Vol. 28, No. 7
Six of the Greatest
Albert John (Jack) Laing
by Stanley Dempsey
Stanley Dempsey is Chairman and CEO of Royal Gold, Inc., a Denver-based gold mining firm. Earlier he was Division Attorney for the Climax Molybdenum Company, and a partner in the firm of Arnold & Porter.
Albert John Laing ("Jack") was very much a product of Leadville, Colorado’s two-mile-high, boisterous, multi-cultural, rags-to-riches mining camp. Hired to try a murder case before he was admitted to the bar, "Jack" Laing pursued a career that took him from small-town general practice to the heights of corporate power as an attorney for some of the most powerful mining interests in Colorado and on Wall Street. He enjoyed all parts of his practice, and he never forgot where he came from— or the people who helped him achieve the reputation of "one of the greatest of Colorado’s lawyers."
Birth and Education
Albert John Laing was born on July 27, 1903. His father, John Laing, worked for many years as a conductor on the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad. His mother, Caroline Hyde Laing, was a teacher. Jack attended the Ninth Street School and graduated from Leadville High School. He attended the University of California at Berkeley, where he obtained his B.A. degree, and then took pre-law courses at Stanford. He received his law degree from the University of Denver ("DU") in 1928.1 Jack was a long-time member of the Continental Divide and Colorado Bar Associations ("CBA"). He received recognition as a fifty-year member of the CBA and an honorary doctor of law from DU.
Jack spent most of his career in Leadville, where he served twelve years as City Attorney. He also was Assistant District Attorney for five years and maintained a typical small-town private practice, handling wills and estates, real property matters, and corporate work. He was known throughout the state as an effective trial lawyer with an aggressive manner.2 Jack and his DU classmate, E. A. Wildy, undertook the defense of Charles Graves, charged with the murder of his wife, the day after they were admitted to the Colorado Bar. Over the years, he tried twenty-six homicide cases, including the cases of such highly publicized murderers as Martinez, Roper, and Hinman.3
Lawyer for Climax
In 1940, Jack Laing began representing the Climax Molybdenum Company, a major mining company that operated the enormous Climax molybdenum mine located thirteen miles northeast of Leadville on Fremont Pass. By far the largest mine in the Leadville area, Climax supplied steel hardening molybdenum and tungsten in World War I, and was reopened and expanded to supply the auto industry in the 1930s. The mine was run by hard-driving bosses in Colorado and in New York, and by the time Jack Laing was hired in 1940, it had a bad reputation with the public. Climax had a poor safety record and, in the late 1930s, got into a scrap with Lake County and the Governor of Colorado over property taxes.
The battle between the company and the state became so egregious that cooler heads prevailed in the top management, and new approaches to community acceptance were sought. Jack helped the company locally, and Steve Hart of Holland & Hart in Denver was brought in to design some state-level approaches that would make Climax a more welcome part of the Colorado scene. By the 1950s, Climax was one of the largest employers in the state, and the largest customer of Public Service Company, Ideal Cement, and CF&I. At the same time, it had changed its approach to the public and placed great emphasis on safety. Jack was at the center of these efforts, and his understanding of and empathy for people living in Leadville had a lot to do with Climax becoming one of Colorado’s most popular employers and neighbors. Climax was merged with the American Metal Company in 1954, to form American Metal Climax, or as it was later renamed, AMAX Inc. AMAX was, for a time, the largest mining company in the world.
In August 1960, Climax asked Jack Laing to come to work full time. He was named Division Attorney, Western Operations, of Climax Molybdenum Company.4 He guided Climax in its continuing expansion at the Climax mine, and in its development of the new Urad and Henderson Mines in Clear Creek County, Colorado.
I joined Jack at Climax in 1964. Fresh out of law school, Jack put me to work acquiring land and clearing titles for the new Ten Mile tailing pond on the north side of Fremont pass. We worked with long-time Breckenridge attorney Bob Theobald to acquire mining claims, townsites, and old railroad rights-of-ways in the area just south of what is now the Copper Mountain ski resort. Theobald owned the title company in Summit County, and Jack wisely put him to work on this massive land program. Jack patiently supervised my work in what turned out to be some novel mining law and real property law situations, becoming a mentor and a friend.
The Legal Department office at Climax kept the same hours as the mine. It started at 7:30 a.m., the same time the miners went underground on the "man trip," the train that hauled them to their working places in the mine. In 1965, Climax discovered a new molybdenum deposit under the Urad Mine in Clear Creek County. This led to development of the Henderson Mine, the largest privately developed project of any kind in the history of Colorado. Construction of the mine took ten years and cost $500 million. The main shaft, near Berthoud Pass, was sunk to a depth of 3,000 feet. A full-size railroad tunnel was driven from the mine upward for nine miles to exit in the Williams Fork Valley in Grand County. Jack Laing was responsible for the legal work for this massive undertaking, including the effort to secure the necessary land and water rights. Jack wisely counseled that the company should secure all the land in fee simple, assuring security of tenure for the many years the mine would operate.
After the Henderson Mine was discovered, Jack and I traveled to Denver each week to work with Climax’s outside attorneys, including Hugh Burns, Don Sherwood, Gary Greer, and Bill Schoberlein, who were then at Sherman & Howard, and Steve Hart, Jack Kelly, and Frank Morison of Holland & Hart, and Tony Zarlengo. Jack Laing was particularly close to Tony Zarlengo. Tony was a DU law school classmate. They helped each other out repeatedly over the years. We stayed at the Brown Palace, Tuesday through Friday most weeks, and Jack pretty much set up camp in Tony Zarlengo’s office in the Capitol Life building every afternoon. Jack secured from these outstanding lawyers the very best in legal services for Climax. Jack maintained offices at Climax from 1960 until his retirement in 1968.
A Positive Approach and Good Judgment
Jack Laing was very much a "lawyer’s lawyer." He was careful and thoughtful in analyzing legal issues, and he was often consulted by other lawyers. Hugh Burns says, "Jack always had a reason for whatever he suggested regarding legal matters."5 The late Peter Cosgriff was proud of his close relationship to Jack, and consulted with Jack on many important matters. Jim Engelking observes that, "Jack always had a clear understanding of his client’s objective, and never wavered from it as he crafted his approach to a legal matter."6
Jack’s colleagues are universal in their praise of Jack’s good judgment. He seemed to have a particular grasp of human nature, and he understood other people’s points of view. He was particularly adept at coming up with solutions to problems by helping the other party achieve his or her objective. This was a particularly helpful attribute for a lawyer representing a large company like Climax.
During those years with Climax, I had an opportunity to spend a lot of time with Jack. We drove back and forth to Denver from Leadville, worked together all day, and often shared meals at the Brown Palace and around Denver in the evenings. I had a wonderful opportunity to see Jack work as a lawyer and as a human being. I came to know Jack’s family and his friends in both Leadville and Denver and to understand why they all held him in such high regard.
I first saw Jack handle a complicated legal matter in a practical and effective way when Climax found its interests in conflict over matters involving the application of Colorado’s municipal statute dealing with disincorporation. As a part of my work on the Ten Mile tailing pond, I undertook to help cause disincorporation of the Town of Recen, and I sought judicial declaration of abandonment of the Town of Kokomo in federal court. Recen had ten or twelve residents, and Kokomo was a ghost town. Both had to go so as to clear the way for the new tailing pond.
Just as we were ready to go forward with the disincorporation election for Recen (with the help of long-time Leadville attorney Peter Cosgriff, who was special counsel for Recen), a group of unhappy taxpayers in Leadville petitioned for disincorporation of Leadville. Climax, as the largest taxpayer in Lake County, opposed that disincorporation, and Jack went to work to stop it. I found myself in the delicate position of having my boss attacking the very statute I was using to disincorporate Recen. I learned from Jack that consistency was indeed "the hobgoblin of small minds," and somehow we secured positive results in both Recen and Leadville.
I saw another side of Jack when he organized the effort to acquire the land needed for the surface facilities for the Henderson Mine. He and Tony Zarlengo worked with ranch real estate experts such as Frank Kemp to run an effective and ethical land purchase program. Here Jack saw that it would be in AMAX’s interest to pay generously for the land it required and to deal fairly with everyone. He was prescient in suggesting AMAX keep some selling ranchers on the land by leasing back the surface on very attractive terms. Over the years, the mine has enjoyed wonderful relations with these happy neighbors. Jack and Tony also worked closely with both Glen Saunders, of the Denver Water Board, and Mark Shivers, who represented Englewood, to put together an ingenious water rights scheme for the Henderson Mine.
The Henderson Mine also put Jack Laing very much on the side of environmental protection. Henderson was discovered before the enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act, but the first stirrings of citizen environmental activism were evident. The Parker decision, giving the public some say in Forest Service timber cutting practices, had come down, and the Colorado Open Space Council had been organized at Breckenridge in 1964. Clearly, environmentalists wanted a say in how agencies like the U.S. Forest Service dealt with public lands.
When I suggested to Jack that AMAX get ahead of the issue by being open with our planning for Henderson, Jack championed the idea, endorsing a scheme by which the company invited several citizen environmentalists to work with it in designing the Henderson Mine. Jack took the suggestion first to Frank Coolbaugh, then Chairman of AMAX, and later to Ian MacGregor, Coolbaugh’s successor, and got the okay to go public with mine development. The resulting program was highly successful, making Henderson a model mine and bringing to it national and international recognition and awards. Jack’s advocacy of the program was key to its acceptance.
Jack Laing’s good judgment also played a key role in AMAX’s great election victory in 1976. That year, Governor Lamm, frustrated by legislative defeats of his attempts to secure a severance tax on minerals, launched a ballot measure that would have taxed only molybdenum. The measure was cleverly designed to substitute the severance tax for the sales tax on groceries. The campaign slogan was "tax moly, not milk."
Governor Lamm was no beginner in this kind of fight, having won a similar referendum to stop the holding of the winter Olympics in Colorado. Naturally, many mining people, particularly within AMAX, felt the proposal was unfair and wanted to lash out at the Governor. Polling showed that Governor Lamm had a high voter approval rating, and AMAX’s political people advised against attacking the Governor. Jack supported the political professionals and pollsters, setting a higher tone for the campaign.
AMAX and others in mining fought the election with television advertising that questioned voter trust of government proposals, but never attacked the Governor. The measure was overwhelming rejected by the voters, saving AMAX $11 million per year. Jack Laing’s positive approach and good judgment again carried the day.
Jack relaxing at
Twin Lakes in 1988
A Mentor and Counselor
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, AMAX added several lawyers to handle work at Henderson regarding health and safety challenges that came with the new federal Mine Health and Safety Act, new environmental legislation, and expansions such as the newly discovered molybdenum deposits at Mt. Emmons near Crested Butte. Joining the staff were Bob Backus, Dan Hale, Jim Engelking, David Delcour, Art Biddle, Sheryl Outerbridge, and Peter Keppler. Jack spent time with everyone, providing patient guidance to all the young people in the law department.
During the mid-1970s, when world demand for molybdenum exceeded supply, operations at the Climax mine were expanded rapidly. Construction of a new tailing impoundment required massive land acquisition and exchange programs, environmental permitting, relocation of water canals, construction of a new reservoir, and relocation of seven miles of Colorado Highway 91. All permits and legal requirements had been fulfilled, when a new Assistant Attorney General indicated that the State’s right-of-way exchange agreement for the highway could not be performed because the Department’s Chief Engineer had not obtained proper approvals from the Highway Commission.
The issue was raised during a policy dispute between the Highway Department and the Attorney General’s office. Frustrated, one of the new Climax lawyers called Jack Laing for advice. His only question was, "What are you trying to do?" "The mill has to deposit tailing behind the Mayflower toe dam in two years, so highway relocation has to start this summer," was the reply. "Then it seems to me your course is clear," said Jack. Whereupon the new lawyer put aside all thoughts of who was right and who was wrong, and promptly negotiated a new agreement, acceptable to the new Assistant Attorney General.
Over the years, senior officials of AMAX came to Jack for advice on all manner of legal matters, relying on his good judgment for direction. In 1978, on the occasion of Jack’s recognition as a fifty-year member of the Colorado Bar Association, Ian MacGregor, Chairman of AMAX, and later famous as Chairman of the British Coal Board under Prime Minister Thatcher, complimented Jack, saying:
Over the last quarter century, I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with you and have developed an enormous respect for your contributions to the legal profession in the State of Colorado. Without your careful, thoughtful and understanding guidance to the company, I know that AMAX would have had infinitely more difficulty in achieving its objective in serving the world in molybdenum markets with continuous developments in Colorado.7
In the years following Jack Laing’s switch to a corporate practice in 1960, he found it impossible to drop all of his old Leadville clients. AMAX made it possible for Jack to continue to help people in Leadville. He kept his office in the Bank Annex in Leadville, and he saw clients there and at his office at the mine. He handled much of this work pro bono, or with very small fees. In Jack’s office waiting room, I once spotted both the nun who headed St. Vincent’s Hospital and the madam who ran Leadville’s last bordello. Both of these prominent ladies of Leadville were clients of Jack’s. They were having quite a pleasant and animated conversation about some matter of common interest. Only in Leadville!
Jack Laing was humble about his achievements, but a few stories about Jack were preserved by his friends. Veteran lawyers in Leadville always swore that the Statute of Lady Justice fell off the top of the old Leadville courthouse the day he and Ed Wildy won the Graves murder case. A more likely story tells about a young Jack Laing aggressively cross-examining a woman widely known to be a bootlegger during prohibition, hoping to impeach her credibility in a trial on another matter. Jack reasoned that she would lie about bootlegging because her testimony would implicate her in a federal crime under the Volstead Act, and that everyone in town knew she was a bootlegger. Jack asked, "Isn’t it true that you have been selling whiskey out at the Pines?" She replied, "Yes, and you’ve been buying it." The judge asked Jack to approach the bench, saying, "Is that enough cross-examination, my impetuous young friend?"
Another anecdote that could only happen in a place like Leadville has Jack receiving "high grade" as part of a legal fee payment. "High grade" is gold or other valuable minerals stolen from a mine. In the great mining camps like Leadville, the miner is always seen as the underdog when prosecuted for stealing gold, and juries made up of other miners rarely convict. At Cripple Creek, miners and miners unions held such sway with elected judges that gold ore was declared to be real estate, and that it could not be stolen because it was not personal property.
Against this background, Jack won a commercial case of some kind for a prominent jewelry firm in Leadville. That firm had a reputation as a "fence" for high graders. Jack had presented a pretty hefty bill for his services and he expected a complaint from the owner of the jewelry firm. Instead, he was surprised to receive his fee in full, and a very large gold nugget! The veracity of this story is not to be doubted, as the nugget is now on display at the National Mining Museum and Hall of Fame in Leadville, a gift of the Laing family. Again, only in Leadville!
Leadville was famous for its rags-to-riches stories of striking it rich in the mines and dissipating the fortune in riotous living. The legends of the Tabors and the Unsinkable Molly Brown are part of the rich heritage of the place. Jack was proud of his connection to Tom Walsh, the Irish miner who struck it rich in the Camp Bird Mine at Ouray, through Jack’s wife, Anna Mae Laing, who was related to Walsh through the Cody family. He also was proud of his representation of Baby Doe Tabor during her last years.
Baby Doe lived as a recluse at the Matchless Mine, just above Leadville. Her feet wrapped in rags, Baby Doe made occasional runs into town to pick up mail and groceries, and to seek advice from Jack. After she froze to death in her lonely, unheated cabin, Jack was appointed to represent the Colorado Historical Society concerning the handling of her estate. Jack recalled in later years that he and the judge spent many hours reading the love letters that had passed between Baby Doe and Horace Tabor, destroying those they thought were indecent. Their approach may shock historians, but Jack confided to me that the letters were outrageous even by latter day (1980s) standards.
Jack Laing was highly regarded by those who knew him. He practiced the virtues that lawyers today are seeking to recapture. He was punctual, generous, civil, and loyal. He took great pride in being a lawyer, and always dressed the part. A fan of Borsalino hats, he only rarely removed his coat. I only remember seeing Jack dressed in a sport shirt once during all the years I knew him.
Jack was particularly fond of the Brown Palace Hotel, where he held the earliest outstanding credit card. Jack was a generous tipper, and was beloved by the staff for his personal kindness toward them. Popular with the management, when the hotel was oversold he was always put up in a the suite on the ninth floor. Once he invited all the Climax legal staff over for drinks in the Presidential suite. We enjoyed seeing the knotty pine installed for President Eisenhower. Much of the planning for the Henderson Mine took place in the Palace Arms restaurant and the Brown Palace Club. Hugh Burns has reminded me that he never allowed anyone else to buy lunch.
Jack gave generously to his community. He served on the advisory board for the new hospital when it was built in Leadville, and he gave a lot of support to the Leadville schools. He was particularly effective in securing support from Climax for all communities in the area around the mine. He was sincerely interested in the well-being of the communities and the people in them. He never forgot where he came from.
Jack was very much a family man, and was close to his wife of forty-six years, Anna Mae. They had one son, Don, now deceased. Don and his wife Brigetta have two children, Anne and John. The Laings lived for many years at 809 Spruce Street in Leadville, not far from the Mining Museum and Harrison Avenue, Leadville’s main street. Jack left Leadville after Anna Mae died in 1985, taking up residence in a retirement home in Denver. He passed away May 21, 1989, at the age of 86.
1. Wingenbach, "Jack Laing Moves," The Carbonate Chronicle (Oct. 20, 1986).
4. "A. J. Laing Named Division Attorney Climax Moly Co." The Leadville Herald Democrat (Aug. 5, 1960).
5. Personal conversation with Hugh Burns, May 7, 1999.
6. Personal conversation with Jim Engelking, May 10, 1999.
7. Letter from Ian MacGregor to A. J. Laing, July 17, 1978.
Jack relaxing at Twin Lakes in 1988
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