Vol. 28, No. 11
An Oral History
Charles A. Karowsky
by Lynn J. Karowsky
This is the final oral history to be printed in The Colorado Lawyer, as a project of the 1997 Colorado Bar Association Centennial Committee. The project was part of the CBA's anniversary celebration and is the sixteenth article in the series. The following interview of Charles A. Karowsky,1 which was edited for publication, was conducted by his son, Lynn.2
Q: Dad, didn't you grow up in Windsor and spend your entire life in Weld County?
A: Right. My father, your grandfather, was in the dry goods clothing business and had a dry goods store in Windsor.
Q: What made you decide to go to law school?
A: When I was in the 8th grade, I was selected to be the district attorney in a mock trial. The defendant, who happened to be my girlfriend, was being tried before a jury of 8th graders for a murder. She claimed she couldn't have been the criminal because she was left-handed, and the fingerprints on the gun indicated the person was right-handed. I'm not sure why they couldn't identify her from the fingerprints, but apparently we overlooked that in the 8th grade. I had seen an episode in a movie where the district attorney proved that the witness was lying when he claimed to be left-handed—the D.A. showed the witness a gun and asked, "Have you ever seen this before?" and the witness said, "I don't know." And so the district attorney tossed him the gun and he caught it with his right hand. I thought that was very clever, and I used the same stunt. Needless to say, I won the conviction—but lost a girlfriend. However, I gained a profession.
Q: And you went from Windsor High School to DU?
A: Yes, I went to the University of Denver on a "combined program." I spent three years as an undergraduate. The first year of law school counted for the B.A. degree. As a consequence, I only attended undergraduate and graduate school a total of six years. I got an LL.B., which was later amended to a Doctor of Juris Prudence. I graduated law in 1940.
Q: And then where did you go?
A: I went to Greeley and opened up a practice as a solo practitioner. I knew no one in Greeley, but became well-acquainted with an attorney practicing in the same building I was in—his name was Roy Briggs. He was very helpful and steered clients to me that he could very legitimately have kept for himself. This was during the time when the world was at war. The United States technically wasn't at war, but was helping with lend-lease programs to England. I was single and of draft age. I recognized that sooner or later I would be drafted, but I was really more interested in wine, women, and song than I was in practicing law.
Q: Wine, women, and song? Was there lots of that in Greeley in 1940?
A: Some—but quite enough for me. And then Pearl Harbor came along and I decided that it would be wise to enlist immediately because I did not want to be drafted and go into the infantry. I wanted to be able to choose my branch of service. And maybe there was a little bit of patriotism involved. The day after Pearl Harbor, I enlisted and went to basic training in Texas. I applied for Aviation Cadet, passed the test, but couldn't pass the physical. Then I went to Army Air Corps Officers Candidate School in Miami Beach, Florida, and that's where I met your mother, Ida.
Q: Wasn't that before there was an Air Force?
A: It was called the Army Air Corps. I served four-and-a-half years and wound up as the legal officer for our air wing in the Air Transport Command. I was initially stationed in Great Falls, Montana, and served in Canada, and briefly attended court martials in the Aleutian Chain. I went to Officers Candidate Training School in the summer and served part-time in Alaska in the winter. Some general must have had a job of screwing everybody up, sending people to the wrong place at the wrong time.
Q: Do you remember any particular trials or court martials in the Army?
A: One we tried in Fairbanks, Alaska, involved a young soldier who came from Arkansas. He was on guard duty at night. The aircraft he was guarding had been delivered by an American pilot to Fairbanks to be picked up by a Russian pilot and flown over to Russia. Planes would sit on the tarmac in bitterly cold weather, and had big heaters with pipes running into the aircraft and into the engine to keep them warm on the very cold nights. This young man was sitting on a wheel chock for an aircraft when he was challenged one night by the Officer of the Guard. He didn't respond. When he was challenged again and still didn't respond, the Officer of the Guard shook him awake. Since Fairbanks was considered in a combat zone because of the Japanese attack earlier at Dutch Harbor, he was charged with sleeping on duty in a combat zone, which was a capital offense. The trial was held before a court martial panel in Fairbanks in one of the temporary buildings that were thrown up in about five minutes. The defense counsel very cleverly managed to get a heater, which he placed inside; then, he dressed his defendant in the same cold-weather outfit that he had worn when he was placed under arrest. When the heater operated, the noise was deafening and the defense was that the defendant had not heard the Officer of the Guard. We got into a long argument while the defendant was sitting on a wheel chock just as he did when the officer challenged him. The argument went on for about ten minutes, based on my contention that the circumstances were different in the courtroom than they were out in the open and that the heater should not be allowed to be considered. The court ruled it would consider the evidence for what it was worth and permitted it to be admitted. I started my cross-examination, but I couldn't get an answer because the defendant had fallen asleep. Needless to say, the panel found him guilty, but they treated him kindly.
Q: When you came back to Greeley in 1946, how many attorneys were practicing?
A: I would guess maybe forty. That included judges. It was not a very big Bar.
Q: What made you decide to go back there?
A: I had written a letter to what's now The Colorado Lawyer suggesting that it would be worthwhile for returning veterans if the Bar did a survey recommending the most advantageous places to practice. Number one on the hit parade was Greeley because they had fewer attorneys per capita than any other place. Also, it was the county seat. I decided that even though I had not established much of a practice and had been gone a long time, that would be the place to go. I had been assured in a courtroom ceremony just before I left for the Army that the Bar would do everything it could when I returned to help me get restarted. But when I got back, it was difficult finding anybody who knew my name except Roy Briggs. He gave me a jump-start by sending me a large volume of business. He later became a district judge. I practiced before him and thought he was a very effective, knowledgeable jurist.
Q: How many judges were there?
A: I think we had two county court judges and two district court judges. Claude Coffin was one of the district judges. And I think a man by the name of Fred Clark was the other.
Q: What was your impression of the district court bench in 1946?
A: I was impressed. Judge Coffin was a very able jurist. He looked stern and he acted stern, but he had an excellent, dry sense of humor and he certainly knew the law very well. He was very helpful to attorneys that were just beginning and who had a little difficulty finding their way around in the courtroom. Fred Clark was not as profound and as well trained in the law as Judge Coffin, but he compensated with an excellent sense of humor and good common sense, so I enjoyed practicing before both of them.
Q: What was the relationship like between the bench and the Bar then?
A: It was pretty close. We had a district court judge by the name of Donald Carpenter who was a reasonably able jurist. He was very friendly, and there was a great feeling of rapport and camaraderie. I liked Don Carpenter very much and spent a good part of my career practicing before him because he served as a district court judge for a long time.
Q: What was the relationship among the attorneys representing the Weld County Bar?
A: Significantly different than what I perceive it is now. We truly had a closely knit local Bar in Weld County. We might encounter each other in the courtroom or just on behalf of our clients in our office, but even though you got intense and upset with opposing counsel, the next day you could go out to lunch or dinner with them. I don't see very much of that today. I don't know whether that goes on or not. Of course, the Bar is substantially bigger in Weld County now. The lawyers started increasing in number after WWII. Now, I think we have about 140 lawyers.
Q: Was there ever a time when clients would get upset if they felt that opposing counsel were friendly with each other?
A: I distinctly remember one case. In those days we practiced sometimes before a Justice of the Peace, and I represented a young couple who had recently been married. The couple had received a large electric refrigerator as a wedding present from the father of the groom. Then the couple and the father had a falling out. The son and his bride lived in a house on the same farm as the groom's parents. After the falling out, the father managed to come into the house when the bride and groom were not there and take the refrigerator back. We were involved in a replevin action, which was tried before a Justice of the Peace in LaSalle named Judge Shirley. Opposing counsel was Barney Houtchens, a distinguished member of the Bar. Barney called me on the telephone and said, "Listen, there's no sense in our going up to LaSalle in two cars. Why don't you ride with me?" Biggest mistake I could make, because I got out of the car in LaSalle, and my clients were waiting for me and looked kind of disgusted that I was consorting with the enemy. We tried the case and everything the judge indicated in his remarks as the trial proceeded seemed to assure me that he was going to find in our favor. But to everybody's surprise, he ruled in favor of the father. My client was convinced that somehow or other I had thrown the case because I had shown this closeness to opposing counsel. About two weeks later, I met the Justice of the Peace walking down the street in Greeley and he stopped me and said, "Hello." He asked me if my clients were happy now that they had gotten their refrigerator back. I said, "Judge, you awarded the refrigerator to the other party." He said, "I thought you were the defendant." I said, "No, I represented the plaintiff." But it taught me never, ever consort with the enemy prior to the trial or prior to a settlement of a disputed case. I don't think Barney asked me to ride with him with any ulterior motive other than being friendly. But I never made a mistake like that again.
Q: Who were some of the other attorneys practicing in the late '40s and early '50s in the Greeley area?
A: Jim Shelton, Tom Richardson, Robert Smith, John Henderson, Hubert Waldo, Barney Houtchens, his brother Bob Houtchens, Karl Ahlborn, John O'Hagan, Roy Briggs, Sam Telep, and others I can't think of.
Q: At that time, did Weld County have a full-time district attorney?
A: Hatfield Chilson, who later went on the U.S. District Court bench, was the district attorney; I don't remember if he was full-time or not. I know the assistant district attorneys also had private practices. They were Karl Ahlborn, John O'Hagan, and Mark Smith.
Q: You became City Attorney at one point?
A: That's right, in the early '60s. I had managed a campaign to oust what I thought was a bad city manager and became the campaign manager for candidates for the city council who were running to replace the incumbents. As a political plum and not because of any abilities on my part, I was appointed City Attorney, and I served for four years. It was a part-time position. I had been appointed Municipal Judge for Greeley from about 1948 until about 1953 when I got out of the service. That was strictly night court, twice a week, that would last maybe three hours, unless there was a trial of a defendant who was represented by counsel. I also was appointed and acted for four years as Public Administrator.
Q: What do you consider the turning point in your career?
A: Probably the thing that shaped my career was when I was appointed as an attorney for and made a member of the board of directors of what was then the leading bank in Greeley, the Greeley National Bank. There was a transition of sorts from doing a lot of trial work and handling miscellaneous types of cases because, in a small town, the ability to specialize was kind of limited. You had to be a jack-of-all-trades and, unfortunately, maybe a master of none. After I became counsel for the bank, I became an attorney for the school district, and I represented manufacturing firms, did a lot of contract work, personal injury cases, and not as much activity in the courtroom.
Q: Looking back over the 53 years of practice, what do you consider the pinnacle of your career?
A: Every time I won a lawsuit, I considered that moment the pinnacle of my career. Every time I lost one, I figured that was the bottom of my career. It continued that way until I retired from the practice of law. I really wasn't ready to retire when I did. But my wife was losing her sight and I thought she needed me more than my partners in the practice of law did. So I quit really before I was prepared to do so emotionally and mentally.
Q: Is there one trial or one lawsuit that stands out in your mind as being the most fun to try?
A: There was a case in which I was representing an aged man whose competency was being attacked because of a will he had made. He was single and lived with his maiden sister who predeceased him. He was persuaded by counsel to name Colorado State University as the principal beneficiary of his estate, in place of his other sister. The husband of the remaining sister helped his brother-in-law employ counsel, who drew a will, renaming his sister as primary beneficiary. CSU found out about the change and brought an action to challenge his competency at the time he signed the will that designated his sister as principal beneficiary and left CSU only a nominal sum. He was found to be incompetent. I was asked to handle the appeal to the district court, and we tried it to a jury. I regret to say that the testator left little doubt about his competency. He sat next me in the courtroom in a wheelchair and, when cross-examined, testified that the night before the trial he had been the sole passenger on an airplane that made a trip around the world, and that he was having difficulty remaining awake in the courtroom because he didn't get any sleep the previous night. Despite that fact, plus other strange testimony, the jury found the defendant competent, apparently because they were angry at CSU for attacking his competency. The judge, Roy Briggs, set the jury's verdict aside, but that immediately prompted CSU, through its counsel, to offer an advantageous settlement to my client, who would have been the beneficiary if the will had stood up under the competency test. This case lasted about three weeks and it was a sheer delight to try. I enjoyed every minute of it. I would have enjoyed it even if I had lost, but fortunately I figured we won because of the advantageous settlement we reached as a direct result of the jury verdict.
Q: What do you consider the saddest moments in your practice?
A: Maybe not sad, but I can tell you about a very moving experience. I represented a husband and wife who lived out in the country. They had four children of their own and had agreed through the social service agency of Weld County to take into their home a young boy who had been removed from his parents' home. He suffered from a club foot. He lived with this family for about three or four years and everyone loved him dearly, and the husband and wife decided to adopt him. The father and mother brought the entire family in on the day they had to appear in court for the adoption. It it was a beautiful event, and the judge who again made it special was Roy Briggs. The father invited us all for breakfast after we had finished in court. We were sitting in the restaurant right across the street from the courthouse when suddenly there was all kinds of activity—ambulances and police cars racing past—and we knew something bad had happened. We soon learned that a school bus had been hit by a Union Pacific train and about twenty-three children were killed. If it hadn't been for the adoption, all five children would have been on that school bus. From that moment on, I kind of believed in angels, because somebody was looking over this family and the children.
Q: Can you make any generalizations about the difference in the practice of law in the early '90s as it was, say, in the '40s and '50s?
A: Well, I say this with some reservation, because I can remember when I was a young man I would hear people say, "I don't know what this present generation is coming to. I think they're going to hell in a hand basket." And, of course, that has not been true. Perhaps I'm looking at this with the perspective of a much older person. But I don't see the type of camaraderie among attorneys now as there used to be, and I don't see the same intensity in attorneys. The new generation of attorneys isn't seeking the best interests of the clients first and the fees second. I think this perhaps has contributed to the fact that attorneys are not held in high regard as they once were. I was really proud to have been a practicing attorney, and I think I can speak for many of my contemporaries that they felt the same way. We weren't the butt of all kinds of unpleasant jokes, and we weren't considered the lowest on the professional chain. I think attorneys nowadays are exploiting clients, overcharging clients, proposing things that the client should do with their assets or their planning that they don't need, and the only reason for the suggestion is that the fact that they can earn a substantial fee. As an example, I particularly think of the overwhelming tendency to suggest to the client that he or she might need a living trust. I run into a number of situations where that was the last thing that particular person needed. They spent a substantial amount of money and thought they had done the right thing because their attorney told them that was the thing they should do.
Q: If you hadn't practiced law, what would you have done?
A: I can't imagine. I would have been an ordinary dogcatcher and a poor truck driver. For a while, I thought I was going to be one or the other, because the first quarter I was in law school everything I heard, listened to, and read just went over the top of my head. I couldn't quite seem to understand, and I thought by the end of the quarter, I probably would be looking for a different career. But I managed to pass all of the courses I was taking. From then on, it all began to fit together and I've never regretted a single moment I've practiced law.
1. Charles A. Karowsky was born in Denver on May 15, 1917. He graduated from high school in Windsor, received his B.A. from the University of Denver and J.D. from the University of Denver College of Law. He served as part-time municipal judge in Greeley for eight years and part-time public administrator for Weld County for two years. He was president of the Weld County Bar Association and served on the CBA Board of Governors and the Colorado Supreme Court Grievance Committee. He was on the boards of several corporations and was attorney and board director for Greeley National Bank. He practiced law for 53 years. He and his wife were married for 54 years (she died in 1997). He has two sons—Judge Lynn Karowsky, infra, note 2, and Jan Karowsky, who is a criminal defense attorney in California.
2. Lynn Karowsky practiced law with his father, Charles Karowsky, and was an associate in Karowsky, Witwer & Oldenberg from 1974 to 1980. At that time, he became a part-time county court referee and an Assistant Professor of Business Law in the College of Business Administration at the University of Northern Colorado. Lynn Karowsky was appointed as a County Court Judge in 1996, and Presiding Judge in 1999.
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