Retired Judge, a father, a mentor and a friend
September 20, 2008
ASPEN ” Aspen City Councilman J.E. DeVilbiss passed away Thursday from natural causes. He was 73.
He was surrounded by his daughters, Jorie and Julie, and ex-wife, Peggy, at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs. He died at approximately 9:20 p.m.
DeVilbiss is remembered as a father who instilled in his daughters a love of learning everything the world has to offer ” new people, new places and new adventures. He also was a motivational teacher and a larger-than-life dad and person, opening up the doors of the world to his daughters and friends, according to a statement from the family.
A parade of friends, family and colleagues came to DeVilbiss’ side during his final days at the hospital, to which he was admitted on Wednesday, Sept. 10.
City Councilman Jack Johnson said he drove DeVilbiss to the hospital after he called him complaining of weakness and nausea. DeVilbiss’ health had been deteriorating in recent months and he had experienced a rapid weight loss.
“He was in a lot more pain than he led on,” Johnson said. “His body just wore out.”
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Johnson said he became friends with DeVilbiss during the campaign of 2005 when they both were vying for a City Council seat. Johnson realized then how much he had in common, both professionally and personally, with DeVilbiss.
“We shared the same views politically,” Johnson said, adding that he didn’t expect to agree with his colleague at all times. “We shared a similar vision for what is right for this town and what the public wanted.
“In some ways he was my mentor in life … He was a very wise man and had an intelligent take on human nature. He understood people well.”
Last month Johnson took DeVilbiss to Invesco Field for the Democratic National Convention. Johnson brought DeVilbiss into the stadium in a wheelchair where he sat in the sun reading a book about Krakatoa, a volcanic island near Indonesia.
“He read that book even during Stevie Wonder,” Johnson said. “But when Obama got on stage, he stood up and waved his flag … He was an early supporter.”
As the Pitkin County District Court judge for 26 years, DeVilbiss was a mentor to many and affected the lives numerous people in the Roaring Fork Valley. He was known for his no-nonsense approach in the courtroom.
Mayor Mick Ireland, who served with DeVilbiss on the City Council for the past 15 months, said the judge was instrumental in his decision to go to law school. Ireland, who was a reporter for The Aspen Times in the early 1980s, said DeVilbiss proved that lawyering and the profession as a whole can be a noble profession if properly practiced. The two forged a friendship some 30 years ago.
“I saw him do a lot to improve individuals,” Ireland said, adding children and those who needed help were DeVilbiss’ top priorities. “There are a good many people who are alive today because of how he handled them in the court.”
DeVilbiss was known to be a tough and intimidating judge, but treated those who appeared before him with compassion because of his genuine desire to help straighten out their lives.
And as a recovering alcoholic since 1981, DeVilbiss told the Times in 2002 that he had hoped he left his mark by helping people realize they need help with battling drug and alcohol dependence.
One man, who asked to not be identified, had been leading the life of an Aspen party hound. He was arrested for stealing and possession of drugs. He ended up before DeVilbiss in the late 1990s.
Sentenced to probation, he went back to the party lifestyle and after six months of being a homeless wastrel he was arrested for violating the terms of his probation, which included an order to get straight and attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
“I felt like I was pulling the wool over everybody’s eyes,” he said of his appearance in court. “He was going to give me that one last chance, I knew it, and then he asked me what I’d done while I was in jail [awaiting a hearing]. And I said, ‘What the hell is there to do in prison?’ And when my lawyer asked if I’d gone to AA meetings or anything, I just said, ‘No.’
“He lowered his head and then looked at me and said, ‘You know, you’re just not getting it,’ and he sent me to prison.”
He said he started going to AA meetings, got sober and has remained that way since being released.
“I met [DeVilbiss] once after I was out, and I went up to him and told him, ‘I’ve been sober for a couple of years now, and I wanted you to know it’s all because of you.’
“And he said, ‘I’m in the program, too, and I knew what you were going through.'”
The man now is a local businessman with a family and, as he put it, is “a productive member of my community,” thanks to the actions of a former judge.
DeVilbiss made it no secret that he took great pride in making a difference in the community. He said on many occasions how much he enjoyed public service, both from the bench and at the City Council table.
“His main concern was the welfare of people and their future,” said Jack Crandall, a longtime friend of DeVilbiss. Crandall said DeVilbiss would pick him up every Saturday morning for coffee at the Wienerstube, a regular haunt for the councilman.
“He was a good, kind man … a neat guy,” Crandall said. “I’ll sure miss him. It’s a bummer he’s gone.
Crandall’s wife, Gesmine, said DeVilbiss came to their house for many holiday dinners. She described him as a thoughtful, insightful man who had a zest for life and a great sense of humor.
He was born Judson Earnest DeVilbiss on Nov. 24, 1934, in Laredo, Texas, to Judson Ernest DeVilbiss Sr., and Lucille Burris DeVilbiss.
He grew up in Rosenberg, Texas, where he attended Lamar High School. He became the first in his family to graduate from college. He enlisted in the ROTC during his undergraduate days at the University of Texas and then befriended a fellow officer trainee named Richard Lamm while training in Williamsburg, Va., in the mid 1950s.
Lamm and DeVilbiss have remained friends since then. Lamm came as a graduate from the University of Wisconsin and DeVilbiss as a Longhorn from the University of Texas. Geographical differences meant nothing to the two men.
“We immediately gravitated together,” Lamm said. “He was curious about the world around him. He was interested in more things than drinking beer.
“He read books. He thought about public life and politics. He wanted to know the how and the where and the who. He was fun to talk to. J.E. had the whole world on his radar screen.”
The men continued their friendship after officers’ school. Lamm came to Fort Carson in Colorado in and DeVilbiss soon followed. Later, after their army careers, Lamm won election as governor of Colorado and appointed DeVilbiss as a district judge.
“I really admired him and even more than admired him,” Lamm said. “I loved this man for a long time.”
After his stint in the military, DeVilbiss went on to work as a roughneck on offshore drilling rigs, where he saved enough money to put himself through law school at the University of Texas Law School. He moved to Carbondale in 1969 with Peggy and their two daughters.
DeVilbiss began his judicial career as a Garfield County Judge from 1972 to 1976, which was a part-time position. He then became the district judge for the 9th Judicial District for Garfield and Rio Blanco counties until his retirement in 2002.
DeVilbiss developed into a true desert dweller and river rat, spending time hiking in the Utah desert and running the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, the Green River and the Upper Animas several times. He climbed Colorado mountains, Mt. Rainier and the volcanos Popocatepetl and Orizaba. He also parachuted out of airplanes.
Julie, DeVilbiss’ youngest daughter, said she remembers her father exposing her and her sister to nature early in their lives.
“I remember that he would regularly tuck us into bed and then wake us up and carry us outside and make us listen to the coyotes howling,” she said of growing up in Carbondale along the Crystal River.
She added that she learned so much more from him than just a love of nature. DeVilbiss was a voracious reader, and loved to share that passion by introducing family and friends to favorite books and authors. He was an avid collector of music of all genres, from bluegrass to classical. He enjoyed and collected American Indian artwork as well.
“He was a proponent of lifelong learning and he had an undying appetite to learn,” Julie said. “He was a good father. He was contagious.”
Jesse Boyce, an Aspen resident and a friend of DeVilbiss for more than 20 years, said he taught Julie and Jorie at the Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale. Boyce recalled the first time he met the notorious judge was after DeVilbiss ran for cover when gunshots rang out on the streets of Carbondale.
Apparently DeVilbiss thought the bullets were aimed at him from a disgruntled criminal who had been on the receiving end of one of his stiff sentences. Boyce was on the street when he saw DeVilbiss dive into the nearest bush. It turned out that the incident was caused by two kids shooting a rifle along the Crystal River.
“I was on crutches and went down picked him up out of the bushes,” Boyce said. “That was the first time I met the great man.”
Boyce said it wasn’t until DeVilbiss retired from the bench and became a councilman that he came out of his shell.
“I think it was a very lonely existence for him,” he said. “[His retirement] freed him up to be more personable.”
Before he was elected to City Council, DeVilbiss took a road trip to California and the Pacific Northwest. He got his ear pierced while in Southern California, Boyce said.
Aspen resident Raymond Auger said he and his wife, Camilla, took DeVilbiss sailing off the Pacific Coast. Raymond recalled taking DeVilbiss out on his power boat for a late-night ride off the coast of Washington State when another boat came out of no where. The captain started screaming at Auger and DeVilbiss, claiming that they had nearly run him over. DeVilbiss engaged himself in a verbal assault against the unknown seaman and by all accounts, the retired judge had won.
“He was yelling at us and J.E. stood up and started yelling back at him,” Raymond laughed. “His sailing abilities came out then. J.E. was in no way reticent to tell him what he thought.”
That was the case with DeVilbiss professionally as well, both in the courtroom and in council chambers. Instances when people caught the wrath of DeVilbiss were usually when he felt they weren’t shooting straight or they were being dishonest.
“He did not take being lied to well and I appreciated that,” Johnson said. “He called them like he saw it. He spoke his mind.”
Local developer John Sarpa last year was on the receiving end of DeVilbiss’ sharp tongue when the councilman voted against the Lodge at Aspen Mountain development proposal. DeVilbiss wanted the large hotel to be smaller but Sarpa said it couldn’t be done. But after realizing it wouldn’t gain approval by the council, Sarpa reduced the size of the hotel.
DeVilbiss voted against the hotel anyway, saying “Sir, I question your credibility.”
A resident of the Centennial apartments, DeVilbiss was a steadfast supporter of affordable housing and was prompted to run for office over the opposition of building Burlingame, which drew opposition because it was considered sprawl.
“His view was that he wouldn’t have been able to live here if it were not for affordable housing,” Johnson said.
Ireland said he was an excellent councilman and was exceptionally well prepared.
“He came from the perspective of a working class background,” Ireland said.
According to the city’s home rule charter, the City Council has 30 days to fill the vacant seat. Applications will be taken by those interested in serving until June, when DeVilbiss’ seat will be open. A new council person will be appointed by a majority vote by council. In the next week, the City Council will begin the process to appoint someone to fill his position.
No plans have been made yet for a memorial.
Rebecca Hodgson, assistant to the City Manager, remembered DeVilbiss joked after being elected in 2005 that his greatest accomplishment in office would be to remain alive through his term.
“He said, “I hope I’m still here,'” she said. “He almost made it. I was hoping he would make it.
“I’m going to miss him.”