Jim Lyons is a senior partner in the firm of Rothgerber Johnson & Lyons LLP, which is now celebrating its 100th anniversary. He had the good fortune to be mentored in the lawyering arts (and sometimes terrorized) by Ira Rothgerber, Jr.
Ira C. Rothgerber, Jr. was born in Denver in 1913 and died in Boulder in 1993. In those eighty years, he distinguished himself as a dutiful son and brother, the foremost patron of the University of Colorado, a soldier, a banker, a philanthropist, and a community leader. But, mostly, he distinguished himself as one of the greatest Colorado lawyers of the last century.
At the Beginning
Ira was the oldest of three children born to Ira and Reina Rothgerber. Raised in east Denver, he attended East High School before matriculating to the University of Colorado at Boulder ("CU"). There, he would complete both his undergraduate and law school studies. By his own admission, he was less than an outstanding student, but he formed a lasting love for the University, the law, and the friends he made there. Ira’s capacity for friendship was boundless, and many of the friends he made at CU would last a lifetime. These included U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Byron White, federal District Judge Fred Winner, and Colorado Supreme Court Justice Ed Pringle.
After graduation from law school in 1935, Ira joined the firm started by his father and his father’s boyhood friend, Walter Appel. The partners had a small estate and commercial practice, which gave Ira the opportunity to be mentored by these two prominent and well-respected lawyers. Ira, Sr. was known as the "Judge," in deference to his past service as Denver’s first probate judge. Ira, Jr. credited Walter Appel with being his principal mentor and was given to quoting him often, including "The law in this office is what I say it is."
The War Years
With the outbreak of World War II, Ira joined the Army and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Stationed in the South Pacific and Australia, he served in combat areas and won a Bronze Star. In Australia, he served with another young lawyer from New Jersey, Colonel Bill Powers, whom he convinced to return with him to Denver and join the firm at the end of the war. The firm then became known as Rothgerber, Appel & Powers.
During his service in Australia, Ira was appointed as co-counsel to represent a young, uneducated private accused of the rape and murder of several Sydney women. General MacArthur’s command was determined to show the Australians that U.S. soldiers in their country would be held to a strict code of conduct, and the prosecution sought the death penalty. The soldier, William Leonski, was by all accounts mentally deranged and likely insane. Nevertheless, he was found competent to stand trial, and his mental impairment defense —then unprecedented in military courts —was swiftly rejected.
His client summarily tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang, Ira sought an appeal through the military high command. Denied review, Ira dictated by long-distance telephone a petition for stay and certiorari to Denver for transmission to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, before the Court could consider the petition, Leonski was hanged.
Years later, a major motion picture, "Death of a Soldier" starring James Coburn, dramatized the Leonski story and Ira’s courageous efforts to defend him. The trial transcript, complete with Ira’s characteristic notes and marginalia, remains at the firm today. Out of this searing experience was born a career as a trial lawyer and a fierce advocate for constitutional rights.
Building of a Law Career
Returning to Denver with Bill Powers, Ira was soon joined at the firm by young Bob Appel, recently returned from wartime service in the Navy. Together, the three of them were the next generation of the firm and were to become its leaders after the death of the founders.
Ira’s early post-war years were taken up by a commercial and litigation practice, including the pro bono representation in a six-week jury trial of several CU professors accused of advocating communism, in violation of the Smith Act.1 During the 1950s, Ira took a leave of absence to serve the University of Colorado in raising funds and building its endowment. His mission accomplished, Ira returned to the firm where he and Bob Appel undertook to bring modern management and systems to the firm and to lead it to growth and prosperity.
Ira also found time for Democratic politics. Encouraged by his friend Byron White, he chaired Colorado Citizens for Kennedy in 1960 and remained close to the Kennedy family for the rest of his life. Offered consideration for a federal district judgeship by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Ira declined in favor of his friend and colleague Bill Doyle, who went on to serve with great distinction on the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.
A burgeoning law practice in the sixties included the organization of the first de novo national bank in post-war Denver, Cherry Creek National Bank. From that experience, Ira and a group of organizer/ investors, including Bill Johnson and Roger Reisher, went on to form First National Bank of Westland in Lakewood. This bank became the flagship for what was to become FirstBank of Colorado, currently the largest independently owned and operated banking institution in the state, with some 100 offices and assets exceeding $6 billion.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Denver and the firm, under Ira’s leadership, grew dramatically. Rothgerber, Appel & Powers became a full-service commercial firm, with specialties in litigation, banking, real estate, probate, labor and employment, corporate, tax, and securities law. Ira himself concentrated on banking and litigation, and was called on to serve as the first chair of the Colorado Supreme Court’s Committee on Pattern Jury Instructions. He also served on the U.S. Supreme Court’s Committee on Appellate Rules.
An Advocate and Mentor
Despite these many demands on his time, Ira first and foremost attended to his clients and the young lawyers he personally trained and mentored at the firm—an experience that can be best compared to boot camp with a merciless drill instructor.
Ira, however, possessed a special sense of humor and often used it to train young lawyers. For example, after receiving a traffic ticket while driving his gold Cadillac down Speer Boulevard in Denver, he asked one of the young lawyers at the firm to defend him in Denver County Court. Faced with the task of defending the boss, the young lawyer spent many hours preparing the case for trial and Ira for his testimony.
During trial, in an effort to set the stage at the outset of Ira’s testimony, the young lawyer asked Ira, "Were you driving a gold Cadillac down Speer Boulevard on the afternoon of March 3?" Ira answered, "No." Perplexed with Ira’s answer, the young lawyer checked his notes and asked the same question again, a little louder. "Were you driving a gold Cadillac down Speer Boulevard on the afternoon of March 3?" Ira adjusted his position in the witness chair, sat up a little taller, loudly said "No," and paused for what seemed like an eternity to the young lawyer. Finally, Ira announced, "On March 3, I was driving a gold-colored Cadillac on Speer Boulevard, not a gold Cadillac. I leave the gold Cadillacs for the Denver District Attorney’s office." The young lawyer turned red, but the judge exploded in laughter, as did the district attorney. Ira was acquitted.
Ira, CU, and His Legacy
Despite the demands of his practice and banking interests, Ira always found time to enjoy a good Scotch, his many friends, and indulge his passion for the CU Buffaloes. From his regular Saturday seat in the Flatrions Club at Folsum Field, Ira watched the fortunes of his beloved "Buffies." After a home game, his house on Old Tale Road in Boulder was a gathering place for serious post-game refreshments and lively conversation, often well into the night. He missed no CU bowl games, and lived to see his two Buff dreams realized: victory over Nebraska and a national championship.
Shortly after his retirement from the firm, Ira was profiled in CU’s alumni magazine under the title, "The Patron Saint of CU." Nothing more accurately describes his devotion and unfailing support for his alma mater. He endowed a wing of the law school library in honor of his parents. He made the initial contribution to the Rothgerber Research Laboratory at CU Health Sciences Center in honor of his sisters.
He gave regularly (and often anonymously) to other CU causes, including countless students in need of individual financial assistance. And, in honor of his lifelong friend, he endowed the Byron R. White Center for Constitutional Studies at CU Law School. When he died, Ira left the bulk of his estate to his alma mater and the Denver Foundation, which he had chaired for many years.
Nowhere did Ira Rothgerber, Jr. leave his mark more indelibly than on his firm and on the lawyers whose lives he so significantly influenced. For us, he set the highest standards of honor, intellect, and professional service. He was the compleat lawyer. The firm—the oldest continuous law partnership in Denver—carries on in his image and strives to be worthy of his legacy.
1. Later declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494 (1951).