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TCL > July 2003 Issue > J. Churchill Owen

July 2003       Vol. 32, No. 7       Page  23
Six of the Greatest

J. Churchill Owen
by Paul D. Holleman

Paul D. Holleman is a retired partner of the law firm of Holme Roberts & Owen LLP, where he practiced law with Church Owen for more than thirty years.

"A true gentlemen." "A great lawyer." "A community leader." These are the descriptions most often used to describe J. Churchill Owen, and all such characterizations are accurate. "Church" was a great lawyer, a wonderful contributor to his community and his family and, above all, he was a gentleman and a leader in everything his hand found to do. Besides his family, two of his greatest accomplishments were: (1) co-founding the law firm that is now known as Holme Roberts & Owen LLP ("HRO"); and (2) founding what became the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Denver.

The Early Years

Church was born on May 24, 1901, in Cripple Creek, Colorado. His father was a judge on the district court bench in Cripple Creek; he later moved the family to Denver for Church’s education. Church graduated from Denver’s East High School in 1919. He received a Bachelor’s degree from Yale University in 1923, where he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and earned his law degree from Harvard in 1926. The year before graduation, in 1925, he married Alice ("Peg") Wright Mann, the sister of his college roommate. Church was admitted to the Colorado Bar in 1926.

A Lifetime Career at Holme Roberts & Owen

After law school, in 1926, Church went to work for the Denver law firm of Dines, Dines and Holme. He became a partner in the firm in 1932. The firm changed its name from time to time over the years (for example, at one time, it was Holme, Roberts, More, Owen & Keegan), becoming known as Holme Roberts & Owen in 1960. Church was still with the firm at the time of his death in 1992. Thus, he was with that same law firm, as associate and partner, for more than sixty-five years.

During his years of service, the firm grew from approximately seven attorneys to more than 200 attorneys, with offices in several other states, as well as outside the United States. His particular fields of legal expertise were estate and trust and corporate and banking law. Church helped start the United Banks of Colorado, serving as Director of the United Banks of Colorado and predecessor banks from 1948 to 1974. He also was on the Board of Directors of Argo Oil Company and Midwest Oil Corporation, and was active in the sale of those oil companies to major oil companies. In January 1992, J. Churchill Owens was elected to the Colorado Business Hall of Fame.

Church worked on the Colorado legislation for the ownership of "property rights in the air" that led to the sale of the old Denver Club Building and the construction of the new Denver Club Building, with the Club owning only the upper floors. He also served on the Advisory Board to the Dow Jones Company, the publisher of The Wall Street Journal. During World War II, he and his family moved to Washington, D.C., where he served as a "dollar a year man" for the United States, essentially donating his services. He was an attorney for the War Production Board in charge of mineral procurement from 1942 to 1945, and served as Assistant General Counsel to the Board in 1944 and 1945. He returned to his Denver law practice immediately after the war. HRO still plans an annual social function for the partners and their spouses to occur on Church’s birthday.

One of Church’s longtime partners, Robert E. More, had this to say about Church in A Brief History of Holme Roberts & Owen: "Systematic in work habits, a natural leader, an able and meticulous craftsman, a finely trained and keen lawyer, Church was a wonderful addition to the organization. He became a partner in record time—on January 1, 1932." Church led and energized the law firm in its growing banking, corporate, natural resources, intellectual property, and telecommunication practice areas. He also was proud of the firm’s establishment of new offices in Boulder, Colorado Springs, Salt Lake City, London, and Moscow, and enjoyed working with the branches.

Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Denver

In 1937, a group of Denver citizens held a series of meetings in the hope of organizing a Boys Club in Denver. The early organizers, many of whom were members and leaders of the Denver Bar, were Judge J. Foster Symens; John W. Morey; Montgomery Dorsey; Allan A. Phipps; Hudson Moore; Quigg Newton, Jr.; Judge Phillip Gilliam; Lewis E. Gelt; and J. Churchill Owen. The group adopted bylaws, filed Articles of Incorporation, and began making plans for a club building. World War II intervened, but in the 1950s, Church pushed for the establishment of the club.

With the help of many, including his good friend and client Arthur Johnson, Church founded what grew to be the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Denver ("Clubs"). He also served on the national board of directors, over the years devoting untold amounts of time and effort to the Clubs. There is now a J. Churchill Owen branch at 3480 West Kentucky Ave. in Denver. Also, in the Clubs’ Denver headquarters, the boardroom is named "The J. Churchill Owen Boardroom" in his honor. Other branches that Church helped to establish are the Arthur E. Johnson Boys & Girls Club, George M. Wilfley Branch, Robert W. Steele Boys & Girls Club, William E. Cope Boys & Girls Club, and the Wyatt-Edison Boys & Girls Club. The Denver Clubs now serve 12,000 children each year and have served more than 100,000 children over time.

Mentoring Young Lawyers

In 1976, HRO founded the J. Churchill Owen Endowment Scholarship Fund at the University of Denver College of Law, in recognition of Church’s fifty years in the practice of law in Colorado as an HRO partner and his role in the education of young lawyers. The main recipients of the scholarship are intended to be University of Denver law students who are former members of the Clubs. Attorneys in the law firm presented a plaque to Church at the time of the scholarship endowment, which read in part: "For advice, Denver goes to Church."

Throughout his career, Church was active in recruiting and training young lawyers. He always thought that Denver and Colorado were full of opportunities for youthful lawyers, and he relished the future of the city and state.


Church and Peg Owen had three sons. James ("Jim") C. Owen, Jr., was a long-time partner at HRO (he died in 1999). Soon after Jim was admitted to the HRO partnership, the firm adopted a rule against nepotism. To his partners, Jim always denied he was the reason for this rule. In 1996, the James C. Owen, Jr. scholarship was established at the University of Denver College of Law. Preferred scholarship recipients were to be law students who possessed a strong interest in the study of, and future practice in, business or banking law.

The other Owen sons are William M. Owen, who lives in Baltimore, Maryland; and Thomas P. Owen, who lives in Denver and Mountain Lakes, Florida. Church and Peg had several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Civic and Other Activities

Church always found time to serve the community in many different ways. He was the founder and president of the Colorado Public Expenditure Council. He served as trustee of the Arthur Johnson Foundation, Denver Zoological Foundation, and Bancroft Foundation, each of which gave generously to charitable and educational works in the Rocky Mountain area. He also served as President of the Denver Art Museum.

Church’s hobbies included fishing and playing bridge and golf. He was able to shoot his age on the golf course several times when he was in his late seventies and early eighties. He belonged to the Denver County Club, Cherry Hills Country Club, University Club, Rotary Club, Mile High Club, and Cactus Club. For many years, he spent portions of the winter in Mountain Lakes, Florida, where he enjoyed the weather and the golf.

Church Owen was an excellent fisherman. A few years before he died, his whole family took a trip to fish on the White River, near Meeker, Colorado, where Church had been a member of the fishing club for many years. The fishing there was dry fly-fishing and was usually excellent, with many native rainbows, cutthroats, and browns. Because the property was a private club, some of the fishing holes had been improved and made easier to wade.

One such hole was called the "pig pen," so named for its proximity to the pigs’ pen on the ranch. The pool is about fifteen-feet wide by twenty-five-feet long, with willows and trees overhanging on the far side. Below the pool are a dam and a fork where the river diverts. The wading was easy here because it pooled above the log dam. Big fish lived in this pool. By casting a line just above the riffle and letting it float down near the bank, a fisherman’s luck was
almost certain to be good. On this trip, Church was helped down to the edge of the water and into the pool. Soon, he caught one of the largest fish in his fishing career: a 23-inch, 7-pound rainbow. The smile on his face told how special that day was. In his eighties at that time, Church could still out-fish his whole family.

Church also owned some cattle ranches in his lifetime. He had a rancher-partner, Mort White, who invested in the properties and ran the operations for Church. They had a deal: before purchasing property, Mort would check out the cattle and the hay operations, while Church would check out the fishing. They would later meet and, if both agreed that the fishing and cattle potential was good, they would buy the property. The deal was that both the fishing and cattle operations had to be excellent or Church and Mort would not buy the ranch.

Church owned a ranch on the Laramie River in southern Wyoming. About a year after purchasing the property, he discovered that there was not enough water for the hay crops. Church asked the neighboring ranchers why they had not told him that there was not enough water before he bought the property. They replied that they knew he worked for one of the largest and best water rights law firms in the West, and they thought he might get the water rights restored. Church did get the water rights restored to the area, and then charged the neighboring ranchers for his legal services!

Style and Humor

Church always dressed in the finest style. His wardrobe was extensive, and he was truly a fashion model for others around the office. Ted Stockmar, one of Church’s partners, says that in forty years of practice with Church he never saw Church in the offices without a vest and suit coat. Church’s style was all the more remarkable because he was color blind!

On the golf course, he delighted in winning a 25-cent wager on the game. When the law firm transferred to computers, the firm’s mouse pad was shaped, colored, and named the "J. Churchill Owen Mouse Pad" and was awarded to personnel who passed the firm’s computer proficiency test. It was very pleasing to Church to be remembered in this manner. He had a smile for everyone.

Church’s Legacy

When Church’s 50th birthday passed, he called all his partners into his office for a firm meeting. He solemnly announced that he was retiring in five years—he would walk out the door and they would not see him anymore. There was a moment of quiet. To Church’s great surprise, after he made what he considered a serious announcement about the termination of his legal career, his partners began laughing at him. They reminded him that he had made exactly the same speech five years before. Church saw the humor in the situation and had a good laugh at himself.

Church died at his Denver home on April 13, 1992. His memorial services were held at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, and the body was cremated. Ed Benton, a long-time partner of Church’s, delivered the
eulogy. In his talk, Ed asked everyone to imagine that Church was standing beside him to receive an award for lifetime merit and service. There was a huge standing ovation for the memory of this great man.

Church truly left a legacy of charity, civility, and unselfishness. The Colorado legal profession and the state of Colorado are in his debt.

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