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TCL > December 1999 Issue > Burton A. Smead, Jr.

December 1999       Vol. 28, No. 12       Page  13
Profiles of Success

Burton A. Smead, Jr.
by Michael G. Sabbeth

tcl-1999dec-smead1Editor's Note:

The Colorado Lawyer Board of Editors has approved space for bimonthly profiles of practicing lawyers. The newly established Profiles Committee has chosen Colorado Bar Association members who were 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,

Burton A. Smead, Jr. doesn't like to be told "no." Enamored with the Navy, he secured an appointment to Annapolis while a senior at Denver's South High School. Informed he was disqualified because he was nearsighted, he chose to fight to fulfill his romantic dream. Only the president of the United States, Burton learned, could overrule the disqualification. Fortuitously, his mother was an acquaintance of Lou Hoover, the president's wife. A letter to Mrs. Hoover was promptly written and Burton went to Washington. With theatrical flair, Burton exhorted his cab driver, "To the White House!" A moment later, he stepped in front of the palatial grounds and, in awe, was escorted inside.

The president wasn't available, but the First Lady wanted to talk to him. Accompanied by military staff from the several armed forces branches, Mrs. Hoover, described by Burton as a very charming woman, entered the salon and welcomed him. When the naval officer affirmed that the eyesight requirement couldn't be waived, Mrs. Hoover retorted, "How about West Point, Mr. Smead?" The attending army officer promptly chimed, "Sure, we'll take him." Burton replied, "I want the Navy."

"I never got into Annapolis, but that was quite an experience for an 18-year-old boy," Burton quipped during our lunch meeting. After high school he turned down a scholarship to the University of Colorado and enrolled at the University of Denver. (It was cheaper to live at home, even if you had to pay tuition.) He had no previous interest in anthropology, but chose to major in that field because he found the department chairman, a Frenchman, to be a uniquely interesting person. He graduated in June 1934 during the heart of the Depression. His father, who owned a real estate and insurance business, suggested Burton apply for a job at The Denver National Bank. Three days after his job interview, he started work as a runner for $50 per month. He remained with the bank until retirement in 1978. "I was devoted to my employer," he told me. "I'm most grateful to them."

Burton agilely moved up the advancement ladder as the bank merged to become The Denver US National Bank, which was changed in later years to United Bank of Denver, then Norwest, and finally Wells Fargo. Under the guidance of colleague Giles Foley, he helped develop the small consumer loan department, a new concept in commercial banking. During our interview, leaning forward, his bushy white eyebrows rising like smoke signals, Burton shared an anecdote. A pretty girl had borrowed $100, to be paid off at $8.34 a month, and fell in arrears. Burton called persistently until she walked into his office and stated bluntly, "I can pay off the loan, but when will you ask me out?" I asked Burton no further questions.


The War Years

"I was raised in a family that believed you had your duty," Burton crisply told me. Burton's father, a WWI volunteer assigned to the 89th Division, left the military as a Lieutenant Colonel with the distinguished service cross for heroism--and lung disease contracted from poison gas. After the Armistice, while on two-week leave in Paris, France, his father co-founded the American Legion.

By the mid-1930s, Burton knew the storm clouds were gathering over Europe. Expecting "trouble" from Hitler, Burton was enticed by a friend to join the Colorado National Guard's 168th Field Artillery Regiment, which was called to active duty in 1940. From Camp Forrest, Tennessee, in the summer of 1940, to maneuvers in Louisiana, Burton was then accepted to Officer Candidate School in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. As a second lieutenant, he was assigned to the 12th Field Artillery Battalion of the Second Infantry Division, a division that had a highly distinguished reputation from WWI. Summer training was in the South. Winter training was in Wisconsin and Michigan, which consisted of drills and firing 155 mm Howitzer cannons in temperatures hovering sometimes as low as minus forty degrees.

In October 1943, the Division was transferred to Northern Ireland, endured a particularly cold winter, and was then transferred to England. Promoted to Captain and assigned to S-2 (Intelligence) duties, just before the Normandy invasion (June 6, 1944), Burton went onshore on Omaha Beach as part of the first supporting forces. Although the Allies had outmaneuvered, for the moment, the formidable SS Panzer Divisions Das Reich and Adolf Hitler, Burton explained that the lethal strength of the Germans was unexpected. After the Germans were driven from Normandy, the Division moved to the tip of Brittany in order to attack Brest, France's third largest port and a major German submarine base. "The attack was severe, bitter, and expensive," Burton said, as he described the defensive barrage from scores of anti-aircraft guns. Next, sent across France to Germany, in December Burton fought against the German offensive in The Ardennes, Belgium, known as The Battle of the Bulge. The German offensive was stopped largely by the superb job done by the artillery battalions.

Allied forces moved into Germany against intermittent defense, until the Division faced major defense forces around Leipzig. As the Division battled to take Leipzig, Burton helped demolish an arrogant but ominous "no" spoken by Hitler in 1939; "No foreign soldier will ever set foot on German soil." The Germans surrendered shortly after the Second Division swung south into Czechoslovakia.

In a letter dated May 21, 1945, from Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, Burton wrote of the Czechs' hatred toward the Germans. "Not a Czech family but had lost someone, a brother, a parent, a son, to the German concentration camps or firing squads." In one case, a Czech boy and girl were found murdered, and the populace assumed the crimes were committed by a wandering band of German soldiers. German civilians remained in the city, and two were brutally beaten. Burton, representing the senior commander, refused to tolerate any riots in the city. He brought the Czech mayor and the leader of the Germans together. He sharply instructed the Germans to keep out of the Czech's way and told the Czechs to behave. Pilsen experienced no more such trouble. Burton was discharged after the defeat of Japan.

A Virtuous Career

Burton returned to Denver and resumed employment at the bank. His decision to attend law school was precipitated by being told "no" regarding a promotion that he believed he deserved. He took night law courses at Westminster Law School (later absorbed by the University of Denver Law School), graduated, and passed the bar exam. Staying with the bank, but switching to the trust department, he became assistant trust officer, then trust officer, and ultimately vice-president and trust officer. He undertook helping people with estate planning and "telling lawyers stuff they should know but didn't."

Extremely knowledgeable in the crafts of estate and trust planning and drafting, as well as administration, Burton served as a resource for the trust department and the Bar. Well-thought-of by attorneys who worked with him, he gained a reputation for being thorough and getting along with people. He had the skill to say "no" in a way that wouldn't make them mad, or at least he hoped it wouldn't. "You learn a lot about people in the trust business," he told me. Colleagues I interviewed told me they never saw him blow up, insult anyone, or become abusive.

He earned the grudging respect even from most of those persons who did not get their way. "At least he's doing what he thinks is right, and maybe he is right," many would say. Colleagues characterized Burton as a problem-solver who could quickly get to the heart of an issue. Of course, few peers, and fewer customers, if any, knew they were dealing with a seasoned and weathered negotiator who had seen epic unfairness and pure evil. Feuding beneficiaries were tame conflicts, no doubt, when contrasted with his war experiences.

For much of his career, Burton administered estates, including some of singular prominence, such as that of Claude Boettcher, the patriarch of the Boettcher family. The work was complex, for it involved controlling interests in several banks and considerable real estate. As a trustee, Burton learned to run all kinds of businesses, "most of them respectable," he added with a grin. In one estate, the testator, a well-known and respected businessman, owned a brothel. "How did you appraise the business?" I asked, conceptualizing novel cash-flow and depreciation challenges. Burton chuckled heartily and said, "We didn't sell it as a going business. Just the real estate."

The Poet

The most important "no" in Burton's life was the one he never heard, for Jo McKittrick, a college classmate, accepted his marriage proposal. They were married in Denver on March 27, 1943, while Burton was on thirty-day leave from the Army.. Eyes twinkling as if describing a wonderful first date, Burton spoke of Jo as a "lovely, bright, virtuous woman." Marrying her, he said, was "my greatest achievement." After a one-week honeymoon, Jo returned to teaching in Denver, and Burton rejoined the 12th Artillery Battalion. When Burton's Division went overseas in October 1943, Jo resigned from teaching and joined the Women's Army Corp, becoming a cryptanalyst with the Second Signal Service Battalion in Washington, D.C.

Only minutes into my meeting with Burton, I knew I was sitting next to a hero. I read his book, Captain Smead's Letters to Home, his war correspondence. The photographs of Burton in the book show an enviably handsome man with an easy smile, but not until completing the book and reading selections of his poetry could I gauge the measure of this remarkable man. Through his writings, we see his glittering soul.

Facing the deadly Ardennes Offensive, Burton wrote of the riches of receiving letters. That Christmas, from his sector of the world where peace and goodwill toward all men were noticeably lacking, he wrote of the joy of sharing a box of luscious Stovers chocolates sent from home. Months later, with knowledge of the war's infinite horror, he wrote of blooming lilacs in ravaged Czechoslovakia.

Jo, a talented artist, sent him sketches of herself. Burton replied, "Can you make them a little sexier?" She complied, and rather saucy drawings arrived on the Front, arguably disconcerting to a young man surrounded by hundreds of thousands of men trying to focus on defeating The Third Reich. One sketch sent in Christmas, 1944, showed a sensuous woman clad in a Victoria's Secret version of Santa's costume. Elegantly curved legs struggled to pull a Christmas tree. Burton, who frequently added little verses to his letters, returned the drawing with this poem written on it:

Though man mayn't live a life of ease,
But must with sin and sorrow grapple,
When I think of Christmas trees
I'm wondrous glad Eve ate that apple!

In another sketch from Jo, a shapely young woman seated on a chair bends over to put on stockings. Burton wrote on this sketch:

My ordered eye grows restive
When I behold your figure trim,
And turns into a Tarzan eye,
Swinging from limb to limb

As the war seemed to be coming to a close, Burton wrote of his longing to see Jo. Here is part of his poem:

"Moonlight becomes you"
And my fancy takes flight
To the day of our joining
And our rapturous plight--
If you'll wear moonbeams
As garb on that night!!

The tapestry of his marriage continues to be strengthened by those same muses that nurtured the teasing sensuality of Jo's art and Burton's poetic responses. Like a pair of leaping, entwined ice-skaters, each adds substance and meaning to the other that could not be achieved alone. After fifty-six years of marriage, he still lives a love sonnet. His penchant for poetry and limericks also carried through his eighteen years serving as treasurer of the Colorado Bar Association and on its Board of Governors. During each meeting, usually at the conclusion, he'd pen a few words that humorously captured a facet of the agenda. People looked forward to his writings, which were described by a colleague as often the highlight of the meeting. For example, evidently finding some tedium in the meetings, Burton wrote of the paradoxical advantage of needing a hearing aid:

With the years we all fight a bout.
We tend to grow thin-- or grow stout.
And your hearing gets bad,
But it's not all that sad--
If you're bored you can take the thing out.

Following his 1978 retirement from the bank, Burton engaged in a small estate planning practice, served as a director of Resources Trust Co., and, for a while, was Of Counsel to the law firm of Buchanan & Thomas.

In Gratitude

A leader in the trust business, Burton inspired the best in people. He is more than a man who has contributed greatly to his discipline and to the our profession. Fortified with those transcendent qualities William Faulkner called "the old verities of honor, duty, truth, loyalty and compassion," Burton lived through life's fire center and is still cheerful about our world. More than mastering the crafting and managing of trusts, Burton A. Smead Jr. mastered the art of life--a man who achieved a life well lived, a great man indeed.

Michael G. Sabbeth, Denver, is a sole practitioner.

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