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TCL > June 2001 Issue > John M. Sayre

June 2001       Vol. 30, No. 6       Page  23
Profiles of Success

John M. Sayre
by Brooke Wunnicke

Editor’s Note:
The Colorado Lawyer publishes profiles of practicing lawyers on a quarterly basis. The CBA Profiles Committee chooses Colorado Bar Association members who are nominated as outstanding lawyers by their peers. With these profiles, the CBA hopes to: promote the image of lawyers by emphasizing qualities that should be emulated; show the benefits of public service to both the lawyer who serves and the community; emphasize professionalism; provide role models for new lawyers; manifest ways of becoming successful and respected; and reward deserving lawyers for their contributions to the profession. Standards and procedures for these profiles differ from those established for the annual July issue featuring outstanding lawyers in Colorado history. These profiles of lawyers are an opportunity to highlight the qualities that are important for effective lawyering in today’s legal practice. We welcome feedback at any time. Please send your suggestions, comments, or questions about this ongoing feature to: Arlene Abady, Managing Editor, 1900 Grant St., Ninth Floor, Denver, CO 80203; (303) 824-5325; fax, (303) 830-3990; e-mail,

"Knowledge of a good bought dear by knowing ill"1 aptly describes John M. Sayre. He indeed knew ill during his service in the South Pacific during World War II. He bought his knowledge dear by enduring the horrors of war and the grievous injuries he received during that war. He has knowledge of good that he has faithfully shared with his family, friends, and the legal profession. This profile is just that and nothing more: a compression of some hard times and many good years described in a few hundred words. The article nonetheless is accurate if it depicts a lawyer whose life exemplifies "success" in its noblest connotation.

John M. Sayre


Colorado Born and Educated

John M. Sayre was born November 9, 1921, in Boulder, Colorado, and attended the Boulder public schools. In 1943, he received a B.A. in economics from the University of Colorado, graduating cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. In 1943, John entered World War II as an officer in the U.S. Navy. He attended midshipman school at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and then mine warfare school at Yorktown, Virginia. He was sent to California, where he swept the coastal waters near San Francisco for mines. He then served for several years in the South Pacific, where his job was to sweep beaches for land mines to prepare for the landing of ground troops.

At an atoll about 700 miles southwest of Guam, John’s ship was directed to sweep the waters between the islands. On the second pass between two islands, the shout was heard, "mine dead ahead, 10 yards." John points out that "you can’t stop a ship in 10 yards." The mine exploded, splitting the minesweeper in half. John was in the water for about two hours with his legs badly injured. He was sent back to the States, where he spent two years in the hospital with a medical prognosis of "doubtful" that he would ever walk again. Indeed, he didn’t walk for nearly two years and then was on crutches for another year. But walk he did and does—standing tall in the legal profession.

"The Best Decision in My Life"

This is how John Sayre describes his marriage to Jean, his wife of 58 years. They were married on August 22, 1943. Jean, of Fort Morgan, Colorado, was a nurse, having graduated from the University of Colorado Nursing School. She went to Oklahoma while John was hospitalized there. John recalls that the other patients envied him because he was the only one who was allowed to go out in the evenings. The reason, of course: his date, Jean, was a nurse.

John and Jean Sayre

John and Jean raised a family of four children: three sons, Henry, Frank, and John, and a daughter, Ann, who died in 1984, leaving two young children. Their sons’ accomplishments are a credit to both them and to their parents, holding among them two Ph.D.s, a J.D., and an MBA from schools such as Harvard, Stanford, Yale, the University of Washington, and Columbia. John and Jean Sayre have seven grandchildren.

Lawyer and Architect of
Colorado Water Law

John received his J.D. from the University of Colorado School of Law in 1948, passed the bar examination, and in 1951 bravely opened his own office in Boulder as a solo practitioner. After a stint as interim City Attorney, he served as Boulder City Attorney from 1952 to 1955. Early in his legal career, John became involved with water law, and his expertise in this area is nationally recognized. His first major water project was working with the then-Boulder City Manager, Bert Johnson, to have Boulder included within the Colorado-Big Thompson Project and in finalizing Boulder decrees to its mountain reservoirs. John handled these negotiations, spanning several years.

As City Attorney, John had the task, and challenge, of annexing the City of Boulder into the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District ("District"). In 1938, Boulder had elected to be excluded from the District because it deemed that its water supply from Arapahoe Glacier would suffice. But by 1952, Boulder changed its position as a result of its substantial post-war expansion and wanted to participate in the District. John Sayre, as Boulder City Attorney, was part of the team that negotiated with the District’s Board to obtain Boulder’s admission to the District. After much discussion and compromise, the Board’s Directors voted unanimously to allow Boulder to be included within the District.

John Sayre’s successful efforts were noticed, and in 1960, the late Boulder District Court Judge William E. Buck appointed young Sayre to serve on the Board of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. At that time, Greeley attorney Jack Clayton was the District’s attorney. By 1963, rapid population growth on Colorado’s East Slope, together with the severe drought of 1953 and 1954, erupted into a renewed problem with the allocation of water resources in Colorado. Denver, the West Slope, the District, and federal government took diverse positions and were unable to negotiate an agreement concerning water rights in the Colorado River Basin. Litigation ensued, and the parties anticipated a long and expensive trial.

Trial was set to begin on Monday, April 13, 1964, U.S. District Judge Alfred A. Arraj presiding. On Friday, April 10, 1964, the sudden and untimely death of Jack Clayton occurred, and Board member John M. Sayre was called on to represent the District—with only the weekend to prepare for a major trial! Fortunately, Judge Arraj prevailed on the parties to negotiate an agreement, and the judge entered a consent decree that the parties signed, covering three of the four disputed issues. The District appointed John as its acting attorney, which soon converted into his serving as the District’s attorney from 1964 until 1987. To this day, the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado has continuing jurisdiction of this case.

After having been a partner in the law firm of Ryan, Sayre, Martin and Brotzman for nearly sixteen years, in 1966, John Sayre accepted the invitation of Davis Graham & Stubbs to join that firm, which at that time had only twenty-two lawyers. The focus of his practice continued to be on water and municipal corporate work. His clients included not only the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, but also the Colorado Water Congress, Colorado Municipal League, former Home Savings and Loan Association, Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, and many water users in northern Colorado.

In 1972, John M. Sayre alerted the District to the action of the United States in filing water rights claims, based on the implied reserved rights doctrine, and claiming senior rights. These claims then affected two water divisions and four water districts. Moreover, the federal government contended that it was not subject to state water adjudication and, if this contention were upheld, the District’s water rights would be jeopardized. John was concerned that the Colorado-Big Thompson decree could be adversely affected in spite of the 1953 McCarran Amendment, which waived the defense of sovereignty of the United States in water adjudication in a state court. However, as a result of the litigation, it was held that the United States had to adjudicate its claims in the state court and be bound by the state law. Sayre continued to represent Colorado’s water interests in controversies with various federal bureaucracies. He urged the water community to inform the public about the need for water projects and to explain environmental impacts to the public vis-à-vis that need.

Sayre has participated in several important water cases. One case was Fellhauer v. People of the State of Colorado et al.,2 in which Colorado Supreme Court Justice Groves introduced to water lawyers that, along with vested rights, maximum utilization of state waters is required. Another was the case of Thornton v. Farmers Reservoir and Irrigation Co.,3 in which the constitutionality of Thornton’s right to condemn the Bull Canal ditch was contested, ultimately being decided in favor of the City of Thornton, although Thornton decided that to proceed with the condemnation was too expensive and dropped the case. The interesting question, which to Sayre is still undecided, was the method of valuation of the water rights, particularly those of a ditch company.

Sayre also was involved in Jacobucci v. District Court in and for Jefferson County,44 which was part of the Thornton condemnation case. In Jacobucci, the Colorado Supreme Court held that its suit against a mutual company, as trustee, was insufficient and that it was necessary to join all the shareholders of the ditch company in such a condemnation case. Thornton complied with this requirement prior to the Supreme Court decision and before the state legislature passed new legislation to limit the right to condemn water rights.

Sayre was instrumental in the creation of Colorado’s first municipal subdistrict under the Water Conservancy District Act of 1937. He also was active in the construction and financing of the Windy Gap Project by the Municipal Subdistrict of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, and served on the advisory water committee that drafted the 1969 Water Rights Adjudication and Determination Act. These are but a few of the interesting cases and activities manifesting Sayre’s interest and experience in water matters.

A Statesman in the Law

In 1989, then-President George Bush appointed John Sayre as the Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Water and Science, and he moved to Washington, D.C. In this position, John supervised the U.S. Geological Survey ("USGS"), Bureau of Reclamation, and Bureau of Mines. Sayre looks back on his appointment as Assistant Secretary as a wonderful way to end his legal work at retirement. Sayre handled the Bureau of Reclamation affairs at a time when the effort to cut the size of the Bureau’s budget for construction began to dwindle, leaving John to concentrate on the operation and maintenance of Bureau projects and the implementation of the Reclamation Reform Act of 1972 and 1987. These activities required a great deal of time and patience. Moreover, this was a period when the environmental climate was such that mining of any type was frowned upon. As a result, the U.S. Bureau of Mines was terminated, accomplished the year following Sayre’s term of service with the government.

Of the three agencies he supervised, Sayre states that the USGS was the most fascinating. All of the USGS employees were well educated; their work involved hydrology, geology, and cartography. While he was supervisor, the San Francisco earthquake occurred, and he was extremely worried at that time that the California Valley Project canals and reservoirs would be damaged. He also was concerned with the consequences of the volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Phillippines and subsequent closing of Clark Air Base. Because of this volcanic eruption, he spent a great deal of his time learning about seismic conditions throughout the world.

During his service as Assistant Secretary, John had the opportunity to travel. He visited Egypt for an African water conference and went to the North Slope of Alaska to observe the activities of British Petroleum and Atlantic Richfield in obtaining oil. The oil was subsequently delivered through the Aleyeska pipeline through and over the Brooks Range to Valdez, Alaska. He also traveled to Moscow where he participated in a conference on water and attended to other USGS matters. Sayre enjoyed public service enormously. He thought it was a lot of fun and learned a great deal, not the least of which about budget and other intricacies necessary when supervising a government agency. He hopes that he made some contribution to the American public.

On his return from Washington, John rejoined Davis Graham & Stubbs, where he is now Of Counsel. During his fifty-year career, in addition to serving as Boulder City Attorney, he served on the Boulder School Board, alumni board of the University of Colorado School of Law, advisory board of the Natural Resources Law Center, and as president of the Boulder County Bar Association in 1959. In 1999, John M. Sayre received the William Lee Knous Award from the University of Colorado School of Law.

Another of John’s interests and activities was as a member of the National Water Resources Association, comprised of water users from the seventeen western states. He served on its Board from 1980 to 1989 and as President in 1985 and 1986. He is presently a member of the Boulder County, Denver, Colorado, and American Bar Associations, and is a Life Fellow of the Colorado and American Bar Foundations.

As Others See Him

"Fair and softly goeth far," an English proverb termed "old" in 1670, well describes John M. Sayre. His friends, both within and outside the legal profession characterize John as "the fairest person I have ever known." A quiet man, he impressed by good deeds and professional achievements. A forthright man, he did not hesitate to say, "I made a mistake," or to ask himself: "How many mistakes did I make today?" Harold H. Bruff, Dean of the University of Colorado School of Law, gives this appraisal:

John Sayre embodies the example of leadership, service, and commitment to the law and his community that we encourage in all our graduates to this day. He recently received the William Lee Knous Award for Distinguished Service at the University of Colorado School of Law, the highest honor bestowed by fellow CU Law Alumni. We are proud to count him and Jean among our alumni and friends.

The eminent jurist, Gregory J. Hobbs of the Colorado Supreme Court, considers John Sayre his mentor and his friend:

John Sayre is one of Colorado’s master water lawyers. I had the opportunity to observe his work over a period of seventeen years when I was in practice. I served as his assistant counsel for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, succeeding him as Principal Counsel for that District upon his retirement. That turned out to be no retirement at all because he was called to serve as Assistant Secretary for Water and Science in the first George Bush Administration.

John is one of the finest people I know. In practice, he was always cordial, kind, and totally dedicated to the best interest of his clients and to the public interest. He shared his work with young lawyers and was proud of their achievements. Leaders at all levels—local, state, and national—sought out his counsel. He always thought about how an agreement might be made to bring an end to conflict. But when it came to tough litigation he did not shy away. He appeared as counsel in some of Colorado’s most important water cases.

Justice Hobbs ends his tribute to a man who has honored our profession by his service to family, community, every level of government, and the legal profession, with this couplet:

Sayre, now there’s a very good man. The sayers of the best can name


1. Milton, Paradise Lost (Nonesuch Press, 1926), Book IV at 95.

2. 447 P.2d 986 (Colo. 1968).

3. 575 P.2d 382 (Colo. 1978).

4. 541 P.2d 667 (Colo. 1975).

Brooke Wunnicke, Denver, is Of Counsel with Hall & Evans LLC and is a member of The Colorado Lawyer Profiles Committee

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