Vol. 28, No. 7
Bart Mendenhall: A Profile Of the New Colorado Bar Association President
by Karen Bries
Living in Rocky Ford, you might think Bart Mendenhall only wears one hat: cowboy. But the man from the southeast part of the state also is a hunter, world traveler, politician, and as his friends put it, "a hell of a nice guy."
Bart Mendenhall, 52, takes his role as an attorney and the rest of his activities seriously. He uses his community activities to better himself and, in the end, his community. As he puts it: "It is an obligation to be involved in your community. You pay back what you need to pay."
Greg Smith, a college friend and a past member of the CBA's Board of Governors, says "He's the only one I've known who has made his way to the top by giving out fruit. He used to do it in college and he still gives everyone those Rocky Ford cantaloupes. . . . He's a great guy and he'll make a great president."
Bart spends a day training Corky
for the big hunt.
Bart graduated from the University of Colorado School of Law in 1971 after getting his Bachelor of Arts degree in business at Colorado College in Colorado Springs in 1968. At Colorado College, he says he didn't know he wanted to be a lawyer when he first started. "I was there for a while and looked around and realized I was picking courses because I thought they might help me someday when practicing law. I took geology because I thought it might be useful for water law. I took business courses because I knew I wanted to make a living at it. And then it was economics and political science. I suddenly realized practicing law was what I wanted to do."
Bart says his father was the first lawyer in the family. "He was the first black sheep. The rest of the family had been bankers, farmers, and preachers until then." Bart Mendenhall's legacy started in Guffey, Park County, Colorado, in the 1800s, where his great-grandfather mined gold. He made enough money to move to Rocky Ford and open a bank.
His grandfather was pleased when his son, Bart's father, got a good job working for the F.B.I. during World War II. After he returned to Rocky Ford, with his wife expecting Bart any day, he told Bart's grandfather he wanted to practice law in Rocky Ford. Bart remembers the story as it was told to him: "When my father came back from the war, my grandfather informed him that he was a damn fool for leaving a good job with the F.B.I. to come back to Otero County, because he knew for a fact that there had never been a lawyer who died solvent in Otero County."
Active in His Community
Bart and his father ended up proving Bart's grandfather wrong. His father was more of an influence in Bart's life than he knew. Bart took on his father's mantra: Get Involved. "He called it paying your dues, because he was always active in the community. It was something he strongly believed in."
Bart is active in the Republican Party (as was his dad). He currently serves as Republican Chairman of Otero County and as a city council member in Rocky Ford. At one point, Bart ran for a University of Colorado Regent seat and was on the primary ballot for the Fourth Congressional District. He says he came close to winning, but was defeated in the end. He says losing turned out for the best, because he got the opportunity to serve on the Colorado Supreme Court Nominating Commission for six years, an experience he found fun and interesting.
Bart plans to stress this community and political activism as bar president. "I'd like to see all members get involved in their surroundings, and not just the bar. It creates a good community, and you end up developing some common sense about the people you hang out with—people besides lawyers—and understand what their issues are."
About the Law
Bart joined his father's practice right out of law school and worked there until 1982, when his father died. He then went on to form Mendenhall and Malouff. Bart practices everything from estate planning and family law to helping small businesses make a start. He also deals with agriculture, mostly with farms and ranches.
According to Bart, his most memorable case dealt with water law. The case involved cottonwood trees and salt cedars, trees called phreatophytes. These trees have long roots and use large amounts of water. His client wanted these trees removed to save water. In water court, his client won an almost independent water right, which meant his client could remove the trees. Ultimately, his client lost at the Colorado Supreme Court level. "It was an interesting case and pretty much what I considered pure law, in terms of having some fun making some new law. You normally don't get to do that sort of thing in a rural practice, because clients don't have the money to appeal."
Bart knows many of his clients personally. Just recently, he made the decision to stop practicing family law, because he found the consequences were too close to his heart. "Because Rocky Ford is a small town, your clients are always acquaintances before they walk in the door. That's good in the sense that you might know what they need, but on the other hand, it makes it hard when they want a divorce. You tend to know both sides, even if you don't feel the knowledge is such that you could say 'I have a conflict of interest.'"
Bart lives in a house near Rocky Ford with a view ranging from Pikes Peak to the Spanish Peaks. He and his cousins own a few ranches, left to them from his grandfather's banking days. Bart says his great-grandfather would "collect junker farms" when a loan went bad. Now, these farms are mostly ranches, but sometimes they grow onions, corn, maize, or hay.
He loves his small-town life and feels he wouldn't have been the same without it. "The nice thing about a small town like Rocky Ford is that you grew up with everybody; you're not in a homogenized school." Bart says Rocky Ford's population includes Hispanics, Japanese, Russians, and Germans. "You don't have the diversity that Denver has, but on the other hand, your day-to-day contacts are probably more diverse." Long-time friend and former CBA president Rebecca Koppes Conway says of Bart: "A lot of people have an image about small-town, country lawyers, but Bart knows more about food, wine and music than anyone I know."
In His Spare Time
Bart relaxes while
fishing during a vacation
Bart's favorite pastime is hanging out with his black lab Corky. He takes Corky hunting for small fowl. "I don't know if I'd hunt if I didn't have a dog. I enjoy it so much because he likes it so much," Bart says.
Jim Colvin, a friend of Bart's and his family, remembers a time when Bart's father used to invite many types of people to go hunting with him in Rocky Ford. Colvin says, "It was amazing to hear these people talk about the law. Bart kept up that tradition. It was neat to see all of the different guests who would come down and hunt with him, such as Justice Groves and Charlie Beise. Bart even invites some of the young lawyers to come down, hunt, and feel the atmosphere of small-town America. He's always felt that lawyers are lawyers, no matter if they are young or old, and they have to stick together. He helps foster that."
Bart also has been quite a world traveler. He's traveled to Mexico City, Madrid, and Barbados. "I'm fortunate that I have a college friend in the diplomatic service, so I've been able to travel around to where he is. One time, we got lucky and got to borrow a 71-foot sailboat for a week with a crew. We sailed to Capri and the Amalfi coast and ate a lot of seafood."
Future So Bright
Besides activism and outreach, Bart wants to keep the bar association pushing ahead. He is pleased with the CBA's progress with the Internet and Law Practice Management areas, and he would like to take this progress to a new level.
He says the biggest issue he's seen as president-elect while traveling around the state on presidential bar visits is smaller firms worrying about making payroll or finding time to deal with bookkeeping and accounting. "A few years ago, we had the impression we wouldn't have many solo or small firms. Now we are thinking it's better than 60 percent. Folks struggle no matter if they are in the metro area or the rural areas. You find the staff gets surly if you miss payroll."
Put Your Best Face Forward
Rebecca Koppes Conway knows Bart best as "a fixture and an institution at the bar association. There have been a lot of great leaders that have come from the back row of those Board of Governors meetings. When I was president, he was one of the ones who used to sit back and make faces while I tried to lead the meetings. Guess who I'll be making faces at this year?"
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