Celebration of ‘the judge’
September 28, 2008
ASPEN ” The celebration J.E. DeVilbiss’ storied life unfolded Saturday at Paepcke Auditorium with laughter, tears and dozens of tales that summed up the larger-than-life character.
In front a nearly full auditorium, 13 of DeVilbiss’ closest confidants and friends gave tribute to the former Pitkin County District Court judge and Aspen City Council member, who passed away Sept. 18 of natural causes. He was 73 years old.
His dog, Killer, laid patiently in the aisle for two hours as story after story was told about DeVilbiss, who as a judge, father, husband, friend, councilman, environmentalist, mentor and all of the other roles he played in life, impacted thousands of lives.
He was an adventurer and a lover of the outdoors, climbing mountains, running rivers and hiking throughout his life. He was a voracious reader and a big fan of Mark Twain, as well as Native American art. And he loved to share his passions with those around him, especially his daughters, Julie and Jorie.
His ex-wife, Peggy, spoke first and said most people knew DeVilbiss during his Colorado years, but the man they knew was formed earlier when he worked as a roughneck on the oil rigs off the coast of Louisiana while going to law school.
DeVilbiss identified with his co-workers during that time. From then on, he devoted his work as a judge and councilman to making life better for the working man.
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Peggy summarized that thought with an excerpt from a poem from Rudyard Kipling, “If you can walk with kings and not lose the common touch, you will be a man, my son.”
“And to me, J.E. was that man,” Peggy said.
She also noted that DeVilbiss made many sacrifices to get through law school. His shifts on the oil rigs were 12 hours on and 12 hours off. He read and studied when he could. The work also required that he miss some classes, which didn’t bode well for his attendance record and as a result, graduation.
“What he would do is observe the schedule of the lunch breaks of the secretaries in the office where he knew they kept the attendance records so at the right time he would walk in and put a check mark to show attendance,” Peggy said. “In his opinion he was attending, he was just attending offshore on the deck of the rig and not in that classroom, which he thought would be pretty boring anyway.”
DeVilbiss had a wonderful, dry sense of humor that his friends appreciated.
Numerous people spoke about DeVilbiss’ untidy habits, like his car which always was filled with garbage and debris in the back seat.
“It was a trash bin, the dog wouldn’t even go back there,” said Ed Mulhall, a longtime friend. He added that at least twice bears broke into the car and DeVilbiss found a silver lining in one of the incidents because he had located a cell phone he had lost six month prior.
Longtime friend Jack Crandall spoke of the many conversations he and DeVilbiss had over the years, one of which centered around what drove people in Aspen to want more than what they already had. While the two agreed it was greed, DeVilbiss joked that perhaps erecting a large statute of an erection with their name on it would suffice.
He was known as having a sharp wit and tongue, which he used frequently in the courtroom and usually was directed at lawyers who needed to be taken down a notch either in their style or lengthy arguments.
Jim Boyd, who succeeded DeVilbiss as judge when he retired in 2002, remembered how fearful he was when he argued his first trial in front of DeVilbiss. Boyd wore a three-piece designer suit, and said his chest and throat were so tight that it made his voice higher than normal. After a far too long oral argument, DeVilbiss’ comment to Boyd was “Do you anticipate that your voice will change anytime soon?”
DeVilbiss also had several props in his chambers and behind the bench, including plastic dinosaurs which were always a source of curiosity among those in the courthouse and law enforcement.
Boyd, who described the judge as caring and cranky, concluded that the dinosaurs may have represented those who were arguing their cases in front of him.
Katie Sullivan, Eagle County Court judge and former deputy district attorney in the Ninth Judicial District, which DeVilbiss was presiding judge over, said law enforcement officers would sneak into the courtroom at night to see what positions the dinosaurs were in and if it would be reflective of DeVilbiss’ decision.
She recalled a time she and DeVilbiss drove to Buena Vista to visit a prisoner that he had sentenced and was up for parole. A notorious speeder, DeVilbiss asked her if she was a good driver and she said “no” but having handled many of his tickets as a private lawyer she wouldn’t give up the driver’s seat. He did, however, criticize her grammar throughout the road trip, Sullivan laughed.
Sullivan said she was glad she became friends with DeVilbiss because she always wanted to know more about him but couldn’t get close because of his position as judge.
Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland, who formed a friendship with DeVilbiss 30 some years ago, said he came to him for political advice when he decided to run for City Council in 2005.
When determining what his slogan should be, DeVilbiss already had anticipated his demise by suggesting “Vote for me while you still have a chance.” He settled on “30 years of responsible decision making.”
Ireland also noted that DeVilbiss had an aging collection of mayonnaise in his house, as well as an arsenal of weapons, including rifles, pistols and dynamite. He also hated the IRS and failed to file tax returns on a regular basis.
But still, DeVilbiss operated from a place of honesty, integrity and dignity, Ireland said.
That could have largely been a result of DeVilbiss’ participation in Alcoholics Anonymous and recognizing his own weaknesses. DeVilbiss had lived sober since 1981 and as a judge, he helped numerous people battle drug and alcohol dependence.
“Many people are alive today because of him,” Ireland said. “J.E. was a practitioner of tough love and it showed up in his dealings with the public and his friends and family.”
Many friends noted that J.E. was tougher on himself than he was on others.
“J.E. was humble, he spoke few words, laconic even; he was highly principled and not one to take credit whether it was deserved or not …,” City Councilman Jack Johnson said. “I knew the J.E. who was always improving his mind and was critical of himself. The judge I believe judged himself too harshly.
“To me he was a highly moral and ethical person, one who had a deep feeling for responsibility to others and the future of Aspen. One mindful of the opportunities this community had given him and concern that those who come after him would have the same opportunities. He judged others from his head, tempered by his heart.”
Former Mayor Helen Klanderud, who served with DeVilbiss on the council, said he is on his last great adventure and knows he is thoroughly enjoying it.
“God bless you J.E. and God speed, you touched so many lives, the fruits of which will last for many generations and beyond,” Klanderud said. “Thank you for giving so much of yourself to so many of us. We will miss you. We do already.”