Vol. 28, No. 7
Six of the Greatest
Noah A. Atler
by Lawrence A. Atler, Jennifer Van Derbur Atler
Lawrence A. Atler is Of Counsel at Senn, Lewis, Visciano & Strahle, P.C. and the son of Noah Atler. Granddaughter Jennifer Van Derbur Atler is an attorney on leave-of-absence from Holland & Hart, LLP in order to serve as Associate Director of Invest in Kids, a new non-profit organization that has proven to be an exceptionally effective nurse visitation program for needy first-time parents.
Noah A. Atler loved the law. His love did not emanate from the engaging complexities and nuances of the law, but was motivated by his compelling desire to help people. That desire permeated all of his professional and vocational activities.
Noah was one of eight children. When it became time for him to go to college, his father needed Noah to continue working in the family hardware store, so, instead of Noah, his younger brother, Chuck Atler, went to college. Ultimately, Noah went to the University of Denver for his undergraduate degree and Westminster Law School at night for his law degree. During law school, Noah worked during the day and also created a free summer camp for underprivileged boys. Since he had no money of his own, he went to all the vendors—dairy, bedding, and food purveyors—and cajoled them into donating all of the necessities for his camp. The camp was for six weeks each summer and continued through his law school years. Many of his camp graduates became outstanding businessmen, lawyers, and judges in Colorado.
On graduation from law school, Noah joined his brother-in-law, Simon Heller, in the practice of law. After a couple of years, he left that firm and started to practice as a sole practitioner.
Noah and the "Family" Firm
Seven years later, Noah’s father-in-law, Morris H. Robinson, wanted his daughter, Yvette, to move from Akron, Colorado, to Denver. Her husband, Samuel Chutkow, was practicing law in Akron, but, after much persuasion, the Chutkows moved to Denver. Typical of Noah, he invited his brother-in-law Sam to join him in the practice of law, insisting that Sam’s name be first in the new firm name: Chutkow & Atler.
These two practiced together for decades and had many associates, among whom were Nathan Baum, Mandel and Joe Berenbaum, and Irving Lindner. Sam’s middle son, Arnold, graduated with honors from the University of Chicago, as well as its law school, and served in the Army’s Judge Advocate Corps, including being a full time professor at the Army’s War College. He then joined Chutkow & Atler, bringing his good friend Ed Haligman with him. Arnold practiced transactional law during the day, taught at the University of Denver College of Law at night, and delighted in trial work.
In 1955, Sam and Arnold were involved in an automobile accident on returning from the Akron branch office. Arnold was killed and Sam was grievously injured. He had thirteen major operations in subsequent years. Through all of Sam’s ordeals and many years thereafter, the partnership between Noah and his brother-in-law continued until Sam decided to open an office closer to his home. After thirty years of practicing together, the partnership was dissolved in 1960.
Another important member of the law firm family was Viola Maurer. Well before 1960, when Noah’s son Larry joined his father in practice, Noah hired Viola as his secretary. She was a former journalist who typed with only two fingers. Those were faster fingers than a piston in a racing motor. She worked for Noah as his devoted secretary for more than twenty years.
Although he had a keen business mind and enjoyed concepts of business, Noah did not apply his business knowledge and acumen to the business side of the practice of law. In fact, when his son Larry joined the firm, he discovered that several of Noah’s major clients had not been billed and had not paid for services for from eight to ten years. Larry did little to engender a great relationship for himself with those clients when he started charging them for past and current services. As the firm grew and more businesslike procedures were implemented, Noah slowly acquiesced and became more inclined to bill his clients, but rarely did he bill for all his time and services.
His real love was helping individuals as a mentor and prolific and effective teacher. He was particularly devoted to Van Schaack and Company and its employees, a client he had acquired after having been adversarial counsel. When he was asked by Henry Van Schaack to represent his company, Noah, a relatively new attorney, did not know how to price his services. He offered and Van Schaack accepted Noah’s suggestion that he would work for that company as an independent lawyer for a year, at which time he would be paid whatever Van Schaack thought was appropriate. That mutual trust survived for decades, albeit the compensation arrangement did not.
During the last twenty-five years of his practice, Noah had an office and secretary at the law firm and a similar arrangement at Van Schaack & Company where he spend most of his time. As independent general counsel at Van Schaack, he not only helped the salespeople and assisted them in making deals, but also spent enormous amounts of time explaining the philosophy behind the law, often mixed with a little philosophy of life.
He was so popular and involved at Van Schaack that he had a number system such as used to be found at a butcher shop. People would take a number, and his secretary would put the number on the board so that everybody would know when it was their turn to meet with Noah. To this day, both his son and granddaughter, Larry and Jennifer, respectively, constantly encounter former employees of Van Schaack who express their great appreciation and respect for Noah for what he contributed, not only to that company but to them personally.
Noah also was knowledgeable and passionate about ethical issues. He served on the CBA Grievance Policy Committee for many years and was devoted to that activity. In fact, shortly after his son Larry joined the firm, he wanted to approach a good friend of his who was in a meaningful position at a major national insurance company and could have easily directed considerable business to the firm. Larry naively suggested to his father that he take his friend to lunch for the purpose of soliciting business. The suggestion met with stern disapproval because Noah thought that would have been unethical (times certainly have changed).
It was always interesting at the annual partners’ meeting in the law firm when all of the partner bonuses and other compensation for the year were to be determined. Invariably, one or two partners would dramatically advocate for additional compensation for themselves for a multitude of reasons, none of which was unique to the advocate, but nonetheless was presented with sincerity and expectation. Noah would often say "take some of mine," meaning that person could have some of his compensation.
Every client was Noah’s friend and every client’s problem was his. He was involved and intense about his clients, but was extremely discrete. He loved to tell stories to illustrate a point by disguising clients’ problems with unrecognizable fictionalized anecdotes. Although he was a dedicated family man, he would often put the practice of law first. As an example, when his wife and sister-in-law were to meet him in Europe, they received a message while waiting for him in London that Noah could not meet them because one of his clients was involved in the acquisition of an additional business and needed him.
Insofar as the law itself was concerned, he thoroughly enjoyed any and all areas of real estate law. He delighted in negotiating, and had this incredible confidence in his own opinions, which he expressed aggressively. He was shocked when his adversaries did not subscribe to his positions.
Throughout the legal history of Denver, many parents and children practiced law in the same firm. Few such partnerships survive controversy, and many result in a firm’s "divorce." It was Noah’s incredible generosity of spirit that allowed his son Larry to do his "thing" after he joined the firm. Neither he nor Ed Haligman was particularly enamored with Larry’s compulsion to expand the firm in order to create new areas of expertise. However, Noah was always open to new ideas and not only allowed them to be implemented, but was supportive.
On occasion, as as the firm grew in number, Noah would look askance at Larry and wonder out loud why we needed the headaches of administration, advancement of staff, professional recruitment and retention, and all of the other problems incidental to growing pains. Despite this, he did enjoy the sharing of time and ideas with the new additions, such as Ron and Jon Zall, Alan Lottner, Ted Gelt, and Jim Gregory.
As his son Larry was growing up, Noah would always tell him that he did not want Larry to be a lawyer, as there were much easier occupations to pursue. After each of these observations, Larry’s mother would interpret the comments to mean, "He would love to have you be a lawyer, particularly in his office"—so Larry followed suit and practiced in the firm for twenty years. Noah also was particularly proud and delighted with the fact that his son-in-law, Don Lozow, was a successful trial attorney and that three of his grandchildren, Jennifer Van Derbur Atler, Brad Lozow, and Susie Lozow were practicing or were to become practicing attorneys . . . which they did.
Noah left the firm of Atler, Haligman & Lottner when he was approximately 85 years old and joined his son Larry, who had withdrawn from the firm several years previously. The following year, Noah singly handled a series of complex transactions with multiple parties, entities, and properties. It was his last major professional matter and generated a very substantial and the largest fee of his career.
Noah the Man
Noah always started the day before sunrise and spent much of his day on charitable, civic, and community activities, as well as conferring with clients. At night, he would either attend meetings with clients or, more often, community events or prepare client documents. His communal involvement could best be exemplified by what happened to him during World War II, when he was drafted as a major in the Army. Shortly thereafter, he received a special presidential dispensation that canceled his draft obligation because, as the presidential discharge indicated, he was needed so greatly on the home front. At that time, he was the volunteer president of USO for four states. He was very active. As an example, during each summer weekend, he would take two busloads of servicemen from Lowry Field to the mountains for all-day picnics, singing, and games. He had personally purchased and maintained two large former tramway buses that provided the transportation. His wife, Dorothy, would cook all week for the weekend festivities: fryng chicken, boiling eggs, slicing tomatoes, preparing potato salad, and making butter and lettuce sandwiches and cakes.
Since Noah had such a strong desire to help people, he devoted much of his time and energy to civic and charitable activities. He was president of the District 4 of B’nai B’rith; president of the Jewish Welfare Board, a service organization for Jewish armed servicemen; a lifelong contributor and participant in the Anti-Defamation League; past chairman of the board of the JCRS (now known as the American Medical Center at Denver); the guiding force in the development of the original JCRS Shopping Center in West Denver; co-founder of Rose Medical Center; and a member of Kiwanis (which he joined when he was 80 years old and in which he actively participated for five or six years thereafter).
After a heart attack in 1948, Noah started playing golf as part of his physical rehabilitation. He would play at 5 a.m., many times in the dark. He would intuit where his ball would be and then enjoy the additional exercise while looking for his ball. He also enjoyed fishing, particularly trolling on the glacial lake on mountain property owned by the Van Derbur family. We would invite eight or nine guests and suggest that they go fishing . . . with Dad. Many times the guests had never fished before, and Noah would be incredibly patient and understanding, although he really just wanted to fish quietly. Guests would tangle the lines, drop a pole in the water, lose Noah’s best lures, and talk constantly, but he never complained. He "appeared" to relish helping them to learn how to fish. Along with all of this activity, he would have two or three poles in holders attached to the sides of the boat and then would hold a pole and a cigarette in one hand and run the motor with the other hand.
Noah also was a man of great sensitivity. When his children were growing up and would hear on the radio about veterans who had lost an arm or a leg or had been severely injured in some other way during one of our country’s wars, he would tear up. He totally empathized with people who were less fortunate than he. If a friend needed financial help and, if he had the money, he would offer to make a non-interest-bearing loan to that friend. It was interesting to observe that several prominent people in the community never felt it was important to repay him. Noah was more disappointed in their lack of responsibility to their friendship than he was with the loss of the money.
Noah also developed a reputation for helping the downtrodden and acquired many survivors of the Holocaust as "clients." He not only provided them legal services, usually gratuitously, but often helped them personally in getting started in business or in providing business judgment. As an example, one young couple from Germany escaped from the Nazis with their eleven-year-old son and came to America on a cattle ship. When they arrived in Denver to join their well-to-do local family, they were rejected by the family because these immigrants had not been able to bring their previously accumulated wealth with them. They contacted Noah, who helped them get an apartment to rent and establish a small business in the basement . . . notwithstanding what the zoning permitted. Ultimately, that business grew into two companies that had national distribution of their products and employed primarily survivors of the Holocaust.
Noah was philosophical and patient with professional and business people, especially those he was teaching. "What will happen will happen," "things will work out," and "this too will pass" were indicative of his philosophy that one needed to be patient with the process of "life." However, there were times when his patience waned and we would hear, instead, the saying: "the door swings both ways." He used this dramatically when there was a major discussion with a partner or employee who did not like what was going on in the firm. However, he never gossiped—he either had something very good to say about somebody or he was silent.
Leaving "A Good Name"
Noah Atler loved his peers in the practice of law. He felt close to those attorneys with whom he worked, both within and outside of the firm. He was dedicated to the principles of high ethical behavior and to what he perceived was the true mission of the practice of law: helping people.
He received many awards and recognitions, such as the Colorado Bar Association Award of Merit. A fund and wing of a building were named after him at the American Medical Center. He was in The Denver Post’s gallery of noteworthy people. He was a member of local and national Big Brothers boards; was named the American Legion’s Man of the Year; was a Knight Commander of the Scottish Rite for Blue Lodge of the Masons; chaired the Colorado Bar Association Grievance Policy Committee; was a Board of Trustees member of the Denver Bar Association; and served as President of the JCRS Shopping Center. An award for the outstanding salesperson and community contributor at Van Schaack & Company was named after him, as was its large meeting room.
Noah Atler influenced many young lawyers, real estate sales people, lawyers in trouble, and family members. He left what he prized most, a "good name." He made a difference in our state and surely set an example for future generations to follow.
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