Vol. 28, No. 7
Six of the Greatest
George S. Graham
by Hugh D. Wise, III, Charles J. Taylor
Hugh D. Wise III, Aspen, was a former partner of George Graham and is now a sole practictioner; Charles J. Traylor, Grand Junction, is with the firm of Traylor, Tompkins, Black & Gaty, P.C.
George Graham was faced with a dilemma. For three days, he and his client, and a very green associate (Hugh Wise, one of the scribes to this tribute) sat in the Ouray County Courthouse and listened to the story of woe inflicted on the plaintiff. The plaintiff, who was from California, suffered enormously when a pickup truck backed up and smashed the motorcycle on which she had been a passenger, causing it to topple over on her. The motorcycle had stopped on the shoulder of the road because the one-lane bridge had been blocked by the aforementioned pickup truck. The motorcycle driver, the husband of the unfortunate victim, did nothing more than flash his headlight, wave his arms, and honk his horn as the pickup started to back toward the motorcycle. It was sad that the driver of the pickup was deaf and blind in one eye.
The problem was more difficult because George had given up drinking. What else could he do at night in Ouray with closing arguments scheduled for the next morning and the instructions already prepared? It was best to go to the restaurant and eat in the bar. George’s very green associate (Hugh Wise) probably had never had Ouzo and, surely, had no idea how to prepare a final argument. But that is what they did. Ouzo flowed through George’s clenched mouth. Several drafts of the closing argument were painstakingly transcribed onto cocktail napkins by the mesmerized associate and, when the final call for drinks was heard, the final draft was at last ready. At that point, George took the cocktail napkin, reviewed it one more time, crumpled it into a ball, and left it, together with tip, for the edification of the cleanup staff.
The next morning, the plaintiff’s high-powered Denver lawyer delivered his stirring oration, lasting one hour and twenty-three minutes. George had told Hugh Wise to pay attention to details such as that. When his time finally came, George walked slowly to the podium and thanked the jurors for their courteous time and attention. He then launched into his closing argument, which had three principal themes: California, Ouray, and the plaintiff’s unfortunate decision to go to a lawyer before a doctor. It was delivered as memorized from the previous evening, in the form of a limerick. The entire oration to the jury including, "Good morning," and "Thank you," took one minute, thirty-six seconds. As creatively remembered, without the benefit of Ouzo, the limerick was:
There was a young lady from Californyer,
Who was hurt in Ouray—a motorcycler,
Her knee was a factor,
So off to the doctor,
But first she went to a good lawyer.
The new associate forgot to mark down the length of jury deliberations, but the case was over before noon. Graham’s client won because of equal negligence, that of the motorcycle driver-husband being imputed to the injured passenger-wife, a concept the Court of Appeals found archaic. George had been brilliant, a true trial lawyer in total command of the courtroom.
Limericks were not saved for the courtroom. George’s talents were recognized by his fellow barristers at the annual Mesa County Bar dinners. The rowdies would chant, "We want George!" He would then rise, a six-foot tall, well-groomed man, with a slow and deliberate gait and the air of a prime minister. With appropriate hesitation, as befitted the moment, he would then launch into thirty minutes of bawdy limericks that set the tone for the evening and the succeeding year.
A Giant of Tort Litigation
George Graham was born in 1911 in Denver, where he spent his childhood. He graduated from East High School, then from Princeton University, and obtained a law degree from the University of Denver. He married Florence Costello, who became his lifelong wife and friend. They had three children, George, Jr., Bill, and Judy.
George served with the U.S. Navy during World War II, from 1943 to 1946. Following that service, he moved from Denver to Grand Junction, where he practiced law for thirty-five years. He first formed a partnership with Lincoln Coit, a law firm that went through a number of transitions and ultimately evolved into a ten-person law firm called Graham and Dufford. He retired from that firm in 1982. He passed away on January 15, 1989, at the age of 78.
George was an active member of the Mesa County Bar Association, for which he served as president, and of the Colorado Bar Association, for which he served three terms on the Board of Governors. He also was appointed by the Colorado Supreme Court to its Grievance Committee, on which he served with distinction for a number of years.
For years, George, along with Charles J. Traylor and Frank Hockensmith, was considered a giant of tort litigation on the Western Slope. He practiced law with the highest integrity and respect for the profession. In those days, the bar leaders would happily befriend and tutor the youngsters in the profession. George enjoyed doing that, assisting not only his associates, but those in other law firms and those who opposed him in court.
Charles Traylor reminisces about the many cases he tried both with George—and against him. Back then, the relationship between attorneys and judges was somewhat different than today. When a case was in the hands of the jury, counsel and the judge would retire to the LaCourt Hotel Bar to regain strength after an exhausting day in court; the longer the deliberations, the more need there was to replenish strength. Somehow, they always received the jury verdict in good style.
George receives an award on behalf of his local chapter of the Rotary Club
Traylor also recounts a case in which he and George were on the same side. It occurred in the wild days of the 1950s uranium boom. A group of four adventurers from Grand Junction staked a claim, a portion of which overlapped the famous LaVita Mine owned by Charlie Steen, who was the Utah uranium king. Steen was livid and ran a large advertisement in the newspaper listing Traylor’s and Graham’s four clients as "claim jumpers."
These were fighting words during the uranium days, and the four maligned individuals brought a libel suit against Steen in federal court in Salt Lake City. Steen arrived with four high-priced attorneys with whom Graham and Traylor jousted for a week. The court ruled that Steen had committed libel per se, but with everyone making so much money during the uranium frenzy, the Traylor-Graham clients were richer than they had been. The jury awarded the four plaintiffs of Grand Junction a total of $25,000. The jury said if damages could have been shown, the verdict would have been up to $500,000. Traylor and Graham had fun, but they came back only happier, not richer.
The Real George
Descriptions such as these may seem a little too raucous to describe George properly. The reality is that George was an extraordinarily kind and professional person. George was both a master and a teacher. He liked to be good at what he did, and he was not selfish: he shared freely his knowledge and skills. He held a life masters’ certificate in duplicate bridge. He was an original leader of the high school "Great Books" program. He enjoyed fly fishing and was a low handicap golfer. Each fall, with precision and care, he would dig and store the best and biggest dahlias in Mesa County. George was a true gentleman in all his endeavors, and those of us who were his friends and colleagues miss him in our lives.
George receives an award on behalf of his local chapter of the Rotary Club
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