Territorial Lawyers Party On
by Margaret R. Russell
Lawyers in practice during territorial days joined their wives and other guests for a reunion held July 12 in Anchorage. No introductions were necessary. The well-acquainted "survivors" delighted in renewing old friendships and catching up on each other's lives and health, as well as sharing news or memories of their friends among the missing.
The group has gathered annually for the past four years, and many of those present said the reunions are the only time they see each other. This year's get-together was hosted by Russ and Betty Arnett, Lucy Groh, Priscilla Thorsness, Roger and Ghislaine Cremo, Ken Atkinson and Helen Williams.
The idea for the annual reunions was born in 1998 when Russ Arnett and Dave Thorsness met on the street and one of them commented about how seldom they saw each other. They got together with Gene Williams and organized the first reunion, which was held at the Arnett home. Other prior reunions were held at the homes of Roger and Ghislaine Cremo, and Charles and Betty Tulin. Photos from prior reunions were posted for this year's partygoers to enjoy.
This year the group gathered at the Mahogony House, 15th and Cordova. The house was built in the 1940's to house Japan Airlines crews, and later became the home of insurance and real estate businessman Louis Simpson, who added on to it. The large house is now operated primarily as a bed and breakfast.
The reunion began with an hour of greetings and photos, followed by a potluck dinner that was seasoned with reveries and war stories. Stories could be told without fear of correction. Roger Cremo expressed the guiding philosophy: "Stories were made to be embellished."
Most of the lawyers attending this year's reunion live in Anchorage. Some exceptions were Jamie Fischer of Soldotna and Charlie Cole of Fairbanks. Fischer said he was admitted to the bar in 1956, the same year as Jim Delaney. Delaney was also present and spent much of the evening swapping stories with Judge Seaborn Buckalew, who was admitted to the Alaska bar in 1953, and with Bob and Mildred Opland.
The self-proclaimed oldest practicing attorney in the state, Mahalia Dickerson, shared memories of her early years practicing in Florida and Indiana where Dickerson said she frequently faced racial discrimination. A sheriff in Alabama insisted she sit in the back of the courtroom, and Dickerson only managed to thwart that order with the help of two white friends. She also was denied admission to the American Bar Association, which was opened to African-Americans only gradually, following the states' leads.
After her first brief visit to Alaska, Dickerson returned to Indiana but found she woke up mornings "dreaming of mountains." Dickerson returned to take the bar exam and was admitted in 1959, "just before statehood." She found less discrimination here than she had faced Outside and after admission to the Alaska Bar, was admitted to the American Bar Association without comment. She remains active in the ABA and still attends annual conventions.
The presence of Priscilla Thorsness, Lucy Groh and Ruth McLaughlin inspired many recollections about their deceased spouses. Dave Thorsness and Cliff Groh both died within the last couple of years; George McLaughlin died in 1960. Also attending was LaRue Hellenthal, whose husband John was a delegate to Alaska's constitutional convention where he chaired the Suffrage, Elections and Apportionment Committee.
Dave Talbot recounted ruefully the time Stan McCutcheon and Buell Nesbett talked Talbot into running against George McLaughlin for city magistrate in 1958. Only after Talbot had lost by a landslide, winning no more than 12 to 15 percent of the vote, did McCutcheon and Nesbitt admit to Talbot that McLaughlin was "the most popular Democrat north of Seattle."
Talbot also recalled receiving a phone call from Magistrate McLaughlin telling him a man was being detained in the City Hall basement, without warrant or arraignment, solely on the basis of a telegram from the Denver police chief that the man was wanted there. McLaughlin asked Talbot "if he knew how to spell 'habeus corpus'." Talbot arranged for a hearing but the prosecutor convinced the judge to delay the proceedings until the following Monday, while the defendant remained in jail. Talbot was furious at the judge's reasoning that the defendant already had been in jail for 30 days and "three or four more won't hurt." Talbot described McLaughlin as a "true Christian" who would help anybody who needed it and had little care for money.
Talbot began his own career practicing admiralty law in New York with some of the top practitioners in that field. He came to Alaska because "it was too hot in Brooklyn" and proclaims that he has "never had a bad day here."
Lucy Groh shared stories with Frida Hartlieb Neher, Ghislaine Cremo and Betty Cuddy about their experiences as young wives and mothers in Anchorage's pioneer days. Groh was one of the founders of the Bar Wives Club, which met once a month for lunch at Club 25. Other active members included Betty Cuddy, Evelyn McCutcheon and LaRue Hellenthal.
Groh was in charge of planning activities for the wives of lawyers during the first bar convention to be held in Anchorage, in 1956. She was a bit over-enthusiastic, planning so many trips and functions that the women were complaining they were worn out by the time the convention was over. Groh recalled attending a coffee party held during the convention at the hillside home of Ralph and Marge Cottis. Ann Stevens arrived in the middle of the party as did Melvin Belli, who was in town to attend the convention.
One of the first bar convention parties, which was organized by Wendell Kay and Bill Renfrew, was particularly memorable for Betty Cuddy. To get the party rolling, each lawyer was asked to stand up and introduce his wife, who was asked to tell the others what she had been doing lately. When Dan Cuddy introduced Betty, who was many months pregnant at the time, she brought down the house by blurting out, "it's pretty obvious what I've been doing."
Lucy Groh said that when her husband Cliff had his office in the old federal building at 4th and G, he frequently would leave his car unlocked so homeless men could use it to get out of the cold. On occasion, he had to pay an entrenched sleeper a dollar to get him to leave the car so Groh could go home. Groh and Frieda Hartleib Neher also recalled that the offices of their husbands' early firm, Hartlieb, Groh and Rader, had no running water and no toilets, so attorneys and staff were required to cross the street to the city library to use the facilities.
Virgil Vochoska and Russ Arnett remembered other challenges they faced during their early years in Nome. Arnett was a U.S. Commissioner in 1952, before the transition to statehood. Arnett recalls that, although the accused were duly advised of their right to counsel, there actually were no lawyers in private practice in Nome or the entire second division. As a result, Arnett said he found it necessary at times to cross-examine witnesses himself, which did not always go over well with a jury.
Senior Judge James von der Heydt, who was U.S. Attorney in Nome during the early 1950's, eventually did go into private practice there for five or six years. Virgil Vochoska took over the practice in 1960, when von de Heydt was appointed the first Superior Court Judge in Juneau.
Vochoska described how divorce actions were held in Nome for parties who remained in their villages. Vochoska often never met his client. Instead, he interviewed the client by telephone and then sent the client for signature in the village a document called a "divorce by reference," which constituted the evidence for the divorce.
Arnett said Vochoska's experience was typical of how things had to be done in the Bush during the territorial and early-statehood days. To conduct a face-to-face interview or examination of a village resident would require a trip to Nome by Bush plane. Rural areas did not have a cash economy at the time and no legal aid was available. Parties wanting to hire a lawyer for a divorce or adoption often could not afford the going rate of $250. As a result, Eskimo children usually were moved into new families without any legal adoption proceeding. "Lawyers and judges had to do the best they could under the circumstances," Arnett said.
Arnett and Vochoska were among those who continued exchanging memories long after the reunion dinner had ended. Many seemed reluctant to leave, perhaps because they did not know when they would see their old friends again. Or maybe it just felt good to share some of the old stories with people who had been there and would understand them in a way that others, even other lawyers, cannot.