The Colorado Lawyer
Vol. 41, No. 7 [Page 39]
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Six of the Greatest
Richard Downing (1898–1962)
by Warwick (Wick) Downing
About the Author
Wick Downing, son of Richard Downing, is a former District Attorney for the Twenty-Second Judicial District in Colorado and a former Assistant U.S. Attorney for Colorado. He is the author of several novels.
Richard Downing was born in Denver on August 20, 1898. His mother, whose maiden name was Emma Aimee Leet, was the daughter of a well-known Denver journalist of that day, John E. Leet, who also was a real estate developer. Denver’s Leetsdale Drive is named after Emma’s father. Richard’s father was Warwick Downing, a prominent Denver lawyer who was profiled in The Colorado Lawyer’s "Six of the Greatest" feature nearly thirty years ago.1
In 1900, the Downing family moved to 1033 Niagara Street, in Montclair, which at that time was a separate municipality five miles from the state capitol. Warwick—a man of boundless energy—became the Mayor of Montclair and the town’s attorney. Both positions were phased out when Montclair was annexed to Denver in 1902. Richard lived at the same address until his death on October 13, 1962, which occurred shortly after his 64th birthday.
The Montclair Richard grew up in was dominated by Jarvis Hall, a military school for young men; its chapel, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church; Colorado Women’s College; the Stanley School, subsequently Montclair Public School; and Richthofen’s Castle, which had been built by Baron Walter von Richthofen in the 1880s.2 Richard had his own horse, although his younger sister, Virginia, was more inclined to ride it than he was.3
Despite growing up in the country, with a horse and room to roam, Richard did not have an idyllic childhood. He contracted rheumatic fever as a boy and developed a heart condition, which meant he never enjoyed good health. While a young lawyer, he engaged in a lifestyle that made his condition worse: he smoked two packs of unfiltered Camel cigarettes a day and drank far more than was good for him. During Prohibition, he made "moonshine" for himself and his friends. Although this made him immensely popular with other young lawyers, it didn’t serve his health particularly well.
Because of his heart condition as a youngster, Richard was not able to attend public schools. As a consequence, he enjoyed a rather unique primary and secondary education. He attended classes at Colorado Women’s College and was tutored by their teaching staff.
In those early years, Richard constantly was reminded of his heritage—his mother had a street named after her family and his father was becoming one of Denver’s most influential lawyers. His family’s sterling reputation was compromised during his teen years, however, when his eminently respectable parents were divorced. Suddenly, their private lives were publicly blared throughout Denver by screaming headlines and front-page stories in The Denver Post. That experience defined him. His primary duty became clear: take care of his mother first, and then his father. He would protect them both from criticism and take responsibility for their well-being.
He attended the University of Colorado from 1916 through the school year of 1920, and then transferred to the University of Denver, where he earned a bachelor of laws degree in June 1921. Later that year, Richard joined his father’s law practice.
Practicing on Seventeenth Street
From Richard’s point of view, the father/son working relationship was not an easy one. Their rooms were across the hallway from one another in a six-room suite on the tenth floor of the Equitable Building on Seventeenth Street in Denver. (Later, they moved to the eighth floor.) Warwick frequently summoned Richard by yelling, "Sonny, get in here!" It did not matter whether Richard was in a conference with a client, or behind a barricade of books, immersed in work of his own. Richard would drop everything to see what his father wanted. His role as the dutiful son endured throughout his life.
At that time, Seventeenth Street teemed with Denver’s leading businessmen, bankers, and lawyers—all of whom knew one another. Walking along the sidewalks of Seventeenth Street, dressed in suits and ties, most of them wearing hats, they greeted the fellow members of their club with great collegiality. However, under that cordial surface—especially after the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan—personal and political differences roiled and fought, with occasional eruptions. It was not unlike the climate of today.
In appearance, the Seventeenth Street of the 1920s remained very much the same throughout Richard’s lifetime. The Daniels and Fisher Tower stood at the west end, and the Brown Palace Hotel marked the east end. The two Denver landmarks stood a little taller than the buildings in between—the Albany Hotel, the Colorado National Bank Building, the Equitable Building, and Denver Dry Goods—which meant they could be seen from anywhere in the downtown area. All of these buildings were constructed out of solid, substantial stone.
Richard’s greatness grew out of the soil on which those solid structures were erected. Known for more than his devotion to his clients’ causes, he was always an "easy touch," lending time and money to anyone down on his or her luck. He was that lawyer fellow with a big heart—someone who not only could see the people on the other side of an issue, but someone who also could feel their pain. Throughout his life, younger lawyers especially benefited from his thoughtful, sympathetic ear and advice. Judge Harry S. (Pete) Silverstein, former Chief Justice of the Colorado Court of Appeals, was one of them, as was Judge Don Bowman of the Denver District Court.
Richard thought in the manner of a good lawyer of that day and age. His ability to pay attention to the tiniest of details—coupled with his great imagination—enabled him to consider and examine every contingency. He also could communicate his ideas with great precision and clarity. If he drew up a contract, the parties could rely on it to cover all the bases. Lawyers didn’t use forms as much then. Tasks such as drawing up a contract or a will, running a chain of title, and drawing up a trust agreement were the bread and butter of the legal practice. These also were tasks that took a great deal of time. Every "whereas" was there for a reason—to clarify and separate assertions. Richard knew where they belonged and when to insert them. The contracts he drew up rarely resulted in litigation or disagreement, and if he ran a chain of title, it could be relied on. In that way, he was a lawyer’s lawyer.
Ever the Dutiful Son
For all his talent, Richard did not have the vigor of his father. He never complained, but he was tired all the time. Warwick frequently traveled and would leave Richard with written instructions—three to five pages, single-spaced—outlining what was expected of Richard in his father’s absence. The instructions did not make room for Richard’s clients; they pertained only to the business dealings of his father, which were many.
Richard was a perfectionist, unable to do anything halfway, so he rarely worked his way through his father’s list. This resulted in more impatient calls: "Sonny, get in here!" At the office, Warwick could never understand why Richard would pore over a contract at such great length. Why not just write the damn thing?
Perhaps Warwick merely was attempting to train Richard, as he had done when his son was a child. Back then, Warwick had tried to cure Richard of his coughing by slapping him; every time Richard would cough, Warwick would hit him with an open hand. He was following the science of the day. Pavlov had showed that such tactics worked with dogs, so Warwick tried them out on Richard. Of course, Richard continued to cough.
Still, Richard remained with his father; it was his duty. He also was duty-bound to his mother, who lived with Richard and his family at 1033 Niagara Street for much of her life. Richard made sure that she received her alimony payments on time and had a roof over her head. She died at 1033 Niagara Street, two years before Richard passed away.
Richard also adopted a Leet family name as his own—Edmund—even though his parents had not given him a middle name. His college transcripts and his marriage certificate refer to him as "Richard E." In early correspondence, he is referred to as "Richard Edmund Downing." Certainly, he adopted "Edmund" to let his father know his primary allegiance was to his mother.
Marriage and Politics
As a young lawyer, Richard frequently returned to the University of Colorado as an alumnus. On one such visit, he met Dorothy Mae Simpson. She was from Ft. Morgan, the home of Glen Miller. Her half-sister, Kay, had been engaged to Glen, but rejected him for someone with better prospects—Arthur Hiner—who later would own a bank.
Dorothy did not reject Richard, and they were married in Denver on October 24, 1924. Eleven days later, Richard lost his first bid for public office as a Colorado State Senator from Denver. At that time, the Ku Klux Klan was a powerful force in the courts and in politics in Denver. Richard was outspoken in his opposition to the Klan, a factor that contributed to his defeat. Letters of condolence to him asserted that his opponent had the Klan’s endorsement.
Richard also was an outspoken Democrat. When he ran for Denver City Council against Republican Clarence Stafford, he lost. In 1944, as the Democratic nominee for Attorney General of Colorado, he lost again—this time to H. Lawrence Hinkley.
In 1924, Richard grossed $4,260 in his law practice ($1,090 for the "grunt work" he performed for his father, and the balance from other sources). That was a good sum of money for a 26-year-old lawyer with only two years’ legal experience. His circle of friends included Fred Warren, a star reporter for The Denver Post; Captain Ralph Bitler, who had been in General John Pershing’s cavalry during the so-called Pancho Villa expedition into New Mexico in 1916; and Colonel Robert Black, the commanding officer at Fitzimons Army Hospital in Aurora. Bitler, an avid horseman, later started the Hottentot Riding Academy in Denver and often stabled his horses at a mountain property on North Turkey Creek Road that Richard and Fred Warren had acquired in 1929. Up front, the property served as a stable for horses, and behind the scenes, the friends operated a distillery there.
A large army tent, courtesy of Colonel Black, graced the property and provided a place for Richard’s children to sleep. Richard and Dorothy had four children: Ann, Dick, Wick, and Chuck.4
True Measure of a Man
Although an active member of the Denver Bar Association, the Colorado Bar Association, and the American Bar Association, Richard did not pursue offices in any of these organizations. Much of his time was devoted to the Big Brothers organization—not as an officer of the organization, but as an actual big brother. He mentored at least two boys, perhaps to give them the kind of childhood his heart condition had deprived him of.
Richard’s name frequently appeared on appellate briefs in both the federal and state courts, usually as the lawyer for an oil or mining company, and in one case, as the lawyer for the Old Timer’s Baseball Association. His clients prevailed much of the time, but certainly not all of the time.
If legal accomplishment were the only criteria for inclusion as an "Outstanding Lawyer in Colorado History," then Richard doesn’t belong. But if legal heart is in part a measure, then Richard belongs near the top. He had an ability to bring opposing forces together, an ability to heal the rifts that resulted in lawsuits. The law was never a business to him; it was always a profession, and "billable hours" were not a consideration. Many of the collisions that Warwick engineered needed Richard to clean up the debris. This ability defined him, along with the sense of responsibility he acquired during his parents’ divorce. That sense of responsibility spread out, covering his children, his "little brothers," and his vast number of friends. He cared for others deeply, and this attitude infected all who knew him and were touched by him. His greatness grew out of his pain.
One Final Tribute
Perhaps the greatest tribute paid to Richard was one given to him after he died. Warwick attended the funeral of his son. An old man of 85, he sat alone in a church pew at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. The church was packed—standing-room only—filled with people and their memories and tears.
The old man broke apart. That tough old lawyer, whose son had lived for him, realized what he had lost. Perhaps for the one and only time in his life, Warwick bawled like a baby.
1. Downing, Jr.,"Six of the Greatest: A Tribute to Outstanding Lawyers in Colorado History," 14 The Colorado Lawyer 1165 (July 1985).
2. See Noel and Hansen, The Montclair Neighborhood (Historic Denver, Inc., 1999).
3. Dr. Virginia Downing, known as "Duchess" to her associates in cancer research at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, later became Director of Cancer Services at the American Medical Center in Denver.
4. Ann was married to Richard Schmidt; she died on February 10, 2012. (A profile of Richard Schmidt is available at McClearn, "Oral History: Richard Marten Schmidt, Jr.," 27 The Colorado Lawyer 21 (Jan. 1998).) Dick Downing, a retired lawyer, lives in Denver. Chuck Downing, who was a lawyer in California, died in 2002.
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