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The history of the Anchorage Bar Association: From the Lido Bar to good deeds

(From the January-February and March-April 2002 editions of the Alaska Bar Rag)

By Pamela Cravez
Before there was an ’Anchorage Bar Association,’ there was just the Anchorage bar, a small group of lawyers who got together for lunch, drinks, poker, to exchange stories, arrange for weekend flying-fishing trips, and generally have a good time.

When Dorothy Tyner visited Anchorage in the summer of 1945 with thoughts of moving to the city to practice law, she met with the Anchorage bar. They wined and dined her, and offered to send cases her way. Afterwards, the eight men--about three quarters of the dozen or so lawyers in Anchorage--stood outside and memorialized their meeting with the attractive woman attorney by having a picture taken. Their easy camaraderie convinced Tyner to move and she became the first woman to open up a private practice in the city.(1)

Tyner joined a diverse group of Anchorage lawyers. Some, like Ed Davis and Bill Renfrew, had law degrees. Others, like Stan McCutcheon, read law with a practicing attorney. Another, J.L. McCarrey, first came to Alaska in the 1930s selling silk stockings for the Utah Woolen Mills and later decided to become an attorney. He went back to law school in Utah and returned in the 1940s to open his practice.

Although backgrounds differed, most attorneys spent their days going to court, handling criminal work, domestic relations cases and small civil matters. Only a few, such as Davis and Renfrew, had a more business oriented practice. But not nearly enough to cause any great divisions in the small group of lawyers. Any professional adversarial relationships were easily tempered by a shared bottle of ’Old GrandDad’ or a good practical joke.(2)

Where court rules and codes of conduct today define legal practice, in the 1940s lawyers depended upon a more personal approach. A phone call, a handshake, or a simple exchange of words often sufficed in legal transactions. Anchorage lawyers knew each other well enough to know how long it might take for one to get an agreement reduced to writing, or if another was going to have a hangover the next day in court. A contract between two parties did not need to be complicated by two attorneys when one would do.

The sole district court judge for the Third Judicial Division, Judge Anthony Dimond, had never been to law school. Like many who came to Alaska in territorial years, he began as a prospector. When an accident sidelined him, he took up the law, studying in a Valdez law office, practicing, and eventually gaining election to Alaska’s voteless delegate seat in Washington, D.C. In 1944, Dimond received appointment to the Third Division bench. Judge Dimond presided over a casual courtroom, even refusing to wear a robe. His courtroom became even more casual when he traveled with the floating court.

The Floating Court
Every two years (in about May or June), the judge of the third division took a Coast Guard cutter from Seward to Kodiak and then all along the Aleutian chain, stopping periodically to hold court.

’They’d grant divorces in school houses, cabins. They held court in the weirdest places, any place that had a roof,’ said John Hellenthal, who traveled with Judge Dimond during at least one session of the floating court. The U.S. Attorney, or one of his assistants, private defense attorneys, a doctor and dentist often accompanied the court. At each stop people besieged court personnel with legal problems and papers accumulated since the court’s last visit. Marriage certificates issued by the postmaster and validated with cigar coupons were replaced with more legally binding papers.

Trips on the floating court were not only an opportunity to do legal business and see a bit of Alaska but also time for socializing. That was the spirit in which the Anchorage bar did all its business. Weekly gatherings were as much drinking parties as business meetings or time for legal education. And no one exemplified the spirit of the Anchorage bar more than its leader, George Grigsby.

The Grigsby Era
When Cliff Groh, Sr. arrived in Anchorage in the fall of 1952 there was no ’Anchorage Bar Association’ with bylaws and a constitution. Still, lawyers met regularly at gatherings presided over by the ’president’ of the Anchorage bar, George Grigsby.

’He was a tyrant. If he didn’t like you, you couldn’t come to the bar,’ recalled Groh. ’You sort of had to bring him a bottle of whiskey and set it on the table to cloak you with respectability.’

Nearly every Anchorage lawyer met on Saturdays at the Lido Bar and Cafe. ’Some of the troops would sit around and drink, go to Grigsby’s office and play poker,’ Groh remembered. By 1952 Grigsby had been in Anchorage more than a decade and in Alaska more than five decades. (3)

Grigsby first arrived in Nome in 1901 as an assistant to his father, Col. Melvin Grigsby, Nome’s U.S. attorney. Although his father left the territory after less than a year, George remained and eventually served as Nome’s district attorney and mayor. As Nome’s gold rush wound down, Grigsby ran for political office, winning election in 1917 to become the territory’s first attorney general. He relocated to Juneau and later moved to Ketchikan. Throughout the years, Grigsby became well known among Alaskans for his skill in the courtroom and gregarious nature.

Sensing Anchorage’s growing importance, Grigsby moved to the city in the early 1940s. He arrived as the sleepy railroad town of 4,000 people transformed to a bustling construction site. (4)

The building of the military base in Anchorage to support American involvement in World War II and post war developments nearly tripled Anchorage’s population by the end of the decade. During the 1940s Anchorage also became the seat of the Third Division Federal Court, which had been located in Valdez until destroyed by fire in 1939.

The 60-ish Grigsby opened up his law office, taking court appointments and representing quite a few of the women conducting business in establishments with such quaint names as ’Marie Cox’s Chili Parlor.’ Between his deft courtroom performances and a cutting wit, Grigsby quickly became the titular head of the small group of Anchorage lawyers. He regaled the Anchorage bar with stories from his four decades of practice in Alaska. In a city known for its transience, Grigsby embodied a sense of Alaskan permanence and color. Anchorage lawyers established a tradition of celebrating Grigsby’s birthday at the same time they threw their Christmas party--not a family affair but one of generous toasts and long stories.

The Bar Debates McCarrey Appointment
Although the Anchorage bar continued its tradition of easy socializing into the 1950s, it also began to get more involved in professional matters. With nearly three dozen attorneys in town and a court docket noted for its multi-year backlog, attorneys began to want more control over the legal system and their business.

In 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower became president, all appointed positions in the territory--from postmaster to federal judge--were opened and Anchorage attorneys jockeyed for a say in who would be the next judge to decide their cases.

’The big argument in the bar was that they [might] appoint somebody from outside [of Alaska] to be the federal judge,’ remembered Groh.

Anchorage attorney Herald Stringer, who was also Republican national committeeman, searched for a suitable Alaskan candidate to recommend, but the search wasn’t easy because most of the two dozen or so lawyers in Anchorage were Democrats. Former Anchorage mayor and fellow Republican John Manders seemed a likely first choice until Stringer learned of Manders’ philosophical opposition to the income tax. Manders had refused to pay his income tax for years. Eventually Stringer settled upon J.L. McCarrey, Jr.

Stringer appealed to Anchorage lawyers to support McCarrey’s nomination, but they refused. Groh remembered a secret ballot among attorneys at an Anchorage bar meeting that somehow made it into the Anchorage Times the under the headline, ’Bar refuses to Endorse McCarrey.’

A later vote of the bar, under Stringer’s urging, provided a limp endorsement and McCarrey became judge. The flap over McCarrey’s endorsement--and his subsequent lackluster performance as judge--became an active topic of conversation among Anchorage bar members and at bar meetings. When Judge McCarrey began to publicly discipline members of the Anchorage bar, the bar decided to do more than talk.

Lawyer Discipline Gets Out of Hand
Under the territorial system all complaints against lawyers went directly to the U.S. Attorney’s office for investigation, then to the grand jury for indictment and finally to the territorial court for adjudication. Anchorage bar members rallied behind comrades accused of unprofessional conduct, serving as defense counsel or witnesses, but in 1955 they took a further step, lobbying the territorial legislature to pass the Integrated Bar Act.(5) Anchorage attorney and Speaker of the House, Wendell Kay, introduced the bill creating a territorial bar association.(6)

The Integrated Bar Act of 1955 took the power to discipline attorneys away from the U.S. Attorney’s office and court and gave the job of investigating complaints to a new independent Alaska Bar Association. The territory-wide association, with its Board of Governors and power to discipline and admit attorneys, gave a new wrinkle to politics among Alaska lawyers.

During the 1950s more and more attorneys entered the territory, most with law degrees and expectations of a more structured and predictable practice. This gradual shift among lawyers away from the easygoing practice of the 1940s, along with the establishment of the Alaska Bar Association and proposals for a state judiciary, prompted Anchorage lawyers to formalize their own loose association. In the January of 1957 Anchorage attorneys adopted a constitution and bylaws declaring:
"This Association is established to promote the Administration of Justice, to maintain the honor and dignity of the profession of the law, and generally to promote the best interests of the legal profession, in so far as the same may not conflict with the public welfare, to promote good public relations, to cultivate friendly social and business relations among its members, and to promote a spirit of friendship and cooperation between the Anchorage Bar and other bar associations within and without the Territory of Alaska." (7)

The President of the Anchorage Bar, elected unanimously, was George Grigsby. Buell Nesbett was elected Vice President, L. Eugene Williams was elected secretary and Roger Cremo was treasurer.(8)

Today’s ’Anchorage Bar Association’ descends from the gathering of lawyers presided over by George Grigsby in the 1940s and 50s. The evolution of the association, from simple, informal get togethers, to an organization with a constitution, by-laws, a steady stream of revenue-- from copy machines, annual family train ride, picnic, Christmas party, and philanthropic endeavors--is in large part due to the many changes in Alaska and in the legal profession since the 1940s.

Not only has the Anchorage bar grown from a dozen lawyers to over 1,000, but legal practice too has become more technical and rule-driven. No longer does one attorney write a contract for all the parties; no longer does one judge preside over the Anchorage court. There are, however, some things about the Anchorage Bar Association that have not changed. It still provides a place for Anchorage attorneys to get together outside the context of cases and court, to socialize outside the adversarial relationships of work-a-day life. In the 1950s and 1960s, though, the Anchorage Bar did not shy away from adversarial confrontations.

An Activist Anchorage Bar
As Alaska moved toward statehood in the 1950s Anchorage lawyers used their bar association to have a voice in the changes to come. With Grigsby still the ceremonial ’President’ of the Anchorage Bar Association, Anchorage attorneys elected Buell Nesbett vice president and authorized him to ’act’ as president. Under Nesbett, the Anchorage Bar reviewed and recommended proposals for the prospective state court system. And the bar spearheaded a successful drive to convince Congress not to reappoint Judge McCarrey to the Anchorage bench.

When the Alaska Bar Association’s Board of Governors selected the first three lawyer members of the judicial council--the council which would recommend the first state judicial candidates--Anchorage lawyers rebelled. The three candidates recommended by the board of governors all had a plaintiff orientation. Many Anchorage lawyers feared a ’loaded’ state court bench.

In 1959, Edward Davis presided over a meeting of the Anchorage Bar at the Loussac Library in downtown Anchorage. Angry lawyers threatened to convene a special meeting to recall the board of governors if the board did not withdraw the judicial council candidates. The Anchorage Bar voted to submit Buell Nesbett’s and Raymond Plummer’s names to the board of governors to replace one of the three original candidates. Plummer joined Ernie Bailey of Ketchikan and Robert Parrish of Fairbanks as the third lawyer-member of the judicial council. This action of the Anchorage Bar paved the way for Edward Davis to be appointed superior court judge in Anchorage and Buell Nesbett to become the first chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court.

Although Anchorage lawyers influenced selection of the first judiciary, in particular, the elevation of Buell Nesbett to the highest court, they soon came to regret the result. By the early 1960s, Anchorage lawyers found themselves in a new battle, this time pitted against their former vice president and now Chief Justice, Buell Nesbett.

The Court-Bar Fight
With statehood a reality and formation of the state court system underway, the backlog of cases before the court began to ease and the level of professionalism increase. Although lawyers appreciated the reforms, the public began questioning the bar’s ability to police its own members. A rash of suspensions following statehood slowed to a trickle as disciplinary committees in some cities became bogged down with more work than they could handle.

In Anchorage, Dave Talbot handled disciplinary complaints with a phone call or a visit. ’With any luck at all, by five the next night there is no more problem,’ Talbot recalled. But other cities were less efficient and Justice Nesbett began to believe the Supreme Court should get involved.

In 1964 Justice Nesbett promulgated a new set of bar rules placing the Alaska Bar Association under the Supreme Court and giving the Supreme Court a decisive role in lawyer discipline. The Alaska Bar Association Board of Governors resigned, refusing to serve under Nesbett. When Justice Nesbett sent Court Administrator Thomas Stewart to the First National Bank of Anchorage to take bar funds, the bank cashier requested the trooper accompanying Stewart draw his gun before the funds would be handed over. Within an hour the Anchorage Times hit the newsstands and the headline said it all ’Court Takes Bar Funds at Gunpoint.’

The Anchorage Bar Association took an active role in what has come to be known as the court-bar fight. Justice Nesbett complained about the Anchorage Bar to Alaska State Senator Robert McNealy in a letter dated the day after the bank fiasco:
"The Anchorage Bar Association went so far as to create a special committee with one main responsibility--that of causing legislation to be introduced of a type which would harass the supreme court and which might possibly create a rift between the legislature and the court over the Alaska Bar Rules."

Not only did the Anchorage bar lobby legislators, it also actively participated in the resulting suit brought by the Alaska Bar Association against Buell Nesbett.(9) President of the Anchorage Bar, Wendell Kay, along with Anchorage lawyers David Talbot and George Boney, lead Anchorage lawyers in the battle against Justice Nesbett’s takeover of the Alaska bar.(10) The three served as co-counsel in a case filed against the Supreme Court by the Alaska Bar Association, along with outside counsel, Joe Ball.

Before the court-bar fight ended in a settlement, Anchorage lawyers, along with lawyers outside of Anchorage, launched a campaign to vote Justice Harry Arend off the Alaska Supreme Court bench. Arend, up for a retention election in 1965, lost his seat in a vote orchestrated by lawyers.

Anchorage Bar circa 1960s
’I started eating lunch with Anchorage lawyers when I was still a law clerk,’ remembered Ken Jensen, who clerked in the early 1960s. Admitted in 1963, Jensen found the bar fight disturbing.

’I was very supportive of the bar position,’ Jensen remembered. Meetings of the Anchorage Bar Association during the bar fight took on a life of their own. ’A key phrase was, ëSometimes you have to pick up the bat and walk toward the pitcher,’’ Jensen remembered. But he regretted the bar’s role in throwing Justice Arend off the bench. ’Harry Arend was a fine person.’

In the 1960s Wendell Kay was ’president for life’ of the Anchorage Bar, according to Jensen. ’Wendell was very kind and generous to young lawyers...(He) ran (the bar) as a political patronage deal...There was no bar referral. Everybody who wanted a lawyer was referred to the president of the Anchorage bar...The president could decide to do the work himself or refer it out.’

When Jensen joined the Anchorage bar there were only about 30 or 40 lawyers in town. ’Many lawyers would attend calendar call on Friday whether they had anything on the calendar or not. Everyone was there and you could see what was going on. It was kind of a social event.’

Not coincidentally, the Anchorage Bar Association also met on Fridays in one place or another. Jensen remembered meeting at various times at the Captain Cook, Westward, Elks, and the Mermac Lounge. ’We actually perceived that we were transacting business,’ Jensen remembered.

Jim Powell, who arrived in Anchorage in the late 1960s from Fairbanks, quickly got involved in weekly Anchorage Bar meetings. ’You just didn’t want to miss one of those meetings because you would be a week behind on what was happening," Powell recalled. ’During the legislative session they would discuss exactly what a committee was doing and take a position on any conceivable bill that had anything to do with the practice of law. There would be close vote,’ he added.

Both Powell and Jensen remember one meeting in particular where the topic wasn’t legislation but the bar’s minimum fee schedule. ’Charlie Hagans made an impassioned plea for the bar association to get off its dead butt...ëWhatever you do you’ve got to raise that (minimum) fee to $35.’ Because he’d broken away from Delaney’s firm at that time... Insurance companies wouldn’t pay anything above the minimum fee,’ Jensen said. ’The (minimum) fee was actually lower than anyone was charging,’ Jensen added.

Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s the Anchorage bar and bench enjoyed a close relationship. ’There was a perception by the court that the Anchorage Bar Association had clout,’ remembered Jensen. ’The bar did have active committees trying to deal with scheduling and pretrial procedures, there was a lot of interactive communications between the bar and bench. Even when (Court Administrator Arthur) Snowden showed up we still had considerable clout. The saga of the copy machines in the library that made the Anchorage bar rich could never have gotten underway without there being an interest on the part of Art Snowden to cooperate with the bar to keep the money from going into the state treasury.’

About Those Copy Machines...
In 1975 Alaska Court Administrator Arthur Snowden came to the Anchorage Bar Association and proposed that the association take over the running and maintenance of copy machines in the state law library.

Snowden’s problem, remembered Bob Ely, was that if the court system ran the copy machines all revenues would go to the general fund and Snowden would have to apply to the legislature to get them back. The deal with the Anchorage Bar provided a sum to be returned to the state law library and the rest to go to the bar.

Over the years the Anchorage Bar has donated microfiche cabinets, replaced lost or damaged library volumes, and purchased reference books for the library. The arrangement between the Anchorage Bar and the court system has gone through a number of changes. In 1990 the contract was modified to provide the state library with 50 percent of the proceeds, the Anchorage Bar Association 35 percent, and the Alaska Bar Association 15 percent. The Anchorage Bar may only use its percentage for legal education, according to Ely.

Copy machines revenues--both from the state court and later from the federal court, where the Anchorage Bar gets 100 percent of the unrestricted funds--have grown over the years, providing an easy way to identify two distinct eras in the Anchorage Bar Association, BC (Before Copiers) and AC (After Copiers).

’Before they had money they just had fun,’ said Harry Branson. Before Copiers, the Anchorage Bar had little money but enjoyed close-knit socializing and politicking. BC bar members looked forward to weekly luncheons, toppled a Supreme Court Justice, and regularly informed the public of its position on issues with paid advertisements in the newspapers and radio.

After Copiers Anchorage Bar Association coffers filled and allowed the organization a philanthropic component. AC members still got involved in issues, such as fighting the appointment of private attorneys in conflict cases, debating the legalization of marijuana, and urging standards for judicial appointment to include ’substantial private practice with a broad range of civil practice.’ But AC, as more and more lawyers joined the Anchorage Bar, fewer had time for weekly luncheons and easygoing socializing.

’Nouveau Riche’ Anchorage Bar Board Supports Projects
As attendance at weekly luncheons slowly declined, Anchorage Bar board members looked at other ways to serve Anchorage lawyers. With its growing affluence, the board began to change its focus. In 1979 the Anchorage Bar board gave seed money to start the Alaska Bar Rag.

’They wanted us to change the name to Centurion or Guardian, then gave the money anyway,’ remembered Bar Rag founder and first editor, Harry Branson. Over the years the Anchorage Bar continued to support the Bar Rag when its cash flow lagged.

In the early 1980s the Anchorage Bar provided grant money to conduct an oral history of the Alaska Bar Association. It further supported preserving Alaska’s legal history during the Alaska Bar Association centennial. In 1996 the board donated cabinets to house historical memorabilia at the new Nesbett courthouse.

Not only has the Anchorage Bar been interested in historical work, it has also been active in promoting legal education among Anchorage youth. In 1988, the Anchorage Bar Association gave seed money to start the Anchorage Youth Court. The Youth Court, organized and staffed by the Alaska Bar Association’s Young Lawyer’s Association (also financially supported by the Anchorage Bar), gives Anchorage teens a peer forum for resolving small criminal matters. The bar also funds an annual moot court competition for high school students around the state.

The Anchorage Bar has supported women’s issues, funding the Alaska Women’s Resource Center production of a domestic violence handbook and the Joint State-Federal Courts Gender Equality Task Force production of a final report.

This is just a small fraction of the Anchorage Bar’s charitable work over the years. Although it continues to support projects including alternative dispute mediation between criminals and their victims, museum exhibits, Alaska Bar Foundation scholarships, and a program of loans to lawyers referred by the bar’s substance abuse committee, the Anchorage bar has not lost sight of one of its most important functions: having fun.

How to Throw a Party
’I missed a meeting and they put me in charge of a dance,’ remembered Branson. ’I bought good champagne and they lost a lot of money. They wouldn’t appoint me again,’ he said.

Although the Fall/Winter Dance Branson organized in 1982 for the Anchorage Bar didn’t attract many people (in 1989 a Spring Roundup also didn’t come off as planned), other events have been more successful.

The Anchorage Bar Picnic, which began as a small family affair at Sand Lake in 1976, was reworked in 1981 by picnic chairman Judith Bazeley into a train ride to Snyder Park in Wasilla. The annual summer picnic now features pony rides and clowns and t-shirts and a sawdust pile full of coins. And, still, of course, great food and the train ride.

Although the Anchorage Bar no longer celebrates goldrush attorney George Grigsby’s birthday at Christmas, it does have a bash. Now it’s a holiday party geared toward the whole family and includes an appearance by Santa. And Paul Kelley has made the Anchorage Bar’s St. Patrick’s Day a successful annual date for lawyers to get together.

These big three annual events, along with a generous hospitality room during annual bar conventions and a welcoming drink to new bar admittees, are basic, every year occurrences. But the bar’s social activities don’t end there.

More Parties
Just about everyone who went to the retirement party thrown by the Anchorage bar for Superior Court Judge Ralph Moody cringes when they remember Stan Ditus’ remarks. In fact, the remarks--liberated by a few too many drinks--have lead to the bar’s new policy regarding judicial retirement parties.

’The judges had absolutely no veto over anything embarrassing,’ said Bob Ely. Now they do. The court system used to call the bar on an emergency basis, remembered Ely. ’We’re having a retirement party tomorrow night,’ Ely used to hear and then had to scramble to get something together.

’Now they work with us to put things together,’ Ely said. ’It was (Judge) Karen Hunt’s idea to have an agreement with the court system on retirement and installation banquets,’ Ely added. Some notable retirement parties the Anchorage bar has helped fund or organize include those for Judges James von der Heydt, Edward Davis, Harold Butcher, and Ralph Moody and Justices Edmond Burke and Jay Rabinowitz.

Everchanging Anchorage Bar
As the Anchorage bar has grown from a mere dozen members to more than 1,000, over the past 50 years, the Anchorage Bar Association continues to find ways to have influence in the community and provide a place for lawyers to socialize outside of the adversarial process.

’When I was first on the association board,’ said Bob Ely, who has been a board member off and on since the mid-1970s, ’we tried to have regular meetings. It was clear there was not enough enthusiasm. So, we’re essentially a board that meets and spends money. We consider grants and applications for funding initial development and start up grants.’

Ely, who clerked for the last territorial judge, J.L. McCarrey in 1959, remembers when the Anchorage Bar didn’t have any money and when lawyers got together at the drop of a hat. ’I was most impressed by the conviviality,’ said Ely of the 1960s.

Still, Ely sees the current Anchorage Bar as providing a valuable service, albeit different from the association of 35 years ago. Instead of weekly meetings, three popular social events bring busy Anchorage lawyers and their families together. Seed money from the Anchorage Bar has supported a number of worthwhile causes. And Ely added, ’Retirement banquets make lawyers feel good about the judicial system--to celebrate sacrifices and long term service on the bench.’

1. Dorothy Tyner was interviewed as part of the Anchorage Bar Association’s oral history project. Appointed to the Anchorage District Court in 1968, she became one of the first women , along with Fairbanks attorney Mary Alice Miller appointed that same year , to sit on the Alaska state court bench.
2. Interview with John Hughes.
3. Colonel Grigsby was removed from office for leaving his post during the winter months.
4. Anchorage’s population grew from 4,229 to 11,254 from 1940 to 1950. See, Alaska A History of the 49th State, by Claus-M. Naske and Herman E. Slotnick, Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI (1979), App. B, p. 305.
5. A rash of disciplinary cases in the 1950s galvanized the Anchorage bar, including cases against Herald Stringer, Bailey Bell and John Shaw.
6. 1955 Alaska Sess. Laws 196.
7. Constitution of the Anchorage Bar Association, Article II, Objects and Purposes, Adopted, January 5, 1957.
8. Annual election of officers, November 30, 1957. It appears that these attorneys had all held the same office during the previous year. Minutes of Anchorage Bar Association, L. Eugene Williams, Secretary.
9. Alaska Bar Association v. Nesbett, No. A-42-64 CIV. (D. Alaska filed July 29, 1964).
10. Kay and Talbot also served as counsel for Neil Mackay when the Supreme Court reopened a disciplinary case against Mackay in 1964.

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