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TCL > July 2012 Issue > William P. Cantwell (1921–2003)

July 2012       Vol. 41, No. 7       Page  35
Six of the Greatest

William P. Cantwell (1921–2003)
by Susan R. Harris, David Thomas, III

About the Authors

Susan R. Harris is a trusts and estates lawyer in private practice in the Denver Tech Center who just realized, to her astonishment, that she is entering her thirtieth year of practice! She thanks the Cantwell family for their valuable insight and contributions to this article. David Thomas III is an estate planning lawyer who received wonderful mentoring guidance from Bill Cantwell. The guidance began immediately when Dave started working at Sherman & Howard in 1975.

Bill was one of the most creative and sensitive attorneys this law firm has ever had the benefit of. He set marvelous standards for ethics.

—Douglas M. Cain
Partner, Sherman & Howard

My father taught us from an early age about the importance of giving back. He believed that working to better our community and our planet was essential to living a successful and happy life.

—Rebecca Cantwell
Bill Cantwell’s daughter

Bill Cantwell was not only a nationally renowned attorney in his field, but also an amazing teacher and mentor. So much that I learned in the practice of law—not only estate planning and administration, but also about the fine art of legal writing, communicating and dealing fairly with clients and opposing counsel, and listening to all—came from him.

—Susan R. Harris
Susan R. Harris & Associates
Profile author

Bill was a nationally renowned tax and estate lawyer. I was a rookie divorce lawyer. Yet, from underneath those green-tinted, poker-playing shades, he quietly and gently mentored me more than anyone about jurisprudence and about humanity in the practice of law.

—William A. Hunnicutt
Partner, Hunnicutt & Appelman



William Patterson Cantwell was born in Saranac Lake, New York, on December 2, 1921. Bill received his undergraduate degree from Williams College in 1942 and his law degree from Yale Law School in 1948.

Bill served in the Army during World War II as a tank company commander—Third Armored Division. As a young lieutenant, Bill personally saw the famous allied generals who made history fighting the Battle of the Bulge—Patton, Montgomery, Bradley, and Major General Maurice Rose (a Denver native for whom Rose Hospital is named). In Belgium, Bill’s tank was hit and destroyed by an anti-tank rocket; Bill was the only survivor. He suffered leg injuries and hearing loss in combat and he was twice decorated during his tour of duty. Years later, he kept in his office a piece of the shrapnel extracted from his leg. It was encased in Lucite and engraved with the comment "gift to WPC from Wehrmacht."

Bill Cantwell, approximately 2 years old, Saranac Lake.   Childhood in Saranac Lake.   High school graduate, Saranac Lake.
  A young WWII Lieutenant, European Theatre, circa 1943.

In 1945, in Lake Placid, New York, Bill met Hendrika Bestebreurtje, a citizen of the Netherlands who immigrated with her family to New York at age 15. Bill often said she was the best skier and the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Bill and Hendrika were married in 1947. It was a match not only in personal chemistry but also in professional accomplishment. Hendrika graduated from the University of Rochester Medical School and worked for almost three decades as a pediatrician for the City and County of Denver, devoted to the diagnosis and treatment of abused and neglected children. A frequent lecturer and author of numerous articles, Dr. Cantwell won international recognition as an indefatigable advocate for improved care and protection of children and families.

Bill practiced law for several years in the state of New York. In 1953, he and Hendrika moved to Denver, in part because of their love of skiing and the year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure. Bill spent the remainder of his career in Denver, first at Holland & Hart and then at Sherman & Howard. Wherever he practiced, he gathered a following of young lawyers, paralegals, and staff who loved him for his intellect, wisdom, and compassion.

Bill and Hendrika raised three children: Peter, Rebecca, and Christopher. The couple shared their love of skiing, hiking, camping, and classical music with their children and their grandchildren.

Longtime friend Jim McFee (center), with Hendrika and Bill, 1949, Mt. Tremblant, Canada.   Purgatory, circa 1990. Bill and Hendrika were passionate skiers throughout their lives.

Professional Leadership

Bill had a remarkable career as a leader and innovator in the Colorado bar. He served as President of the Denver Bar Association (DBA) in 1962–63 and of the Colorado Bar Association (CBA) in 1971–72. As CBA President, Bill was instrumental in the establishment of The Colorado Lawyer as the CBA’s official publication, observing in the Annual Report of the President that

at the beginning of my year, it seemed to me that we ought to ask ourselves whether or not the money we were spending on printing various items could be reorganized and spent in a way that would have somewhat more utility to our membership. Our Publications Committee has taken the ball and run with it, and the advent of The Colorado Lawyer is a result of their efforts. It will bring together in one place functions formerly served by our advanced sheets, our Newsletter, our Annual Report, and various special publications from time to time. Its editor, Libby Imig, is intent on making it a product of excellence and the signs of her activity indicate she will succeed.1

In these leadership roles, Bill also was instrumental in the establishment of the "Orange Book,"2 a valuable resource and drafting guide for Colorado estate planning lawyers.

On the national level, Bill was the head of the American Bar Association Section for Real Property, Probate & Trust Law in 1974 and the President of the American College of Probate Counsel, now known as the American College of Trusts and Estate Counsel (ACTEC), in 1975–76. As ACTEC President, Bill helped establish the ACTEC tradition of Trautman Lectures, an annual lecture given at the national ACTEC convention by the most distinguished scholars in the trusts and estates field. He also helped change the format of the ACTEC annual convention from a plenary session to break-out groups for discussion of substantive matters. Reflecting on his ACTEC presidency, Bill stated, "I believe that was the genesis of the format that is now being followed, with a substantial multiplication of activities and very intensive and competent presentations." During his ACTEC presidency, Bill, along with Nick Shriver, spearheaded the creation of Probate Notes, which continues to publish under the title of ACTEC Law Journal.3

Writings and Legislation

Bill also made lasting contributions to the profession as an intellect and as an author. Most of his articles focused on estate planning. Among them were "The Effects of State Lines on Estate Planning," published in Trusts and Estates in 1960,4 and "Estate Planning for Playmates, Grandmothers and Other Sinners," published in the Family Advocate in 1980.5

Bill was a pioneer and outspoken advocate with respect to women’s rights, not only in the political and social sphere, but also in the arena of property law and jurisprudence. He was the principal draftsman of the Uniform Marital Property Act (UMPA), a model law promoting the rights of women in the context of wills and divorce settlements. UMPA did not pass in Colorado (although it did clear one chamber), but it was adopted in Wisconsin.

Teacher and Mentor

While at Sherman & Howard, Bill instructed, admonished, encouraged, and mentored lawyers and paralegals, whether they directly worked for him or not; this was a natural component of Bill’s daily work regimen. He was rightfully proud of having trained and mentored many attorneys—both men and women—who went on to enjoy professional success, including many paralegals whom he encouraged to apply to law school. In many ways, he instructed by example. Colleague Dave Thomas observed that "Bill was a person of uncommon human sensitivity and a wonderful listener. Those qualities made him splendidly suited to estate planning and family counseling."

Bill’s instruction to young professionals took the form of longer memos (one he titled "Cantwell’s Whims and Idiosyncrasies") and quick notes:

> There are two ways to create and sustain superior performance over the long haul. First: Take exceptional care of your customers via superior service and superior quality. Second: Constantly innovate. That’s it.

> Please don’t use the word "prioritize" on any work of mine or use it orally with any clients of mine or others associated with my client matters.

> Superior job. As usual. Very professional! You’ve come a long way, baby.

> See me for my "Roman Numeral Hate Lecture"!

Responding to a young colleague’s memo that asked what more she could do to help, Bill replied: "Continue to do superb work for thirty-five more years."

Chuck Turner, CBA Executive Director, observed at Bill’s memorial services that he was a "take-charge kind of person who worked tremendously hard and was very meticulous." This energy and concern was very much a part of Bill’s mentoring.

Bill’s role in the office ranged from intellectual leader to cheerleader to teacher to curmudgeon (his term), and staff generally were familiar with his unique characteristics. For example, Bill often worked in an eye-shade. Once a month, there was a sign posted on his door that read: "I Hate Billing." He listened to classical music while he worked. Bill’s office was always immaculate and efficiently designed. When he wanted to explain complex estate planning or tax concepts, he would open a cherry wood wall cabinet, revealing a whiteboard, and draw intricate diagrams with multicolored felt pens. He had literally hundreds of notebooks full of articles on various estate planning topics, and some of the Dyno-Labelmaker titles on the bindings reflected his feelings on the topic. Suzy Harris remembers one notebook entitled "The 7872 Horror Story," which was a reference to a particularly arcane and troublesome section of the Internal Revenue Code.

Bill was as impeccable about his appearance as he was about his office. He preferred bow ties—perfectly done and straight—to the conventional kind, and often joked that bow ties don’t get soup stains on them. With his snow white hair and deep blue eyes, he was an impressive figure.

Bill and Hendrika in Scotland with daughter Rebecca, 1984.   Australia, 1998.   Cape Horn, 2001.

Later Years

Reflecting a career of prodigious contribution to the profession, Bill received the DBA Award of Merit and the William W. Treat Award for Excellence by the National College of Probate Judges. He also was bestowed honorary membership in the Order of the Coif from the University of Colorado School of Law. He retired from the practice of law in 1991 and moved with Hendrika to Driggs, Idaho, where they befriended the farming community and continued to hike and ski. Leader, innovator, intellect, mentoring teacher, and wonderful friend, Bill died on June 18, 2003, at age 81.

Bill’s 80th birthday was celebrated in Cape Horn, South America.


1. Cantwell, "Annual Report of the President," 1 The Colorado Lawyer 33 (Jan. 1972).

2. The sixth edition of Colorado Estate Planning Handbook, also known as the "Orange Book," was published in November 2011 and is available for purchase from CBA-CLE at

3. See

4. Cantwell, "Effects of State Lines On Estate Planning,"99 Trusts and Estates 922 (1960).

5. Cantwell, "Estate Planning for Playmates, Grandmothers, and Other Sinners," Family Advocate 12 (Winter 1980).

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