a poor choice of words or inattention to detail. When you drafted a memorandum or letter or brief for Don to review, you were motivated to read it carefully, edit it, and read it carefully again before you turned it loose.

Lest we leave the impression that he was difficult to work for, we hasten to say he was not—critiques were always constructive and delivered in the gentlemanly manner and graceful style that characterized everything he did. He always took time to explain his criticisms because it was important to him that your work with him be a learning experience.

He received many awards and recognitions for his outstanding service to our profession and our community. Among them were the William Lee Knous Award, presented to him in 1995 by CU Law School. The Knous Award is the highest and most prestigious award given to an alumnus by the law school. He also was a key member of the Real Estate Committee of the Denver Bar Association that promulgated the first edition of the Real Estate Title Standards in the early 1940s, and was one of the early elected members of the American Law Institute. Don retired from active practice in 1976, but he came daily to the office for many, many years after that. His influence in the firm was profound and continued until his death on May 10, 2003, at the age of 94.


Don and Luke Graham among colleagues at an office party.

 

Art, Theatre, and Opera

Any reflection on Don would be incomplete without mention of his love of the arts, particularly modern American painting and opera—a passion that he shared with Luke. Don’s love of art was an integral part of his life and lives on at Davis Graham & Stubbs, whose art collection is Don’s legacy, shared and appreciated by the firm and its visitors.

In the 1930s to 1950s, Don tracked developments in “modern art” according to which artists of the time were departing from representational painting and exploring elements of abstract and near-abstract designs. Most of his learning came from reading newspapers and periodicals, such as ARTnews and Art in America. His frequent visits to New York for client matters allowed him to view these works at New York galleries, the World’s Fair, the Museum of Modern Art, and select galleries. In his own words, he was attracted to this genre by the “inventive nature” of early 20th-century modern art artists.

 

Over time, Don established relationships with a couple of modern art gallery owners in New York, whom he trusted to judge the quality of art for patrons such as himself. As he acquired works by early 20th-century modernists for his home, his interest was piqued by warm personal relationships with two artists whose works he collected: Raymond Jonson and Andrew Dasburg. Al­though Don and Luke did not acquire art to establish a “collection,” as their acquisitions evolved they acquired so many pieces that they began generously donating works to the Denver Art Museum. The depth and richness of the donations became the subject of an exhibition in 1988 at the museum: “Early American Modernism,” the Lucile and Donald Graham Collection. As an acknowledgement of Don’s keen eye for art, the curator of American Art at the Denver Art Museum characterized their collection as including “several of the most distinguished works in the museum’s permanent collection of American Art.”4

Don’s support of the Denver Art Museum was not limited to contributions of art from his and Luke’s collection. For many years he sat on the museum’s Board of Trustees and also acted as the board’s secretary for a time.

In 1964, Don began collecting art for our law firm. This was not a deliberate project but rather grew out of his placement of two pieces from his personal collection in a conference room at the firm’s offices in the old American National Bank Building. At the time, it was avant-garde for a business office to place this kind of art in public areas. As the office wall space increased with the firm’s growth, Don, as a committee of one, eventually made his first law firm purchase of a work of contemporary art: Andre Masson’s “Sleeping Swan.” It was placed in the firm’s new reception room. Subsequent acquisitions were made to “break the monotonous ex­panse of blank walls.” As purchases were made, Don saw the need for homogeneity in the works and began to concentrate on works by contemporary American artists. Mindful of the diverse tastes in the office, he tried to amass a “conservative” collection, without “bizarre” elements. Nonetheless, his purchases occasionally pushed the envelope for some, as happened when he acquired a huge sculpture by William Noland: “Caracole” (1981–82). Don viewed the sculpture as “lyrical,” while others quietly characterized it as a “twisted bedspring.”


Caracole.


Cherry Blossom
and Cottonwood.

Driven by the increasing office space as the firm continued to grow, Don acquired over 70 works of art for the firm between 1964 and 1995. His purchases still grace the walls of the firm. In 2015, Don’s art acquisitions were the subject of a publication: The Art of Collecting (the Davis Graham & Stubbs Art Collection). As stated by the firm’s current art curator, Andra Archer, the firm’s collection, based on Don’s vision, is a “visual powerhouse” and one of the re­gion’s most impressive.5

Don’s love of modern American art was coupled with his love of opera. This interest also began early in his life. Law partners tell of Don’s law school interest in regularly listening to the Saturday afternoon radio broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. After marriage, he and Luke regularly attended the Santa Fe summer opera season. The latter eventually led to Don becoming the first Coloradan to serve on the Santa Fe Opera Board of Trustees.

The synergy between Don’s love of the glorious music, high drama, and gorgeous voices of opera and his love for modern art and its striking orchestration of color and form cannot be overlooked. Don seemed to love the arts as an expression of the heady and harmonious movements and gestures of the artists, expressions that mirrored the grace and style with which Don lived.

Personal Reflections

Everyone who knew Don, including the authors, will have memories of things he did or said that influenced their lives. Dale recalls working with Don on a case that ended up in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals about a half century ago. The oral arguments were set for Oklahoma City, and Don took Dale along—his first overnight trip as a lawyer. Dale remembers little about the oral arguments—except that the Court ruled in our clients’ favor—but distinctly remembers two seemingly minor aspects of that trip:

First, Don insisted that we spend our free layover time at the Cowboy Museum to see the marvelous Remingtons on display there. I was stunned to hear how much he knew about them.

And, second, he told me to be sure to call home and check with my wife at night—and that I should do it every night I was out of town—and I have tried to do that ever since.

I think by his example he was teaching me two things:

First, that it is important to have interests outside your law practice;

Second, that your family is just as important as your clients.

These are lessons that stick with you.

One of Charles’s favorite memories of Don relates to the gentle, wise, and modest manner in which he lived and expressed himself: In the late 90s, he shadowed Don to prepare to take over re­sponsibility for the Davis Graham & Stubbs art collection. As Don was making one of his last acquisitions for the firm—a sculpture by David Paul Anderson titled “Cherry Blossom and Cottonwood” (1986)—the depth of these character traits shone. Charles’s memory follows:

After placing the Anderson sculpture in an alcove upon its delivery, Don studied it and quietly stated that it might be more appealing to viewers if filled with additional defining structures. In a conversation with the artist, Don’s keen eye for fine art and stately manner led to a revision to the sculpture that the artist proudly embraced. As I observed this development, my view of Don as an artistic visionary and peer to artists was cemented (as was my realization that the task of maintaining and expanding the firm’s collection in his absence would be daunting). In short, on that day, I realized that Don was not merely a collector of art, but among artists, Don was a studied, knowledgeable, and re­spected peer.

Notes

1. Hoagland and Harris, “Five of the Greatest: Richard M. Davis,” 27 The Colorado Lawyer 13 (July 1998); Harris, “Four of the Greatest: Donald S. Stubbs,” 35 The Colorado Lawyer 33 (July 2006).

2. Internal notes from the authors’ personal files.

3. Id.

4. Early American Modernism (the Lucille and Donald Graham Collection) 6 (Denver Art Museum, 1988).

5. The Art of Collecting (the Davis, Graham & Stubbs Art Collection) 8 (Davis Graham & Stubbs, 2015). n

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