Margaret T. Tekavee
by Mary A. Celeste and Julie Anderson
Judge Mary A. Celeste sits on the Denver County Court Bench and is Historian for the Colorado Women’s Bar Association. Magistrate Julie Anderson is a part-time Magistrate in Denver County Court and Of Counsel at Anderson, Hemmat & Levine, LLC. She also is a member of the Colorado Women’s Bar Association’s History Committee.
Many things about Teller County Court Judge Margaret T. Tekavee would warrant her to be named one of the "greatest." However, it is not because she was a partner or founder of a large law firm, had a notorious or important case while on the bench, or represented clients in high-profile cases. In fact, she never represented any clients at all! She was not an attorney, and her highest level of education was a high school diploma.1 It is her extraordinary personal story that sets Margaret T. Tekavee apart.
Margaret T. Tekavee was born in Austria on November 9, 1912, to Frank and Margaret Tekavee.2 She was the oldest of three daughters. When she was 7 years old, her family migrated to Victor, Colorado, where her father worked as a miner in the gold mines.3 Victor was part of the Cripple Creek Mining District, which was composed of twelve towns, ranging from the larger population centers of Cripple Creek and Victor to several other towns that grew up around mining centers.4 The legend of the "Tommy Knockers," ghosts of dead miners in the mines, was born in that area and the superstition swelled to miners everywhere.5
By the 1900s, more than 50,000 people lived in what was known as "the District,"6 which comprises Teller County and its cities. At that time, the Teller County area was a boomtown, with gambling halls, dance halls, and saloons. Victor itself had seven saloons, and "rags to riches" ruled the day. The Broadmoor Hotel and many mansions in the north end of Colorado Springs were built with Cripple Creek gold.7
Unfortunately for the Tekavee family, Frank, a miner with the Golden Cycle Mine, probably earned only approximately $3 a day.8 During Frank’s early mining years, the District was plagued with mining disputes that resulted in many deaths.9 Nonetheless, Frank was able to purchase a home for his family in Victor, which stands today on North Fourth Street.10 This was the environment in which Margaret grew up.
When she began the first grade, Margaret did not speak one word of English. However, she learned quickly from her little sister and friends in school.11 Despite her language challenges, she earned the respect of her classmates,12 and was characterized as a quiet and good student.13 When her father died in 1937,14 her mother, with Margaret’s help, raised the family.
After her father’s death, Margaret’s mother received state assistance to support her children. The family also relied on Margaret’s income from her employment in Victor.15 During World War II, Margaret’s mother moved to Cleveland to live with her sister and work for National Carbon. Her mother died in the 1960s.16
On the Road to Success
After Margaret graduated from Victor High School in 1932,17 she faced limited employment opportunities as a female and having no family funds for higher education.18 She eventually went to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a clerk in Cripple Creek; she rode the stagecoach to work from Victor every day.19 She then was employed by the Department of Social Services, Welfare Division, which was housed in the Teller County courthouse in Cripple Creek.20 Margaret worked in this courthouse for the next thirty years.
Margaret Tekavee remained single all of her life, but rumor had it that she fell in love with someone by the name of Ben who went off to World War II and never returned.21 During the war, she learned of an opening for the Clerk of Teller County and was appointed to that position by Vince Ryan, then-Teller County Court Judge/Justice of the Peace.22 She learned a lot from the Judge, and studied the law every free minute she had.23 She was a voracious reader.24
When Judge Ryan retired in 1955, Margaret convinced the county commissioners that she could serve as both judge and clerk on an interim basis until the next election.25 Because there were no full-time lawyers in the District (and, at that time, it was not an attractive position for a lawyer), she won the election for the office.26
Margaret educated herself on the law using her lunch hour each day to labor over cases in the courthouse library.27 If she ever did get stymied, she would do extensive research and did not shy from seeking advice from district attorneys and private attorneys alike.28 She continued to get overwhelming election support each time she ran for the office,29 handily winning because she was well respected by all of the town’s residents.
The Character of the Lady
Characterized as a kindly and gracious lady with innate dignity,30 the townspeople considered her judgment sound and fair.31 Everyone knew her, and she knew everyone. She also was considered loyal to the people of the District,32 and was so familiar with the defendants who appeared before her that she would tailor her sentencing to suit their personalities.33 In many ways, her lack of formal education helped her deal better with "small town" issues.34
The following excerpt, written by Colorado Springs attorney Robert B. Murray, speaks volumes about the character of Margaret Tekavee and what it was like
to practice in Cripple Creek in the mid-1950s.35
When I began to practice law in Colorado Springs in 1955, my small savings did not place me in a position to select my clients. Consequently, when the president of a very undercapitalized mining corporation sought my services, I agreed to represent his corporation before he had the chance to fully explain to me the nature of his problem.
He related to me that his company owned a mine in the Cripple Creek area, and although it was of doubtful value, he was attempting to get the mine on a paying basis by contracting with a group of miners to remove ore "by the foot." This was a common arrangement in our area, which meant simply that the miners did not work as employees, but were paid by the foot of material removed. When the date arrived to be paid, a dispute had arisen between my new client and the miners as to how much they should be paid.
It became my job to represent the company and attempt to negotiate a figure that the company would agree to pay and that the miners would accept. Negotiate as I would, the parties to the growing dispute could not agree. As a last resort, the miners retained their own attorney, the late Sam Nikkel, who was the only attorney in Cripple Creek at the time.
Sam was not one to waste his time negotiating if he felt that this procedure would not produce results. He promptly filed a suit, which asked for the maximum amount that the miners could possibly have been entitled. The suit was filed in the Teller County Court in Cripple Creek. The judge there was a woman, Margaret Tekavee.
Being quite familiar with the critical attitude that many Cripple Creek citizens possessed toward Colorado Springs mining companies, the president of my corporate client was worried. He was aware that the judge and all of any jury that would be selected in the case undoubtedly knew the miners because Cripple Creek was no longer the roaring gold camp of the past, but was a friendly little town where everyone knew each other. Believing that a fair trial was impossible, he asked if I would try to change the trial site to Colorado Springs.
Remembering my duties to not permit my client to be "hometowned," I agreed. I got out the law books and went to work. When I completed my research, I was well satisfied that I had ample grounds to move the trial. I filed a Motion for Change of Venue, and it was set on the docket for oral argument.
When the day to hear the motion arrived, I argued with the confidence that only a young, inexperienced attorney is able to exhibit. I had one case I thought was a clincher and I saved it for the end. Then I quoted from it extensively to show that it was just about on all fours with the facts then before the court, and under its finding, this case should be transferred to my client’s city.
Mr. Nikkel then gave his argument. He based it almost solely on the assumption that it would be unfair to force all of the miners involved to go all the way to the Springs to get their money.
Following the arguments, Judge Tekavee looked down from the bench directly at me. She began to speak in a pleasant voice. "Mr. Murray, I am sure you understand that your argument this morning was quite technical. You realize I am sure that we are a small community and that, therefore, I am not legally trained, at least I do not have any formal legal education. When confronted with a legal problem as involved as this, it is my custom to consult with our County Attorney. Of course, you are aware of the fact that we have just one attorney here, so he is our County Attorney also." She paused. Only then did I understand the import of her words. She turned to Mr. Nikkel. "Sam, will you approach the bench please?"
My disappointment at that point was impossible to describe. I felt like objecting, but how could I base an objection on the fact that the Judge was consulting with the County Attorney? I wondered concernedly whether I was going to receive a first-hand illustration as to what "hometowning" was.
County Attorney Nikkel went to the bench. He and Judge Tekavee spoke softly, but I could hear them quite clearly. "Well, Sam, what do you think?" the Judge asked while looking down at the attorney from the bench.
"Margaret," the County Attorney began slowly while thoughtfully rubbing his hand across his chin, "I think he’s got me; you better find for him."
"All right, Sam, if that is what you think."
Mr. Nikkel took his seat. Judge Tekavee looked down from the bench. "The Motion for Change of Venue filed by the defendant is granted."
Mr. Nikkel, now counselor to the miners, rose to his feet. "I feel that this finding is unfair to the people," he said. He turned and left the courtroom.
Quite bewildered with the whole proceeding, I remained seated at the attorney’s table. Judge Tekavee stood to leave. She glanced at me with a very kindly, almost motherly, look and said, "I hope you have nice weather for your drive back to the Springs."
Margaret was an avid outdoorswoman. Her passion was fly-fishing in the Bison Reservoir. She fished almost every day after court with her courtroom prosecutor and friend B. J. Fett.36 However, some joked that she used live bait.37
It was well known in town that "the Judge" was a very poor driver. She did not get her driver’s license until she was in her fifties.38 One day when she and Fett went fishing, she forgot to pull up the parking brake on the car. It almost rolled into the Bison Reservoir.39
On another occasion, she was driving from her home in Victor to the Teller County courthouse. She was speeding. Unbeknownst to her, the sheriff followed her with flashing lights and a siren all the way to the courthouse. When she arrived, she got out of her car, saw the sheriff, gave a smile, waved, and said "Good Morning." The sheriff didn’t have the heart to tell her that his initial intention was to give her a speeding ticket, so he smiled and waved back. By the end of the day, the story had circulated throughout the town and caused many a laugh at the water coolers.40
In her earlier years, Margaret also was a game hunter, hunting both elk and deer.41 She hiked the Pikes Peak area, often with her sister Mary, where she collected arrowheads.42 She also collected mine memorabilia, such as mine certificates and the gold "buttons" that were remains of the gold bars after they were molded.43 Although she spent most of her recreational time outdoors, she was no stranger to the kitchen and was characterized as an excellent cook.44 She and her mother would prepare festive Thanksgiving dinners where there were many invited guests.45 She even made her own horseradish.46
Judge Tekavee became an honorary member of the El Paso County Bar Association. She also was a member of St. Victor’s-St. Peter’s Faith Community and led the choir at the church. Named Teller County Woman of the Year in 1986, she was a director of the Balke Trust, president of the Victor’s Women’s Club, and a member of the Gold Camp Fishing Club.47
End of the Road
Margaret Tekavee’s life was the law.48 She was required to retire in 1984 at the age of 72, having served as Teller County Judge for almost thirty years. In a 1992 interview when she was 80 years old, she was asked if she ever suffered the burnout frequently complained of by today’s legal professionals. Her response was emphatic. "Never! I loved the law. I read it, I breathed it and I drank it." When asked if she was ever led astray by a formally educated attorney appearing in her court, she said, "Once in a while an attorney would kind of trip me up, but that’d be the last time."49
Margaret died February 25, 1999, at the age of 87. She was a woman who would humbly want to be remembered only as a "good, fair person."50 But we also will remember the woman who was fondly referred to as "Our Judge" by the citizens of the District for her "great wisdom, her strong spiritual life, her aura of dignity, gentle sense of humor, and lastly, her love of fly fishing."51
1. Interview with former Teller County Prosecutor B. J. Fett (March 10, 2003).
2. "Obituary: Margaret T. Tekavee: Our Judge Dies at 87," The Gold Rush (March 10, 1999) at 3.
3. Interview with Margaret’s sister Mary Tekavee (March 14, 2003).
4. See Teller County, Colorado, Teller County History, at www.co.teller.co.us.
5. Mason and Coggin, "Legend of the Tommy Knockers," Rhymes of the Mines, Life in the Underground (Cowboy Miner Production, 1999). The legend of the Tommy Knockers is a superstition that became famous among miners everywhere and of all nationalities. The miners believed that while working in a mine, ghosts or spirits of the dead miners who had been killed in the mines would claim their souls. This was the sound of the "Tommy Knockers," often followed by a cave-in. When the miners heard this sound, they would run from the mine and never return. The sound was thought to emanate from falling rock hitting rock, resulting in instability, and sometimes followed by a cave-in.
6. Teller County, Colorado, supra, note 4. Today, Teller County and its cities of Victor, Cripple Creek, Goldfield, and Gillette, to name a few, are home to less than one-half the 1900s population.
7. Teller County, Colorado, supra, note 4. See also Flanders Dorsett, The Story of Colorado Gold & Silver Rushes (New York, NY: Barnes and Noble Books, Inc., 1944). The gold boom ended after World War II, and the mines finally shut down in 1961.
9. Id. For example, at one point, there was a huge strike in which thirteen miners were killed and several others wounded in an explosion at the Florence and Cripple Creek depot at Independence. The state militia had to be brought in to end the strike.
10. Interview with Mary Tekavee, supra, note 3.
11. Interview with life-long friend Ken Geddes (March 10, 2003).
12. Interview with former Judicial Clerk Tish Allen (March 10, 2003).
13. Interview with Geddes, supra, note 11.
14. Evergreen Cemetery, Colorado Springs, Colorado, Cemetery Records (through 1972) at 11.
15. Interview with Mary Tekavee (May 12, 2003).
16. Interview with Tish Allen, supra, note 12.
17. "Obituary," supra, note 2.
18. Briggs, Before the Bar: A History of the El Paso County Bar Association: 1902–1995 (Colorado Springs, CO: El Paso County Bar Association Committee on Legal Biography and History, 1996).
19. Interview with Tish Allen, supra, note 12.
21. Id.; see also Interview with Mary Tekavee, supra, note 3.
22. Interview with Tish Allen, supra, note 12.
23. Interview with Mary Tekavee, supra, note 3.
24. Interview with Geddes, supra, note 11.
25. Before the Bar, supra, note 18 at 201.
26. Interview with Geddes, supra, note 11.
27. Before the Bar, supra, note 18 at 202.
28. Interview with Geddes, supra, note 11.
30. Interview with practicing attorney Bob Dunlop (March 7, 2003).
31. "Obituary," supra, note 2; see also Interview with Mary Tekavee, supra, note 3.
33. Interview with Fett, supra, note 1.
35. Before the Bar, supra, note 18 at 202-04.
37. Interview with Geddes, supra, note 11. In fly-fishing, using live bait might be considered cheating.
38. Id.; see also Interview with Allen, supra, note 12.
40. Interview with Allen, supra, note 12.
41. Interview with Mary Tekavee, supra, note 3.
42. Interview with Geddes, supra, note 11.
43. Interview with Fett, supra, note 1.
47. "Obituary," supra, note 2.
48. Interview with former Teller County Court Judge June Looney (March 14, 2003).
49. Before the Bar, supra, note 18 at 203.
50. Interview with Mary Tekavee, supra, note 15.
51. "Obituary," supra, note 2.