Vol. 33, No. 7
Six of the Greatest
by Ben S. Aisenberg
This is the twenty-second year that The Colorado Lawyer has honored outstanding deceased attorneys in Colorado. These lawyers were chosen by the Colorado Bar Association Awards Committee from nominations and suggestions submitted by members of the Bar and others.
The Awards Committee, chaired by Dale Harris, selected the following lawyers because, during their careers, they exemplified the high ideals of the legal profession; made significant contributions to the Bar Association; were of aid and assistance to other lawyers, particularly younger lawyers; were active in civic and community affairs; were instrumental in accomplishing some significant changes in the law; promoted public confidence in the legal profession; demonstrated confidence in the practice of law; or were otherwise notable in their careers. Those chosen had to have passed away a minimum of ten years ago.
The Awards Committee needs your assistance in identifying individuals who should be recognized each year. If you know of someone you believe to be eligible for inclusion in this feature, please send your nomination to the CBA Awards Committee in care of Diane Hartman, Colorado Bar Association, 1900 Grant St., Suite 900, Denver, CO 80203-4336, or call her at (303) 824-5312 or (800) 332-6736, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Ben Aisenberg
Ben Aisenberg was an associate and partner at Gorsuch, Kirgis, Campbell, Walker and Grover from 1958 to 1980.
He was my mentor. He was my partner. Above all, he was my friend. John Gorsuch was one of the most down-to-earth individuals you could ever expect to meet. He could relate to people at every level. He could be with a crowd of socialites and feel very much at home or he could be with an associate or a client and be able to connect to that person. He always had the time to spend with anyone who wanted his advice.
He also was gregarious, soft-spoken, thoughtful, and humorous. He was so popular and well known in Denver that, during the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, he could not take a stroll down Seventeenth Street at lunchtime without being stopped every few minutes by fellow attorneys, clients, or friends. He was an Everyman, so down-to-earth, but at the same time, so exceptional.
John’s Personal Life
John was born in Denver in 1899, the son of Dr. John C. Gorsuch and Nancy Johnson Gorsuch. His parents had moved to Denver from Ohio in 1897. John attended Lincoln Public School and South High, both in Denver. After graduating from high school, he served in the Armed Services in World War I. He loved to tell the story of being raised to the exalted rank of acting corporal. However, it was not long before he was returned to the rank of private when his First Sergeant informed him that he had not shown the qualities of leadership required of a corporal. John would finish the story with, "Nuf said." After the war, John helped put himself through the University of Denver, both college and law school, by driving a trolley car. He received his law degree in 1925.
In 1930, John Gorsuch married Freda Munz, the daughter of a Colorado cattle rancher whose oldest brother, Phillip Munz, became a world-renowned botanist. John and Freda had four children, John ("Jack"), born in 1932; Diane and Dave, twins, born in 1937; and Keith, born in 1942. Jack is an Episcopalian priest living in Ashland, Oregon; Dave was a lawyer with the Gorsuch & Kirgis firm for many years; Diane is married and lives in Littleton; and Keith, John’s youngest son, is a retired public school teacher living in Tacoma, Washington. The Gorsuches lived at the corner of First Avenue and Albion in the Hilltop area in Denver. Their home was always open to their friends and their children’s friends.
John’s Law Career
John started his practice in the late 1920s and early 1930s, emphasizing real estate law. He also found time to work with Denver’s welfare department and to involve himself in numerous civic activities. By the time he met Fred Kirgis, with whom he founded the original law firm of Gorsuch & Kirgis (also called "Gorsuch, Kirgis"), John already was a past-president of the Denver Kiwanis Club and vice-chairman of the Nonferrous Metals Commission of the National War Labor Board. His activities for the Denver Kiwanis Club culminated in his election as vice-president of Kiwanis International. John had become a truly "prominent" citizen of Denver.
On July 1, 1945, John Gorsuch and Fred Kirgis opened the doors of the law firm of Gorsuch & Kirgis. As fellow Kiwanis members, both John and Fred were well prepared to serve the legal needs of the public during the last half of the twentieth century in metro Denver and the Rocky Mountain region. At the time it opened, the firm had one reception room, two stenographers, no dictating equipment, and two private offices on the seventh floor of the First National Bank Building at Seventeenth and Stout Streets.
Leonard Campbell (a former president of the Colorado Bar Association), who joined the firm in 1946 directly out of the Armed Services, recalls that the practice of law in Denver in the late 1940s and thereafter involved administrative, personnel, and equipment challenges. There were manual (not electrical) typewriters and shorthand expertise and transcribing (no dictating equipment). Sometimes, there were as many as ten carbon copies (no photocopying equipment), title abstracts, and abbreviated references (not full photocopies) of recorded documents. John’s secretary (Gladys Travis) and Fred Kirgis’s secretary (Marguerite Ratcliffe) worked together with the remarkable ability to produce documents in final form, often working under deadline pressures.
Leonard Campbell also recalls that John’s interest in the firm’s personnel, both legal and administrative, was personal and paramount. In the first six months of the firm’s existence, before sick leave rules were adopted and health insurance was purchased, the firm’s receptionist became ill and was hospitalized. It did not seem appropriate to notify her while she was so incapacitated that her sick leave, if any, would accrue at the rate of one day a month, adding up to a total of only three or four days. John, who was the labor-law expert, asked the firm to create the sick-leave program to pay the receptionist’s full salary for several months. The firm then initiated an early health insurance program.
John was equally active in creating diversity of experience for the young associate lawyers and new partners the firm started to hire in 1945. John’s extensive engagement as a principal arbitrator for Climax Molybdenum required him to travel frequently over Loveland Pass (not through the Eisenhower Tunnel, which had not yet been constructed). It was his custom to invite a new associate to attend a hearing with him. During the winter months, these trips were more hazardous, especially when traveling through areas where avalanches were common. Such excursions were special not only for the scenery, but also for the discussions and the prayers of both John and the associate.
One of the firm’s early cases involved Conway Bogue Realty Investment Co. v. Denver Bar Association.1 This action was brought by the Denver Bar Association ("DBA") seeking to set parameters of what constitutes the "practice of law" and to enjoin real estate brokers from performing services that constituted the practice of law in preparing deeds, notes, and closing statements. John represented the Denver Board of Realtors and Colorado Association of Real Estate Board, who were permitted to intervene, taking a position contrary to that of the DBA.
The Colorado Supreme Court held that the preparation of deeds, mortgages, leases, and like documents did constitute the practice of law. However, the Court went on to hold that, although it was in full sympathy with the efforts of the Bar Association to curb the unauthorized practice of law, much of what lawyers do every day in their practice also may be done by others without wrongful invasion of the lawyer’s field.
In many counties in Colorado, because of the dearth of attorneys, among other things, there would be great public inconvenience if it were necessary to call in a lawyer to draft these instruments in every instance. Therefore, the Court determined that real estate brokers should not be enjoined from preparing and explaining documents of this nature at the request of their customers, without charge, other than the usual broker’s commission, and only in connection with real estate transaction then being handled by them. After lengthy and involved litigation, John claimed victory for the brokers, who were allowed by the Colorado Supreme Court to "fill in" the blanks on certain legal documents, a practice that continues to this day.
John’s work on behalf of the War Labor Board gave him a head start in the burgeoning area of post-war labor relations. His work for the Board brought him to the attention of the May Company, which sought John’s services during a major labor strike in the late 1940s. (The May Company is the department store chain that now owns Foleys and a number of other large department store chains across the country.) John’s work for the May Company increased his visibility as a labor lawyer, which, in turn, developed into a great deal of work from clients as diverse as Amax and Phelps-Dodge, as well as their unions.
John Gorsuch was so highly respected by both management and labor that he became a labor arbitrator who heard and decided disputes that arose under collective bargaining agreements between companies and unions. He was much in demand and traveled the country hearing disputes. One of his favorite cases involved a class action grievance brought by the Las Vegas cocktail waitresses against the management of one of the Las Vegas Strip hotels and casinos.
The casino took the position that because the waitresses could wear their boots and skimpy outfits anywhere, it shouldn’t have to pay for them. The waitresses maintained that they would not be caught dead in these clothes outside the casino and, therefore, such outfits should be considered uniforms and should be paid for by the casino. It was a three-day hearing, and the union paraded cocktail waitress after cocktail waitress in their revealing outfits to testify before John. He admitted he had difficulty taking notes during some of this testimony and was eternally thankful there was a reporter present who transcribed the proceeding.
John was an elected member of the National Academy of Arbitrators, a prestigious organization comprised of prominent individuals who arbitrate management labor disputes. I remember passing our conference room where John was arbitrating a grievance. The union was represented by Phil Hornbein,2 an ardent and vocal labor advocate. The sounds emanating from the conference room, both from the union advocate and management’s counsel, reverberated throughout the office. Yet, at a recess, John emerged cool and unruffled. He had the perfect judicial temperament.
I recall my job interview with John in 1958. I was impressed when John told me that although they were one of the bigger firms in terms of clientele, the firm was very democratic and had a broad base. It wasn’t a firm that was born with a silver spoon in its mouth. He told me one story of a prominent businessman whom the firm had never represented, but whom John had known well for a number of years. This businessman told John that he had asked a large Denver law firm that had been doing his legal work for many years to handle his daughter’s divorce—one in which the marital assets were insignificant. The firm indicated it did not handle small divorces. The businessman then asked John if Gorsuch, Kirgis would represent his daughter in her divorce. John readily agreed to do so. The businessman told John how disappointed he was with his present firm, because if anything had priority for him, it was his daughter’s divorce and her happiness. The businessman then transferred much of his business representation to John and the firm. I received a valuable lesson in client relations that day.
When I joined the firm in 1958, Gorsuch, Kirgis was the third largest firm in Colorado. The Equitable Building was the "lawyers’" building, with many law firms and lawyers officing in the building. Gorsuch, Kirgis, with eighteen lawyers, was on the second floor. Dawson, Nagle, Sherman & Howard was on the third floor. It had twenty attorneys. Holland & Hart was the giant, with twenty-five attorneys, and was located on the fifth floor. How things have changed since then!
My favorite personal story of John involves a night in 1965, when the firm’s offices were located in the Security Life Building. John and I had worked late, and about 8:30 p.m., we went to the Top of the Rockies restaurant for dinner. There, by chance, we happened to meet Sheika Granshammer, who was married to Pepi Granshammer. They were clients of the firm and owned Pepi’s (Gasthof Granshammers), a restaurant in Vail. Sheika is and was a vivacious, charming lady, who had a special liking for John. She and another couple joined us for dinner; then, she insisted that we go for a late drink at a hotel bar. From there, she wanted to take us to what I believe was then called the Gilded Garter, a nightclub off of Larimer Square, which featured female impersonators.
By then, it had to have been about 12:30 a.m., and none of us was feeling very much pain, to say the least. We ordered a round of drinks and, after one of their performances, John invited the female impersonators to join us. We chatted with them for a few minutes, and they finally said that they had to leave to get ready for their last show. They stood up and John, true to form, stood also, as all gentlemen were trained to do when a lady gets up to leave. He then realized that his chivalry had been misplaced. It was a reflex action on his part, but it gave us all a good laugh. On the other hand, this was true to John’s character—being a true gentleman to the end. This is a story I told many times at firm functions, and we always got a big laugh out of it.
Here are some memories related to me by John’s children. John’s oldest son Jack remembers that his dad and the children often did the dishes. John would turn it into an adventure, because while he washed and the children dried, he told stories, usually about "Tommy the Trout." Each story was made up on the spot and, sometimes, John would engage the children by having them take turns adding to Tommy’s exploits. Jack remembers that as a teenager, he tried to think of all kinds of excuses to get out of doing the dishes; on the other hand, he didn’t want to miss the opportunity because he was intrigued by how Tommy was going to survive his latest escapades.
Jack also recalls that his family cherished, more than anything, memories of trips into the mountains and on vacations. Every summer, they took horse-pack trips to the Rockies, Sangre de Cristos, San Juans, or the Wind River Range in Wyoming. They also drove to the east coast or to California. Sometimes, they stayed at their uncles’ ranches near the Wyoming border to fish (John was an avid fisherman) or, in later years, they gathered at the Wigwam Club on the South Platte. John organized these trips with great gusto and skill.
John called Diane, his only daughter, "his little dolly," even when she was in her 50s. She recalls John’s patience in trying to help her learn high school algebra. She describes John’s tutelage as very helpful; nonetheless, she was always thankful when her mom finally announced that dinner was ready.
Affiliations and Awards
Although John was not a joiner, he was a member of the Denver Club, Denver Athletic Club, and Denver Country Club. John served as president of the DBA in 1946–1947. In addition, he was awarded the DBA Award of Merit in 1976. He was extremely active in the Bar and served on numerous Denver and Colorado Bar Association Committees, as well as a past-president and honorary life director of the Denver Legal Aid Society.
John was the Colorado Jaycee’s Outstanding Man of the Year in 1933, the first person to receive such an award. He also served as director of the Family Welfare Association of Colorado. In 1965, the University of Denver College of Law presented him with its Distinguished Alumnus Award. In 1973, the University of Denver presented him with the Evans Award, the highest honor the Denver University Alumni Association can bestow.
John’s Golden Years
John practiced law into his 80s. He died in 1987, having lived to the ripe age of 88. Even in his later years, his mind was active. He enjoyed friends and family. His legacy is one of humility, service, caring and, most of all, integrity. He was truly an Everyman.
1. Conway Bogue Realty Investment Co. et al. v. Denver Bar Association et al., 138 Colo. 398, 312 P.2d 998 (Colo. 1957).
2. See Doyle, "Six of the Greatest: Philip Hornbein," 12 The Colorado Lawyer 1067 (July 1983).
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