Vol. 29, No. 5
Profiles of Success
Stuart "Stu" VanMeveren
by Larry Bohning
Editor’s Note: The Colorado Lawyer Board of Editors has approved the publication of profiles of practicing lawyers. The 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, email@example.com
On various occasions during the school year of 1965-66 at the University of South Dakota College of Law, I observed a fellow student working in the law library patiently reshelving books left in disarray by harried law students. Little did I realize he would become one of the most respected prosecutors in the country. His name is Stuart "Stu" VanMeveren, and he is a son of the Middle Border.1
Stuart "Stu" VanMeveren
A Son of the Middle Border
VanMeveren’s parents had emigrated from Holland to rural northwest Iowa and then moved to the nearby city of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where Stu was born in 1941. However, VanMeveren’s father, who had a degree in veterinary science, was called into military service shortly after Stu was born. His father was stationed at the Presido army base during World War II, and the VanMeverens spent the war years in San Francisco. After the war, the VanMeveren family moved back to Sioux Falls. Stuart still has fond memories of riding the San Francisco cable cars.
When Stu was ten years old, his father died unexpectedly, and his mother went back to work as a nurse to make ends meet. When asked what kept him out of trouble when he was being raised by a single mom, VanMeveren said: "Sports and work. I always had to work because we never had much money. And I always knew I wanted to get an education. That’s probably what saved me."
Among the various jobs VanMeveren had during his college years was working summers as a meat cutter at the John Morrell meat packing plant in Sioux Falls. He was a member of the Amalgamated Meatcutters Union, and says: "It was the best paying job I ever had." After earning his undergraduate degree in business from the University of South Dakota in 1962, he went to work as an insurance claims investigator. This work brought him in contact with attorneys, and he saw that these lawyers were making a decent living. He decided to go to law school, paying for his education by working as a cashier at both a dog and horse track and as a "stormer," evaluating hail damage to crops during the summer months.
After Stu graduated from the University of South Dakota Law School in 1966, he decided to move to California and take the California bar exam. Unwittingly, he rented an apartment two blocks from Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and found things had changed considerably since he lived there as a youth. While there, VanMeveren attended a California bar refresher class. One day, a man ran to the front of the room, waving some papers. He excitedly told his classmates about a case the U.S. Supreme Court had just decided, and they burst into wild applause. During his career, VanMeveren and his staff would argue many times about the applicability of that case. It was the Miranda "advisement of rights" decision.2
While waiting for the bar exam results and having some reservation about making California his home, VanMeveren thought it would be interesting to experience firsthand the fervor of the civil rights movement by living in the South, although he was not an activist. He moved to Tennessee and took a teaching job at the Tennessee Technological University. In December 1966, he received word that he had passed the California bar exam, but a few days earlier, he already had accepted a teaching position at Colorado State University.
Fort Collins Becomes Home
In June 1967, Stu VanMeveren moved to Fort Collins, Colorado, and took the Colorado bar exam that summer. He liked teaching, but soon decided he could put his law degree to better use. He began practicing law with the firm of Hill and Hill. In April 1970, VanMeveren was hired by then-District Attorney Gene Fischer as a part-time district attorney in the Loveland office. At that point, he moved to Loveland and opened a solo practice. Finding that he enjoyed criminal trial work, he decided to run for district attorney in 1972.
VanMeveren was elected district attorney for Colorado’s Eighth Judicial District, and has been re-elected six times since. Opposed in only two of the seven elections, he won both of these by a landslide. The Eighth Judicial District comprises Larimer and Jackson Counties, with the Larimer County seat of Fort Collins the largest city in the district. Also in Larimer County is the nearby sister city of Loveland and the resort destination city of Estes Park. In those days, VanMeveren was intimately familiar with every pending felony case in his jurisdiction.
Just before VanMeveren won his first election as D.A., fewer than 90,000 people lived in Larimer County, and the population of Jackson County was about 1,800 (Jackson County’s main city of Walden, on those rare times when Cameron Pass is closed by snow, can be reached from Fort Collins only by driving into Wyoming and back into northern Colorado). Today, Fort Collins has a population of over 100,000, which includes approximately 22,000 Colorado State University students. The population of Jackson County has dropped to about 1,500. Larimer County has burgeoned to an estimated mid-1999 population of close to 240,000.3
Now VanMeveren’s staff of fifty people includes seventeen attorneys (one deputy district attorney is in Loveland, and one part-time district attorney is in Walden). Despite this growth, Stu still regards the attorneys and staff in his office as family and tries to treat them that way. During his tenure, the district attorney’s office has enjoyed a reputation of impeccable integrity and has never been tainted with accusations of incompetence or improprieties.
Over the last several years, national publications have rated the Fort Collins-Loveland area one of the best places in the country to raise a family, for business opportunities, and to retire.4 Although VanMeveren certainly does not try to take credit for any of these ratings, his positive role in the life of the community during the past twenty-eight years cannot be entirely discounted.
David Wood, Fort Collins attorney and past president of the Colorado Bar Association (1981-82), made the following statements about Stu VanMeveren:
Stu VanMeveren has earned the trust and confidence of the community through his service as district attorney for the past twenty-eight years. The fact that the voters for the Eighth Judicial District have elected him to serve seven consecutive terms speaks volumes about the respect he enjoys and his standing as an exemplary community leader.
Stu personifies the professionalism of a career prosecutor who has distinguished himself not only with an admirable record of successful prosecutions, but with the judgment and restraint he has exercised in his prosecutorial discretion to seek justice for all. He has been an eloquent spokesperson for law enforcement and criminal justice in a wide variety of forums. This recognized leader has always remained accessible to his constituents and is a person without pretense or presumption.5
VanMeveren has become such an institution in the Eighth Judicial District that, like some modern-day rock stars or famous artists, he is sometimes referred to in the local news media by just one name: "Stu."6 Bob Gallagher, who had served longer as a district attorney than anyone else in Colorado history when he retired in l996 (D.A. for the Eighteenth Judicial District for twenty-eight years) says of his old friend:
Stu has been an excellent D.A. Some D.A.s make all kinds of promises just to get elected, like they are going to do away with plea-bargaining. When they can’t keep the promises, they go out of office in a short time. Stu has never done that. He has been very thoughtful and very reliable and very consistent.7
Respect for VanMeveren is not confined to prosecutorial circles. Fort Collins attorney Joseph A. "Andy" Gavaldon, who started with the public defender’s office in Fort Collins in 1981 and was head of the public defender’s office for the Eighteenth Judicial District from 1986 to 1997, states:
I have the highest respect for Stu. He is one of the most ethical lawyers I have ever practiced with or against. Anytime I had an issue involving the district attorney’s office, Stu was always available to listen to my concerns and see if we could resolve the issue. During my sixteen years with the public defender’s office, we maintained a professional relationship of great cooperation and understanding, even though we were courtroom adversaries.8
Moreover, Walter Gerash, one of Colorado’s best known criminal defense attorneys, says of VanMeveren: "In all the cases I’ve had with VanMeveren, he has been a real gentleman and a fair shooter. I admire VanMeveren as a prosecutor. He is not vindictive. He takes a well-balanced approach and doesn’t abuse his discretion to prosecute."9
The "Voice of American Prosecutors"
In July l999, Stu VanMeveren stepped onto the national stage when, after serving as its president-elect for one year, he became president of the National District Attorneys Association ("NDAA"). VanMeveren is the first Colorado district attorney to hold that position in its fifty-year history. The NDAA has a membership of nearly 8,000 state and local prosecutors from around the nation. In conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice, the association operates the National Advocacy Center at the University of South Carolina School of Law, where prosecutors can receive training at the National College of District Attorneys.
Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter first met VanMeveren in 1975 when Ritter was a sophomore at Colorado State University and VanMeveren was the guest lecturer at a sociology class Ritter was taking. Ritter, who now sits on the board of the NDAA says: "Stu’s colleagues around the country singled him out as the man they chose to lead on a national scale because of his depth of experience in prosecution matters and his even-handedness in confronting serious prosecution issues. Among my colleagues around the nation, few people command as much respect as Stu VanMeveren."10
In his leadership of the NDAA, VanMeveren believes he acts as "the voice" of the state and local prosecutors who belong to that organization, and he takes that responsibility seriously. During his term as president, he has met several times with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to discuss various issues related to criminal justice, and has presented a number of position papers to Congress on behalf of the NDAA relating to legislative and funding issues. He also receives calls on a regular basis from the national and regional media asking him about the position of the NDAA on various issues. Since his term began, VanMeveren has often traveled across the country to attend meetings and participate in seminars with state and local prosecutors.
The Changing Role of Prosecutors
Since Stu first took office as District Attorney for the Eighth Judicial District, the role of district attorney has changed from not only serving as a courtroom prosecutor, but also being actively involved in the local community. District attorneys are now active in founding and participating in programs that contribute to the well-being of society as a whole. Stuart VanMeveren has certainly been in the forefront of this evolving role of prosecutor. In every speech he gives to prosecutors across the country, VanMeveren includes a plea for them to take more active leadership roles by supporting programs that help deter crime, assist young people, and make their local communities a better place to live.
For example, in March 2000, he addressed the National Juvenile Justice Conference in a speech about developing a balanced approach to juvenile justice. This conference had more than 1,300 registrants, including prosecutors, judges, case managers, and probation officers. VanMeveren is especially pleased that the theme for the annual NDAA summer meeting this year is "Our Children, Our Future." It will focus on successful programs from around the country that have helped decrease juvenile crime in a particular locality. VanMeveren has had a lifetime commitment to youth.
In 1977, VanMeveren learned about a small but successful community-based program in Denver called "Partners" that matched troubled youth with adult volunteers. Frustrated by seeing young people in the courts who lacked a positive adult role model in their lives, Stu and Deputy District Attorney Larry Abrahamson approached the then-mayor of Ft. Collins, Nancy Gray, about starting a similar program to serve Larimer County. For six months, Stu worked tirelessly, meeting with members of the business community to raise funds to start a Partners program.
Finally, in April 1978, Hewlett Packard’s Bill Parzybok wrote the first check for $2,800. That was quickly followed by contributions from Bob Everitt and Gary Haxton of Everitt Companies, Fritz Sterling of Sterling Companies, and Steve Naegele of McDonalds. This constituted the initial corporate "dream team" to get Partners off the ground. VanMeveren, Abrahamson, and Mayor Gray made the necessary connections with civic organizations, school districts, and law enforcement and county service agencies to foster and ensure an ongoing commitment to the program.
Although Partners programs exist in other cities and counties, the Larimer County Partners program has been one of the most vital and successful in the country. Since its inception, Partners adult volunteers have helped hundreds of young people in Larimer County stay out of serious trouble and to lead more productive and positive lives. Stuart VanMeveren has been one of the strongest supporters of the Larimer County program. In 1979, he was named "Volunteer of the Year" by Partners, Inc. Liz Gipson, current Executive Director of Partners, reports: "Stu has never said ‘no’ to Partners. He has contributed financially to Partners since its formation and served as an advocate and spokesperson whenever asked. In one of his speeches to the National Association of District Attorneys, for example, he talked about the success of the Partners program."11
VanMeveren considers starting a Partners program in Larimer County to be one of the most satisfying accomplishments of his career:
Every time I see a Junior and Senior Partner together, I wonder where that kid would be without a Senior Partner. Most of the partnerships go way beyond their contractual time period. I get a great sense of satisfaction every time I hear all of the good things that Partners is doing. A "Partnership" costs from $800 to $1,000. Incarcerating a youth would cost taxpayers that much in two or three weeks. Along with the savings comes the satisfaction that every child is given a fair chance in life to become a contributing member of society.
Wingshadow Inc. and Team Fort Collins
Since the early l990s, VanMeveren also has served on the board of directors of Wingshadow Inc. and Team Fort Collins. Wingshadow is a nonprofit organization that operates an alternative high school for youth who have been expelled or had trouble making it in a public school. It presently serves approximately seventy students. Team Fort Collins is another local nonprofit organization designed to help curb underage drug and alcohol abuse.
Eighth Judicial District Juvenile Drug Court
In 1999, working in cooperation with Judge William Dressel, Chief Judge of the Eighth Judicial District, and Tim Walsh, Chief Probation Officer, VanMeveren and his Chief Deputy District Attorney Larry Abrahamson established a Juvenile Drug Court to serve Larimer and Jackson Counties. The Juvenile Drug Court was funded by various grants and is designed to provide a judicial mechanism that allows juveniles with drug abuse problems to be placed in a strictly supervised treatment program. The court is currently presided over by Magistrate Joseph Coyte. If a juvenile remains drug free for a certain period of time, his or her case is dismissed. Although relatively new, the court is considered to be a success by those who work in the juvenile justice community.
More "Service Above Self"
VanMeveren served on the Fort Collins Rotary Club Board of Directors from 1993 to 1996, and chaired the program committee for eight years. He most certainly exemplifies the Rotary Club motto of "Service Above Self." He was president of the Colorado District Attorney’s Council in 1979-80 and 1989-90. He also served on the Board of Governors of the Colorado Bar Association ("CBA") from l987 to 1992. He was appointed to the CBA Executive Committee in 1989-90 and was elected CBA Senior Vice-President in 1990-91. He was president of the Larimer County Bar Association in 1987-1988 and on its Executive Committee from 1985 to 1992.
In l992, VanMeveren was co-recipient of the Conrad L. Ball award given to individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the quality of justice in Larimer County. Stu was cited for his professionalism and "pioneering leadership." Throughout his years as District Attorney, he also has served on a number of statewide task forces dealing with such issues as prison overcrowding, community corrections, and driving under the influence ("DUI") legislation. In October 1999, VanMeveren was one of seven legal experts appointed by Colorado Governor Bill Owens to advise him as to whether the state should appoint a special prosecutor in the case involving the murder of JonBenét Ramsey, which occurred in Boulder in December 1996.
One of life’s great pleasures, according to Stu, is spending time with his wife Kathy, their five children and twelve grandchildren, which he hopes to do more of when he steps down as president of NDAA.
In March 2000, VanMeveren announced his intention to run for reelection in the Eighth Judicial District. If he is successful at the ballot box this fall, he will be the longest serving district attorney in Colorado history. It should be noted that VanMeveren and Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter have had a friendly rivalry through the years as to who has served longer as district attorney. Although both were first elected on the same day, Stu jokingly claims he has been in office longer because he was sworn in an hour earlier. Hunter says the clocks were off that day in Larimer County. However, Stu may definitely win the longevity title this year because Hunter has announced that he is not running for reelection.
1. See A Son of the Middle Border (1917) by Hamlin Garland, a novel about the hardship of Midwestern pioneer life. The expression "Middle Border" refers to a geographic area that includes South Dakota and part of Iowa.
2. Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (June 13, 1966).
3. According to the 1970 U.S. Census Bureau, Jackson County had a population of 1,811 and Larimer County, 89,900. As of July 1, 1999, the Bureau estimated the population of Larimer County to be 236,849 and Jackson County, 1,540.
4. See, e.g., Reader’s Digest (special ed., April 1997), reporting on a nationwide poll of parents that rated the Fort Collins-Loveland area the third best place in the United States to raise a family. See also Retirement Places Rated (1999 ed.), in which Fort Collins-Loveland ranked as the nation’s number one place to retire, and Business Opportunity Index 2000, rated Fort Collins as the fourth best city in the country for business opportunity.
5. Letter from David Wood (March 10, 2000).
6. "Stuart A. VanMeveren," 33 The Prosecutor 14 (Sept./Oct. 1999).
7. Phone Interview with Bob Gallagher (March 16, 2000).
8. Phone interview with Andy Gavaldon (April 3, 2000).
9. Phone interview with Walter Gerash (April 3, 2000).
10. Letter from Bill Ritter (March 24, 2000).
11. E-mail from Liz Gipson (March 9, 2000).
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