Vol. 33, No. 7
Six of the Greatest
John F. "Jack" Healy
by W. Terry Ruckriegle
John F. "Jack" Healy
by W. Terry Ruckriegle
W. Terry Ruckriegle, Breckenridge, is Chief Judge of the Fifth Judicial District and served as deputy and assistant District Attorney for Jack Healy from 1975 to 1984.
Jack Healy was a giant of a man, not just in physical stature, but also as a public figure and true statesman. Just being around him and listening to his stories led you to know you were in the presence of a legend and not just a man. Having served in every branch of Colorado state government, he was known far and wide as a garrulous Irishman with a booming voice and dominating presence. His longtime secretary, Kim Slaughter, put it succinctly, "He roared liked a lion, but was gentle as a lamb." It is impossible to say which of his "careers" was most outstanding.
Football and Theater
John Francis Healy was born at his grandmother’s house December 3, 1903, in Denver and grew up in the Curtis Park neighborhood. He was the son of John P. Healy, who served as Denver’s Fire Chief for more than forty years. Jack always regaled in telling stories—some of which were about his father’s adventures of responding to fires in a horse and buggy. He attended Regis High School. Healy was a standout athlete on the football, baseball, and boxing teams at the University of Colorado ("CU") during the mid-1920s. It is rumored that his was the very first kickoff at the inaugural football game at CU’s Folsom Field.
At CU, Jack was selected as an all-conference end in 1923, 1924, and 1925. Throughout the regular season, the 1924 team was unbeaten, untied, and un-scored upon. The story goes that when they took a post-season trip to Hawaii for two games against the University of Hawaii, Jack scored the only nine points ever claimed against that team.
For those of us who knew Jack, it is not hard to understand that his excellence was not limited to any one area or just to the athletic fields. During his years at CU, he not only participated in the operetta, but also took over as the director for three years. His thespian interests didn’t stop there. Healy was a regular on stage at the Bonfils Theater, Denver Civic Theatre, and Elitch Gardens Theatre. He appeared in such productions as "Green Grow the Lilacs"; "The Rainmaker"; "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"; "Harvey," with Joe E. Brown; and "Another Part of the Forest," with Joan Van Ark.
A Denver Legal
Those foundational oratorical skills were often revitalized in the various professional contexts of his career, not the least of which was in the courtroom. After graduating from the CU School of Law ("CU Law") in 1929, Healy began his long and varied legal career in the practice of law with the Denver firm of Rothgerber and Appel. It was not long thereafter, in 1932, that he was elected as a Democrat to the Colorado State Senate. He only served one term in the legislature, but was Majority Whip during his tenure. Little did anyone know that his career of public service would continue for more than fifty-two years.
In 1941, Jack Healy was appointed by Governor Lee Knous as Deputy Director of the Colorado Department of Revenue under Bob Theobald, with whom he would later practice law in Breckenridge. He continued to serve for almost twenty years and was credited with authoring much of the state’s Tax Code. Healy initiated several modern techniques used by the Department of Revenue, including computerization of the office, with which many agencies are still struggling today.
His daughter Joanne Sesson reminisced that once the legislature was in session, Jack would be out late many nights fashioning new tax laws—and lobbying for them as well. He was known to mischievously tack on nonsensical amendments couched in such legalese that the legislators didn’t know at first what they had voted for. Gary Lindstrom, current Summit County Commissioner and Jack’s former Chief Investigator, recalls Healy bragging about writing the first Liquor Code regulations following Prohibition.
The next transition of careers came for Healy in 1961 when he left the Department of Revenue to become the State Court Administrator for the Colorado Supreme Court. His ideas and insights brought an objective perspective to the Judicial Branch. Rich Levengood, a former assistant to the Colorado Legislative Council and former Summit County Commissioner, told of the days when the Supreme Court was in the Capitol Building and Jack’s voice could be heard echoing through the halls. He remembers that Healy received a spinning rod when he retired as Administrator in 1966. He watched Jack practice casting over the open areas of the Capitol in preparation for his new, "retired" life in Summit County.
Denver icon Ira Rothgerber1 gave Healy credit for depoliticizing the judicial system. Healy was instrumental in establishing the Colorado Supreme Court Committee on Civil Jury Instructions in 1964 and served on that Committee until 1976. By the time Jack retired in 1966, the Colorado judicial system had been overhauled from an elected system to our current one, which is based on merit selection and retention.
A Fifth Judicial District Legal Professional
In 1923, Jack and his college sweetheart Frances Pattee had led the Grand March at the CU prom. Twenty-five years later, they were destined to be reunited—they married after their spouses passed away. The area south of Breckenridge had been considered for a Colorado Springs reservoir. But when they decided to build Dillon Reservoir, Jack and Bob Theobald were able to "pick up" the land that became Blue River Estates. Being an original stockholder, Jack and Fran moved there and literally built their first house for themselves. Jack’s woodworking shop was something to behold and the envy of anyone who professed to be a "handyman." There was a period when he was so dedicated to woodworking that friends could anticipate receiving one of his latest creations.
Healy opened a private practice law office and later became City Attorney. But the lure of public service soon seized him once again. This time, Jack got back into Democratic politics. He ran for the office of District Attorney ("DA") of the Fifth Judicial District in 1968 against incumbent Gene Lorig—and won. The district then comprised Eagle, Lake, and Summit Counties. Healy, who pretty much was the office, traveled them all.
John Dunn, former Colorado Bar Association president, recalls that Healy and Judge Harold Grant (who had been Lorig’s predecessor as District Attorney) "rode the circuit from Breckenridge to Eagle to Leadville." Towering over six feet, five inches tall, with his full head of white hair, ruddy Irish complexion, and booming voice, he soon became legend again, this time in the Fifth Judicial District. Former Summit District Court Clerk Carol Briggs noted that everyone listened to Jack, "who looked like Moses and sounded like God."
By 1975, these rural-resort communities had begun their significant growth. As a result, the Colorado legislature decided to add Clear Creek County to the district, along with a new district judge, Vasco G. (Gerry) Seavy, Jr.2 It was regularly said that the two of them had forgotten more law than the attorneys collectively knew. Young lawyers could not have a more profound training experience for the courtroom than trying a case with the two of them. For a while, the DA’s office was located in the old high school/Town Hall in Breckenridge, and then moved to the Bank of Breckenridge and, eventually, to the Carter Museum log cabin. Lindstrom remembers when Jack would get calls from the Governor of Colorado and Mayor of Denver for advice.
The fundamental bulwark of Jack’s training was what he learned from experience—he believed in learning by doing. Now that the Fifth District stretched from Jeffco to Glenwood Canyon, Jack hired a couple of deputies in Eagle and Georgetown. He was always available for consultation with his deputies, but would inevitably turn and say, "Do what you think is right." By the time of his retirement in 1984, there were six full-time attorneys in the Fifth Judicial District, covering the territory Jack used to manage single-handedly.
Healy’s legacy in the Fifth will impact the legal system for years to come. At least four of his deputies became elected district attorneys. Two deputy district attorneys have been appointed as County Judges and two are currently sitting as District Judges in the Fifth Judicial District.
There was a period of a couple of years when Jack had several high profile cases in the district. He prosecuted a sitting Sheriff for theft from the evidence lockers, the executive management of Vail Resorts for homicide in a gondola accident, an 80-year-old boyfriend for killing his girlfriend’s husband, and a local dog owner after her loose dogs killed a 3-year-old girl. Jack was never afraid of bringing a prosecution and would prosecute to the fullest of his energy and ability. He was a proponent of victims’ rights long before they were recognized in the Colorado statutes or by constitutional amendment.
In 1979, Jack Healy was bestowed the William Lee Knous Award from CU Law’s alumni board. The Award is given annually to recognize an alumnus for outstanding achievement in a chosen field. Healy was recognized for his work for the state of Colorado and the University. Knous was one of the most distinguished CU Law alumni who went on to become a Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court, as well as a Governor of Colorado and Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court. It was only apropos that Healy had been appointed Deputy Director of Revenue by Governor Knous.
In 1981, Jack was awarded the Distinguished Service Award from the Colorado District Attorneys Council. The citation read as follows: "In recognition of more than 52 years of exemplary performance as an Attorney at Law who has consistently demonstrated the highest standards of competence and ethics of his profession."
On November 9, 1984, a "Celebration of Jack Healy" was held at Beaver Run in Breckenridge to honor him in anticipation of his "final" retirement. Jack was proud, but not speechless, at the tributes by state and local luminaries. He recalled the days of traveling through barren Eagle Valley in the ’60s, when there were only a handful of corner groceries and so many fewer residents. Lindstrom, who regularly traveled with him, claims Jack would tell stories about where the railroad tracks were located and the name of the sheep farmer who owned the ranch where the town of Vail was situated. Healy was presented with an oil portrait of himself with the Summit County Courthouse in the background, which eventually ended up in the new Summit County Justice Center.
In 1987, the Summit County Commissioners dedicated the new district courtroom in Healy’s name. Kim Slaughter allowed that he was a "national treasure," and stated that Jack Healy was as sharp and chipper, with a sparkle in his eye, on his last day of service as the first time she met him. On retirement, Healy and his wife Fran moved from Breckenridge to southeast Denver to be near their families. Jack continued to enjoy reading history books, fixing things around the house, cooking, and spending time with his grandchildren. He remained energetic, mentally sharp, and full of stories until his death in January 1993 at the age of 89.
Pearls of Wisdom
Pete Michaelson, a former deputy and one of Healy’s successors as District Attorney, clearly recalls Jack venturing by the office one day when Michaelson was complaining about a judge whom he thought was being too tough on him. Healy’s retort quickly followed: "Quit whining. He’s making you a better lawyer. You ought to be thankful!" That was a familiar refrain heard by any deputy district attorney who stayed very long in the office—and he meant it! But Jack’s advice did not stop at the professional level. He was often heard asking new deputies if their spouses knew what a Breckenridge winter was like. He knew not everyone was cut out to live at 9,600 feet.
My recollections are full of similar pearls. It was not all that uncommon for me to get a call from Jack directing that he needed a deputy to cover a hearing or trial in another county—sometimes the next day. If he heard the least bit of hesitation in your voice, he would say, "Just pick up the file and go in there and do the best you can." Jack used to tell his deputies it was their job to be in court early and to sit and wait for the judge whenever he would get around to the cases on the docket.
Unlike the old adage, "Jack of all trades and master of none," Jack Healy was truly a man of multiple abilities. His talents were versatile, and his intellect was keen. Any working day with Jack would be laced with conversation of history, the arts, current events, literature, nature, and of course, the law of the state of Colorado. He was politically astute, socially conscious, and stayed current with life at all levels. Jack Healy deserves to be recognized as one to the "Greatest" for his distinguished public service and many lasting contributions to the legal profession in Colorado.
1. See Lyons, "Six of the Greatest: Ira C. Rothgerber, Jr.," 32 The Colorado Lawyer 25 (July 2003).
2. See Pierce and Tursi, "Six of the Greatest: Vasco G. Seavy, Sr.," 21 The Colorado Lawyer 1377 (July 1992).
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