Pueblo County, Colorado
Patti F. O'Rourke
Contributed by Karen Mitchell
Written by Doris B. Truhlar
Patti O'Rourke's perspective on her fifty-five-year career as an attorney and judge is that she has been given an incredible opportunity to "do something with my life that gives me great personal satisfaction." Serving others is a high priority for Senior District Court Judge O'Rourke. A desire to serve drew her to the legal profession. She was attracted to the law as a result of observing two friends of her mother's—"gentlemen lawyers," who had a strong commitment to helping others.
She comes by her concern for others honestly. Her mother had a great sensitivity to other people. "It was a mighty tough world my mother survived by being prudent and frugal and doing for others." She recalls a time when her mother, who was having difficulty providing for her own family, called a grocer and ordered fresh groceries for a relative, someone whose husband squandered the family's money on alcohol. "She said, if she'd sent them money, he would have just used it for drink." An energetic Irish widow who raised three children ("we all went to college"), Patti's mother believed "if you work very hard you can do anything you want to."
Getting an Education
Patti was valedictorian of her high school class in Mount Vernon, New York, and did undergraduate work at the College of New Rochelle in New Rochelle, New York. In 1942, when Patti told her mother she had enrolled in law school, her mom's reply was, "That's probably all right, Patti." Attending law school certainly was "all right." In 1944, Patti Hampel received her law degree from Fordham University School of Law at the age of 20. At the time Patti attended law school, during World War II, everyone was more concerned about the war than they were about women in law school. There were not many law students during the war years, "so they were very glad to have the tuition," even from women students. All of the professors were men. Some ignored the women; others were "really great." She remembers her contract law professor with fondness: "He taught me to study and to understand cases."
Since Patti was only 20 years old when she graduated from law school, she had to wait until she turned 21 (the minimum age to be admitted to the New York State Bar) to take the bar examination. After she passed the bar examination, she went to work immediately for the large New York City law firm of Whitman, Ransom, Coulson, and Goetz, which had offices on Wall Street. She spent the next four years concentrating her practice on stock transfer law.
In 1948, Judge O'Rourke moved to Montrose, Colorado, to follow her sweetheart, Jack O'Rourke, who eventually became her law partner. Jack had moved to Montrose because of his asthma; he thought the dry climate would be better for his health. Jack and Patti married in Colorado, and they had six children in only seven years ("I had two in diapers for years and years"). Jack, who suffered from various illnesses, died in 1965, leaving Patti to raise the six children on her own. In 1974, she married John C. Lamberson, who died in 1983. She now is grandmother to eight.
While living in Montrose, from 1948 to 1961, Judge O'Rourke practiced primarily tax law. She had been a full-time mother when her husband's secretary suggested she come to the office once a week to work on the bills and books. "I said, 'Great, it would be a break from washing dishes.' Jack was horrible with the bills, and sometimes didn't collect what he should. I started coming in and our collections went way up." While handling the billing for her husband's practice, Patti noticed that he turned down a fair number of clients with tax problems. She decided it didn't make any sense to turn away clients who needed help she could provide and began to handle the tax work. "The Internal Revenue Code in those days was a lot smaller. I would solve tax problems for ranchers and truckers, and all kinds of people. I have no understanding of the Internal Revenue Code today," she says, "but in those days, it was a piece of cake."
In 1961, Patti moved from Montrose to Pueblo, a move designed to help improve Jack's failing health. In Pueblo, she continued to practice law, expanding her practice to a variety of areas. She particularly remembers with fondness work she did for patients at what was called the Colorado State Hospital and is now known as the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo. A psychiatrist at that facility had noticed that many of his mental health patients had legal problems. He believed that those patients whose attorneys became personally involved and explained things to them made more progress. Patti was hired to run a legal clinic for patients, working two mornings a week. This was back in the days when there was no Legal Aid and no Public Defender's Office. She handled a variety of problems facing mental health patients, ranging from mental health commitments to evictions to loss of parental rights to divorce. Patti spent six years working in the clinic, finding it to be the "most tremendous learning experience" of her career.
"The Lady Lawyer, Pueblo"
In Pueblo, Judge O'Rourke first practiced solo and, then, in the 1970s, with Jack Jenkins and Gus Sandstrom in the firm of Jenkins, O'Rourke and Sandstrom. Patti loved practicing in this firm, saying, "It was a pleasure to work with these two wonderful lawyers." Patti had a large domestic relations practice during the 1960s and 1970s, and a majority of the clients were men. "I found out that they thought it gave them an advantage to have a female lawyer, or else they were looking for a mother." Many women also came to her because they thought she would understand their problems.
She remembers one case in which the woman had been abused by her husband, a man who had a steady job. Patti asked the court to waive the filing fee for the divorce; the judge refused. "Her husband has the money," the judge reasoned, "I'm not waiving her fee." Patti told him that the woman didn't have access to any of her husband's money. The judge still refused. "I didn't let it go," Patti recalls. "I said, 'Judge, there's only one thing she owns that she could sell, and that's her baby's crib. I'll go tell her that she has to sell the crib to pay the filing fee.'" The judge rolled his eyes, gave her a "look," and signed the order waiving the filing fee.
At that time, in the 1960s, Patti was the only woman lawyer in Pueblo. Some people thought it was strange; others thought it was great. She would get letters addressed only to "The Lady Lawyer, Pueblo."
Things have really changed in Pueblo, she notes. Today, there is a Colorado Women's Bar Association chapter in Pueblo and quite a few "lady" lawyers. Some work full-time; others work part-time so as to take care of their children. With regard to women who work part-time to care for their families, Judge O'Rourke comments, "More power to you, lady—be there for your children. When the young'uns will get to be in grade school, you can go back full-time. I don't see part-time lawyering as an improper or poor thing. Sure, you are not going to accomplish what you would if you were working six days a week, ten hours a day. But you are accomplishing things in your home, with your children and your husband. And that is equally valuable. I hope women professionals haven't given up the companionship of the family, their home, and their husband."
Along these lines, Judge O'Rourke says her biggest regret is that, when she was raising her six children alone, she "never went at less than a gallop. It wasn't good for them and it wasn't good for me. I feel I missed something. I spent much more time with my two oldest than I did with my two youngest." Despite this, she feels "blessed to be close with my children today."
Judge O'Rourke goes on to say she would caution young lawyers about the choices they make that will impact their quality of life. "Think long and hard about large versus small law firm life," she says. "There is a huge difference between the two. Making money may not be the most important factor. The relationships with clients are part of what made life worthwhile for me." Much depends on "the kind of person you are," she says. "I am a people person. I have often thought how fortunate I have been to represent individuals. I could relate to them as human beings and they could relate to me."
Judge O'Rourke has an interesting insight into what makes a lawyer successful. "Some lawyers seem to have a knack of critically analyzing a case and immediately seeing the crux of the case. Others don't have that ability; they have to talk about so much detail that is really unnecessary. The attorney who gets up to make an argument in court ought to think, 'What is the case really about?' Then, he or she ought to focus in on that part of the case. That is the difference between the winners and the losers, as far as I can see."
The trend toward mediation, settlement, and other forms of alternative dispute resolution is a move in the right direction, she believes. "When there is litigation, the winner thinks he was right, and the loser just thinks he had a bad attorney. In mediation, both sides can come out of the process feeling that they have won."
A Judgeship and Beyond
Patti was appointed to the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission in 1972, and eventually became the first woman elected to chair that commission. She was still serving in that capacity in 1981 when she was appointed by Governor Richard Lamm to the district court bench for the Tenth Judicial District. Patti served nine years as a district court judge, taking senior judge status in 1990 and hearing cases throughout the state. In 1996 and 1997, former Chief Justice Anthony Vollack called on her to help reduce the backlog of parental termination cases in the Denver Juvenile Court.
Judge O'Rourke has renewed her contract to serve as a senior judge for 2000, but is taking a leave of absence. She decided that this was a good time in her life to concentrate on other things she wants to accomplish. One of these goals is to go back to a hospice where she used to volunteer. She thinks it is extremely important to work with dying people. "I promised them I'd come back and I will. Besides, I think now that I'm older I'd be better at it."
She also plans to work on behalf of various historic preservation groups. One project that is particularly dear to her heart is getting all of the historical preservation groups in the area to establish an integrated museum. Five preservation groups have signed up so far. She also hopes that the groups will incorporate into their mission statements a commitment to represent all ethnic groups in southern Colorado. All groups should "admit the mistakes of their ancestors toward minorities and celebrate our diversity," a credo she believes may help blot out racism.
Judge O'Rourke has made many contributions during her life and has received several awards and honors. Here are but a few. She served as President, Board of Directors, for the Pueblo Association for Retarded Children; President, Southeastern Colorado Health Systems Agency Board of Directors; Chair, Pueblo Commission on Community Relations; President, Board of Directors, Pueblo Community Health Center; Chair, Criminal Justice Committee, Pueblo Community College; Chair, Colorado Bar Association Mental Health Committee; Secretary and President, Pueblo County Bar Association; Chair, Pueblo Area Council on Aging; Chair, Primary Health Care Delivery Services; and Chair, Boys and Girls Club of Pueblo, Inc.
Judge O'Rourke was named Coach of the Year, Salt Creek Basketball League, and Woman of Achievement, Pueblo Business and Professional Women's Club. She was honored by the Colorado Women's Bar Association, Judicial Reception, 1997, and received the Alpha Phi Sigma-Epsilon Delta Criminal Justice Award and the Pueblo County Bar Association Exemplary Service Award.
Former Chief Justice Vollack summed up the personality of this 76-year-old dynamo when he said, "If you want a job done, call on Patti O'Rourke. She'll get it done right."
to the Pueblo County Index Page.
Please e-mail comments and suggestions toKaren Mitchell.
|© Karen Mitchell |