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TCL > July 2012 Issue > Kenneth Norman Kripke (1920–2002)

The Colorado Lawyer
July 2012
Vol. 41, No. 7 [Page  49]

© 2012 The Colorado Lawyer and Colorado Bar Association. All Rights Reserved.

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Six of the Greatest

Kenneth Norman Kripke (1920–2002)
by William A. Trine

About the Author

William A. Trine is a Past President of the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association and the first recipient of its Kenneth Norman Kripke Lifetime Achievement Award. He was a close personal friend of Norm Kripke for forty-one years. He still practices as a trial lawyer in Boulder at age 78.


 
   

Norm Kripke’s illustrious career as a fighter for society’s underdogs and disadvantaged started in Denver in 1948 after he graduated from the University of Colorado Law School. In the years that followed, his life was devoted to assisting those in need and seeking justice for the poor, the injured, the forgotten, the voiceless, and the damned. During the McCarthy era, he helped defend those unjustly accused of being communists. In the 1960s, he was actively involved in the civil rights movement, became a member of the National Lawyer’s Constitutional Defense Committee, and traveled to the South to participate in the registration drive of African American voters. He remained committed to civil rights and later became outspoken against the war in Vietnam, and he served as a delegate to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Norm actively opposed discrimination of every kind. He was a man of action, not just words. He was the mentor of many highly successful trial lawyers. He is survived by his wife, Derril, whom he cherished for fifty-six years, and he lives in the memories of many in the profession who survive his laudable legal career and life. This is his story.

The Early Years

Norm Kripke’s grandfather, a Russian Jew, immigrated to America to escape persecution. Ultimately, he settled in Toledo, Ohio, where he went into merchandising from a pushcart in the streets. Living the American dream, Norm’s father, Maurice, owned and operated a clothing store. Kenneth Norman was Maurice’s second son, born in Toledo on February 16, 1920.

Norm loved school and was an excellent student. His dream was to become an English literature professor. Despite the economic depression and his family’s strained financial circumstances, he enrolled at Ohio State University, determined to work his way through four years of college. He lived in a dormitory that was housed in the football stadium, just down the hall from track and field wonder Jesse Owens. He attended Ohio State from 1937 to 1941 and became a lifelong Buckeye fan.

In the spring of 1941, Norm left college to volunteer for the Army Air Force. Recognizing his intellectual prowess, the Army trained him to be a crypto-graphic security officer. He was assigned to Brazil, and in true Catch 221 fashion, the Army gave him a crash course in Spanish. Once in Brazil, his intensive Spanish training was not very helpful, because Brazilians mainly spoke Portuguese. Following the stint in Brazil, he served in British West Africa, Arabia, and Yemen. His Army buddies nicknamed him "Crypto Krip," a title he relished. His job was to decrypt Nazi messages, and he became fully aware of what the Nazis were doing to their victims and the absolute necessity of defeating them. By the end of his service, he had earned the rank of Captain.

 
In his youth, Norm cut a fine figure as a Boy Scout, as seen here at the Troopennial, Flying Eagle Patrol, 1932.          Norm’s job decrypting Nazi messages earned him the nickname "Crypto Krip," which he relished. He’s pictured here at Baer Field, 1942.
     

The Post-War Years

After the war, while Norm was hospitalized in an Air Force hospital, the wife of the airman in the next room came to visit, accompanied by her sister Derril. This was the first time Norm and Derril met. Within a few months, they were married.

Derril and Norm Kripke, pictured here at their wedding in 1945.
 

In 1946, Norm and Derril moved to Colorado. The G.I. Bill provided Norm’s ticket to the University of Colorado Law School. To help make ends meet, he and Derril managed a laundromat, and Norm drove a cab at night. As a team, he wrote, she mimeographed, and they sold "canned briefs" to the other law students.

In the Throes of Politics

They also had an early introduction to politics. While in school in Boulder, they became active in the "Henry Wallace for President" movement and helped the group plan a concert for Wallace in 1948. At the concert, Norm sat next to Paul Robeson, an African American civil rights activist who achieved fame as an actor and singer.2 Norm later described his impressions of Robeson:

I remember Mr. Robeson’s deep and resonant rendition of "Go Down Moses," "Water Boy," and "Los Quatros Generales." I must confess that Mr. Robeson’s empathy for my people, the Jewish people, was a factor in my admiration for him. He saw the struggle of Blacks and Jews, along with all other minority groups, as one.

It is not surprising that Norm Kripke would be a strong supporter of Henry Wallace for President in 1948. Wallace was elected Vice President on the 1940 Democratic ticket with President Franklin D. Roosevelt; however, the Democratic Party chose Harry S. Truman as Roosevelt’s running mate at the 1944 Democratic Convention.

Wallace then made an unsuccessful run for President as a Progressive Party candidate in 1948, on a platform that advocated an end to segregation, full voting rights to blacks, universal governmental health insurance, friendly relations with the Soviet Union, and an end to the Cold War. During the campaign, Wallace was vilified for refusing to appear before segregated audiences or to eat or stay in segregated establishments. The Wallace platform described everything that Norm Kripke also advocated and believed in. All of these platform items eventually came to fruition (except governmental health insurance, which remains a divisive issue in the United States today).

The Young Lawyer

Following graduation and admission to the bar in 1948, Norm’s first office was a seldom-used public phone booth near the Denver District Court, where he could be contacted and would return calls to his clients. As a young sole practitioner, he took whatever cases came his way. At first, he primarily represented defendants in criminal cases. The legacy of that early political experience helped to inspire his commitment to civil liberties and civil rights.

Personal Injury Practice

Norm’s practice in the 1950s soon evolved into the specialty of personal injury law. This occurred at a time when there were no trial lawyers in Colorado who limited their practice exclusively to representing plaintiffs in personal injury cases. Such cases usually were filed by general practitioners. With the paucity of cases filed, there also were very few insurance defense law firms in the Denver area. Those that existed generally comprised just two or three lawyers.3

Norm’s reputation as a trial lawyer began to grow, and he formed a partnership with Bob McLean, who later became a Denver District Court judge. However, the law in Colorado in the 1950s and 1960s did not favor a plaintiff’s personal injury practice, and it was a struggle to succeed.

In those early years, Colorado had a $25,000 cap on wrongful death damages, which were further limited by a "net pecuniary loss" restriction, and noneconomic damages were not permitted. Thus, the death of a small child or elderly person resulted in no damages except funeral expenses. Punitive damages were not allowed in a death case. Contributory negligence was a complete defense in actions asserting negligence. Under the "guest statute," a nonpaying passenger could not recover damages from the driver of a vehicle absent proof the driver was guilty of willful and wanton conduct. Negligence had to be established in product liability cases, and "strict liability" was not recognized. Mental anguish damages were not permitted in the absence of physical injury. Guests in a home could not bring suit against the construction company for injuries resulting from defective construction, because the guests were not "in privity" with the contractor. Further, there were no class actions, and lawsuits against physicians and other professionals were in their infancy. Moreover, the common law immunities all applied: governmental, charitable, and intra-family.4

Advocating for Law Reform Through Appeals

When faced with these harsh laws, which often prevented victims of wrongful conduct from seeking compensation, Norm recognized that law reform was necessary and could be accomplished through the appellate process. He also recognized that general practitioners who only occasionally handled a personal injury case were at a disadvantage when faced with experienced opposing counsel who specialized in defending those cases.

Norm addressed both problems, and his success in doing so became his legacy. During his career, he established an exemplary record of law reform through the appellate process and in educating the Colorado Legislature.

In 1953, he and Bob McLean became founders of a trial lawyer organization, the Colorado Association of Claimants Compensation Attorneys (CACCA). This organization served as a foundation for uniting, educating, and preparing trial lawyers for their courtroom battles with the law firms representing the insurance industry. I met Norm when I became a CACCA member in 1961; he was serving as CACCA President at the time. We immediately bonded and became close, lifelong friends.

Leadership in Trial Lawyer Organizations

CACCA was organized as an affiliate of the National Association of Claimants Compensation Attorneys (NACCA). Norm became an active member of NACCA in the late-1940s and participated in the first organized efforts to educate plaintiffs’ trial lawyers. He taught and lectured in the original NACCA "traveling circus," which comprised the great stalwarts of that era who traveled to every region of the country. When NACCA became the American Trial Lawyers Association5 (ATLA) in the 1960s, CACCA became the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association (CTLA).

Norm was largely responsible for the birth and early development of CTLA. He wrote for the first editions of its publication, Trial Talk; he helped plan CTLA’s first annual state convention; and he generally supervised the organization’s early activities. He remained active in CTLA until his retirement from the practice of law in 1995.

When ATLA was created, Norm served on its national board of directors, representing the six states of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. He was the local chair of the ATLA national convention when it was held in Denver in 1962 and again in 1969.

Norm was a leader in national and state legal communities. He chaired the Colorado Bar Association’s (CBA) Litigation Committee Section, was President of the Western Trial Lawyers Association, and was President of the Public Justice Foundation of Colorado. He also was a Fellow of the American Society of Barristers and the Roscoe-Pound American Trial Lawyers Foundation, and he served on the Colorado Supreme Court Rules Committee for fifteen years. He was a founder of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a public interest law firm in Washington, DC, and served on its board for eleven years. Above all, though, Norm Kripke’s character and personhood were best portrayed by his unrelenting advocacy for civil liberties and civil rights.

Civil Liberties and Civil Rights

Norm fought anti-Semitism through his long association with and ardent support of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), where he served as Chair of the Mountain States Region and Chair of the ADL Civil Rights Committee. He also served as a member of Denver’s Public Safety Review Commission, which was responsible for reviewing charges of police misconduct—misconduct that too often resulted in the violation of civil rights or liberties. When he retired and moved to San Diego in 1995, he became a member of the San Diego Citizens’ Review Board on Police Practices, providing oversight of police activities there.

Given Norm’s Jewish heritage, it is not surprising that he fought anti-Semitism, but that alone does not describe the essence of the man who is better defined by his overall passionate opposition to discrimination of every kind—racial, ethnic, gender, age, and religious. Consequently, it is not surprising that he became a member of the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee when it was established by the national American Civil Liberties Union in 1964 to support civil rights activities in the South, starting with Freedom Summer.6 Committee members handled important civil rights cases and arrests arising out of school integration and black voter registration activities. During the summer of 1965, Norm traveled to rural Louisiana, helping black citizens register to vote and providing advice and legal assistance to civil rights organizations in that state. In Shreveport, he stood on a sidewalk and watched while his client, a black youth, entered a junior high school escorted by U.S. Marshals—the first black student to enter that school.

Norm’s passion to serve those in need made him comfortable in the Democratic Party, where he became a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. He not only protested what he saw as an immoral conflict, but also actively worked against it as a delegate to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. After the Chicago Seven Trial in 1969–70, which involved seven activists accused of conspiring to incite a riot during the convention, Norm urged me as CTLA President to invite defense counsel, William Kunstler, to travel to Denver and speak to the membership about that trial. The invitation was accepted, and then had to be revoked when some CTLA members rebelled. Norm was dismayed and Kunstler was not happy. The trial itself became a historic event and the subject of widespread publicity.7

Mentor and Teacher

When Norm’s partner, Bob McLean, became a judge in the early 1960s, Norm formed a partnership with Dan Hoffman. The firm later became Kripke, Hoffman, and Friedman. In 1967, the third named partner, Charles Friedman, moved to Texas. He later became a trial judge there. When Jim Carrigan joined the firm, the firm became Kripke, Hoffman, and Carrigan.8 Jim Carrigan has described Norm’s mentorship and development of the trial lawyers in his office as

a stream of partners and associates who, under Norm’s tutelage, became accomplished, highly successful trial lawyers. Among them were the late Bob Dufty, Jerry McDermott, Don Medsker, Doug Bragg, Jim Bailey, John Salmon, and Joe Epstein. Later, Judge Scott Lawrence and Jim Leventhal practiced with and learned from Norm. Other outstanding trial lawyers who began their careers in our offices included Dennis Hartley and the late Penfield Tate, Jr. Norm was a model for all as an honest, dedicated, industrious, and ethical professional.9

One of those successful trial lawyers, Jim Leventhal, would later describe that mentorship in a letter to Derril Kripke:

There is no way for me to adequately express how much I learned from Norm; not only about how to practice personal injury law from a technical standpoint, but also the personal and professional commitment that is needed to fulfill the trust that our clients have placed in us to appropriately represent them. Norm Kripke taught me that the word "adequate" should never be used to describe our representation. His goal was perfection; he taught me to strive toward perfection in every case, in every deposition, and in every legal document we filed. Derril, I will always attribute a large portion of being able to successfully represent my clients to Norm.

Norm also became a mentor to and teacher of countless lawyers in his presentations at CBA- and CTLA-sponsored programs, as well as through his editorship of CTLA’s Trial Talk.

Norm and Derril—pictured here at a surprise party in Norm’s honor celebrating fifty years of law practice—were married for fifty-six years.
 

The Final Years

 
Norm was a big Denver Broncos fan.  
   

When Norm retired in 1995 at age 75, he and Derril moved to San Diego. Denver Mayor Wellington Webb officially proclaimed the day of his retirement as "Kenneth Norm Kripke" day in the City and County of Denver. In 1996, CTLA established the Kenneth Norman Kripke Lifetime Achievement Award, which is presented every year to a trial lawyer whose career has exemplified the skills, ethics, and dedication embodied in the CTLA mission statement. To date, there have been seventeen recipients of the award.

When Norm was diagnosed with cancer, he fought valiantly until he realized there was no hope. In the fall of 2001, Norm and Derril were discussing what Norm would want in a memorial service or celebration of his life after he died. As they discussed the details, Norm could not envision having a memorial service in his absence. He decided he would rather have a gathering of friends in Denver during his lifetime so that he could be present. Those arrangements were made. When my wife, Jeni, and I entered the room with other arriving guests, we were handed a paper signed by Norm. It read as follows:

WHY ARE WE ALL HERE?

When the doctors told me that the cancer will get me within a very few months, Derril and I discussed the future and included a memorial service in Denver in our plans. But, the more we thought about it, the more sterile the prospect became.

Why not see our old friends again? Instead of a memorial service, let’s enjoy the occasion. Let’s celebrate the many years we spent with our good friends in Denver. Let’s celebrate these friendships and the support our friends have given us for so many years. Let’s have high tea.

Many of you have wondered what we are celebrating. That’s easy to answer. We are celebrating you! And, for me, I’m also celebrating nearly 56 years of marriage to my wonderful sweetheart, my Derril.

We love you all.

Norm

Norm was too weak to circulate among those present, but each of us had an opportunity to sit with him and to reflect on our friendship and life together. For some, it was a chance to say goodbye.

Norm was admitted to the hospice center near his home in California, where he chose to discontinue life-sustaining modalities. When I called, Derril held the phone to his ear. I thanked him for being my friend and mentor. Again, I told him that I loved him and would never forget him. Cancer had robbed him of his voice, and he gestured to Derril for the pencil and pad to scribble a note—but he was too feeble to do so. He didn’t have to, though; I knew what the note would say. Norm left us on June 19, 2002.

Norm and Derril Kripke had enjoyed a very close, loving, and mutually supportive marriage for fifty-six years.10 They have two daughters, three grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.11

Following Norm’s death, Derril established the Kenneth Norman Kripke and Derril K. Kripke Endowed Scholarship Fund at the University of Colorado Law School in honor of Norm’s memory. The stated purpose of the endowment is "to provide scholarship assistance to law students who are dedicated to following the example of Norm Kripke by serving each client’s cause with passion, while upholding the strictest ethical standards."

Norm lives on in the memories of those he mentored. His dedication to seeking justice exists in the organizations he helped found, in the laws he helped change through the appellate process, and in the many people whose lives were changed as a result of his successful advocacy on their behalf as one of Colorado’s legendary trial lawyers.

Notes

1. Catch 22, a novel by Joseph Heller (Simon & Schuster, 1961).

2. Paul Robeson (April 9, 1898–January 23, 1976) was a multilingual American actor, athlete, concert singer, writer, Spingam Medal winner, and Lenin Peace Prize laureate. He found fame as a singer with a fine bass-baritone voice—one of the few true basses in American music. His top-selling album, Songs for Free Men, is still widely acclaimed.

3. Insurance defense firms in the 1950s generally had only two or three partners and no associates. Examples of such firms include Burnett, Watson & Horan; Coit & Walberg; Tilley & Skelton; White & Steele; Wood, Ris & Hames; Wormwood, Wolvington & Odell; Yegge, Hall & Evans; and Zarlengo, Mott & Carlin.

4. Changes in the law in the 1970s and early 1980s were favorable to a plaintiff’s personal injury practice. The "guest statute," CRS § 13-21-111, was adopted in 1951 and repealed in 1975. Contributory negligence and assumption of risk were eliminated by passage of the comparative negligence statute, CRS 13-21-111. The Colorado Supreme Court adopted strict products liability under § 402A of the Restatement of Torts Second (1965), and the new torts of "outrageous conduct" and "invasion of privacy" were recognized in Rugg v. McCarty, 476 P.2d 753 (Colo. 1970). Norm Kripke wrote an article calling for repeal of the guest statute in 35 Dicta 179 (May–June 1958).

5. The National Association of Claimants Compensation Attorneys later became the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, and recently became the American Justice Association.

6. "Freedom Summer" was an intensive voter registration campaign in the South (primarily Mississippi) that began in 1961 and culminated in the 1964 general elections. The Freedom Summer activities ultimately may have led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. See the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) at www.core-online.org/index.htm.

7. See Neil, "40 Years Later, ‘Chicago 7’ Trial Still an Iconic Event," ABA Journal (Oct. 21, 2009), available at www.abajournal.com/news/article/40_years_later_chicago_7_trial_still_an_iconic_event; Neil, "Chicago 7 Trial Sketches Spark Memories," ABA Journal (Sept. 18, 2007), available at www.abajournal.com/news/article/chicago_7_trial_
sketches_spark_memories; Epstein, The Great Conspiracy Trial (Random House and Vintage Books, 1970); Hoffman et al., The Conspiracy (Dell, 1969).

8. Jim Carrigan was a justice of the Colorado Supreme Court from 1976 to 1979. He was appointed to the U.S. District Court, District of Colorado and served from 1979 to 1995.

9. Trial Talk 7 (Aug./Sept. 2002).

10. Norm Kripke’s career was significantly enhanced by his close relationship with his wife, who was a true partner. She served as a legal secretary and administrative assistant in his law practice for twenty years. She also served as secretary and ombudsman to the Lieutenant Governor of the State of Colorado and as legal secretary to the Majority Leader of the House of Representatives. She joined her husband in a commitment to community service, serving as President of the Women’s Auxiliary of the American Trial Lawyers Association, and as Current Events Chair on the Board of Allied Jewish Federation Woman’s Division. Derril Kripke resides in Laguna Woods, California. She provided much of the material and information, including photographs, used in this article.

11. The daughters are Teri Schwartz and Marcie Gaon. The grandchildren are Andra Davidson, Alex Gaon, and Lindsey Gutterman. The great- grandchildren are Hannah Davidson, Max Davidson, Ethan Gutterman, Sadie Gutterman, and Jackson Gutterman.

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