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TCL > July 2013 Issue > Donald E. Cordova (1938–2003)

July 2013       Vol. 42, No. 7       Page  49
Six of the Greatest

Donald E. Cordova (1938–2003)
by Miles Cortez

About the Author

Miles Cortez is Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer of Aimco. He is a Past President of both the Colorado Bar Association and the Denver Bar Association. He was a personal friend of Don Cordova—


Born in Trinidad, Colorado on January 26, 1938, in a home with dirt floors, Don Cordova was a fourth-generation descendant of New Mexico and Colorado homesteaders and the sixth of ten children. From these humble origins but with the benefit of a strong family commitment to education and hard work, Don prepared himself well for a professional career in the law that is characterized by and remembered for its professionalism, commitment to excellence and volunteerism, and well-earned success and accomplishment.

Personal History

Don Cordova’s parents were Benigno Cordova, a native Coloradan, and Eloyda Ortiz Cordova, a native of New Mexico. Benigno received his degree in education from what is now the University of Northern Colorado and for a time was a teacher in a one-room school in Trinidad. He later became the bookkeeper for the City of Trinidad. Eloyda worked as the cook for the Las Animas County Jail. Both parents were great believers in the value and power of education.

Don received twelve years of a rewarding education at Holy Trinity in Trinidad, administered by the Cincinnati Sisters of Charity, and graduated from Holy Trinity High School in 1956. At Holy Trinity, he excelled academically and served as president of the Student Council, a harbinger of things to come in his professional life. In 1961, he graduated with a BA degree in History from Regis College in Denver, where he had been on the Dean’s List and played varsity baseball.

Don’s introduction to the law wasn’t suggestive of the stellar career that would evolve. On St. Patrick’s Day in 1960, when Don was just two months shy of graduating from Regis College, he led a Regis contingent to the merriment at the renowned Duffy’s Tavern on Court Place in Denver (as would any fun-loving "Hispanic Irishman"). Realizing when he left the celebration that he’d forgotten his coat, he tried to go back inside but was refused entry by Duffy’s bouncer, who was managing the horde still trying to enter the establishment. Undeterred, Don tried to muscle his way back into Duffy’s, only to be unceremoniously welcomed by gendarmes of the Denver Police Department. That ignominy was exceeded only by the suspension administered by the Regis Dean of Students for Don’s perceived rowdiness, resulting in the postponement of Don’s graduation from Regis until 1961. He made good use of the time away from academia by enlisting in the Army to satisfy any possible military obligation. Jack Gallagher and Jim Saavedra, two of his Regis buddies, who remember him as "a natural leader," teased him throughout his life about Duffy’s, and Don always took the ribbing in good humor.

A Budding Legal Career

Don was encouraged to attend law school by Colorado Supreme Court Justice Frank Hall. He was admitted to the University of Colorado Law School (CU Law) and was fortunate to receive financial aid from the law school. He worked his way through law school washing dishes and bussing tables in a Boulder restaurant.

After graduation in 1964, Don began his professional career with a brief stint with the law firm of Schmidt & Van Cise, where he worked alongside Dale Tooley, who later would become Denver’s District Attorney and a mayoral candidate. Don left that firm to accept an appointment as an Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) in Denver, where he served under U.S. Attorney Larry Henry. During his tenure with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he tried approximately 100 jury cases and twelve appeals.

One memorable story of Don’s time as an AUSA was his 1967 prosecution of a case of first impression in Colorado: unlawful possession of LSD. Donald P. MacDonald, a former AUSA himself—and later president of the Denver Bar Association (DBA), from 1981 to 1982—represented the defendant. MacDonald filed a general motion to dismiss, which Chief Judge Alfred Arraj set for immediate hearing without waiting for briefs on the matter. At the hearing, MacDonald argued that there had been no scientific evidence that LSD was a dangerous substance within the letter or intent of the federal statute. A surprised Don Cordova responded: "Well, your Honor, I read in a magazine recently that an elephant was injected with LSD. The elephant died. Therefore, it’s clear that the purpose of the statute—" Judge Arraj finished the sentence for him, "is to protect elephants."1

Don’s dear friend and U.S. Attorney’s Office colleague, Wick Downing, recalls Don’s sage advice to streamline Downing’s prosecution of a robbery case rather than over-trying it by anticipating the defense case. Downing refers to Don’s "core of integrity, his humility, and his sense of gratitude." When Downing’s longtime significant other, Mary Halloran, knew that her terminal cancer was about to prevail, the couple asked Don to marry them, which he gladly did exactly forty-one days before she passed away.

Don left the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1968 to join the well-known insurance defense firm of Zarlengo, Mott & Carlin, where he continued to hone his trial skills in the civil courts. In 1983, he launched his own firm, Donald E. Cordova, P.C., specializing in fields of insurance defense, product liability, healthcare and hospital law, and defense of medical malpractice. In 1988, he became one of the founding members of Cordova, DeMoulin, Harris & Mellon, P.C. During his twenty-two years in private practice, Don earned a reputation as an outstanding trial lawyer—highly principled and ethical, a "straight shooter," and a formidable adversary.

Bankruptcy Court Judge—
More Than Up to the Challenge

Much to the surprise of his colleagues throughout the bar, Don was appointed a judge of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Colorado in 1990. Having built his professional persona in no area of the law remotely related to bankruptcy, he endured some predictable ribbing from some of his closest professional friends. For example, Tom Seawell asked him: "Don, do you even know how to spell bankruptcy?"2 Notwithstanding the jabs, Don was not only up to the task, he absolutely excelled on the bench. One of his colleagues on the bankruptcy court, Judge Sid Brooks, heaps praise on Don’s performance on the bench. Using an NFL draft analogy, Brooks called Don the "best available athlete" for the judgeship opening. Brooks said recently:

What he lacked in a substantive bankruptcy law background, he more than compensated for with great lawyering skills. [He had] an understanding of what was required for pre-trial preparation and how to manage trials. As such, he came to the bench better prepared than most new bankruptcy judges and he picked up the substantive bankruptcy law very quickly. He was fair, open-minded, and professional.3

In the learning process, Don was never too proud to ask questions of his bankruptcy court colleagues, particularly Brooks and Don’s longtime friend Judge Chuck Matheson.

So successful was Don as a bankruptcy judge that he was appointed Chief Judge of the Bankruptcy Court for the District of Colorado in 2002. He became a member of the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges, and served on its Board of Governors from 1996 to 1999. From 1994 to 2000, he also served as a member of the Judicial Conference Advisory Committee on Bankruptcy Rules. Judge Brooks observed that Don was always thoughtful and professional as a judge. He never let personal views interfere with the decision and he was never too proud to ask questions of his more experienced bankruptcy court colleagues. Judge Brooks attributes the fact that his twenty-five years on the bench have been so satisfying and enjoyable to his friendship, camaraderie, and shared humor with Judge Cordova and Judge Matheson.

Jurists on the U.S. Bankruptcy Court with whom Don Codova served are (seated): Patricia A. Clark, Charles E. Matheson, and Marcia S. Krieger; (standing): Roland J. Brumbaugh and Sidney B. Brooks.

Professional Recognitions
and Positions of Leadership

  CBA and DBA Executive Director Chuck Turner and Don at a bar event.

Throughout his career, Don was extremely active in the DBA and the Colorado Bar Association (CBA). The honors and awards he received for his efforts and leadership are legion. In 1973, he was presented the DBA Outstanding Young Lawyer Award. He served on the DBA Board of Trustees, was a member of the DBA Centennial and Judicial Administration Committees, and participated in the Metro Volunteer Lawyers and Legal Aid Foundation programs. His commitment to the DBA culminated in his election as president, where he served with distinction from 1987 to 1988. He served as a vice president of the CBA and as a member of the CBA Board of Governors, as well as a member of the CBA Transitions and Diversity in the Legal Profession Committees. He also served a five-year term in the House of Delegates of the American Bar Association. He was a Fellow of both the American and Colorado Bar Foundations.

Committed to diversity in the legal profession and mindful of his rich ethnic heritage, Don served as president of the Colorado Hispanic Bar Association in 1984 and remained committed to mentorship of minority lawyers throughout his career. Don served his law alma mater as president of the CU Law Alumni Board. He was inducted into the CU Alumni Hall of Fame for his many accomplishments. In 2000, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from CU Law.

Not-All-Work Work

  In 1988, outgoing DBA President Donald E. Cordova hands the gavel to incoming President Charles L. Casteel.

Some of Don’s happiest memories from his professional life stemmed from his membership in and eventual presidency of the Law Club of Denver. He performed in several of its renowned shows at the bar conventions at the Broadmoor, alongside his beloved wife, Patty. His best friend and law school friend, Senior Court of Appeals Judge Bob Kapelke, recalls fondly Don’s memorable performance as "Darth Vinner" in one such infamous Law Club revue. The satiric vignette, as one would expect, was the brainchild of the prolific Kapelke, and sprung from the trial bar’s (alternating admiration/disdain) view of Chief Judge Fred Winner of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. Don’s Vinner wore the Darth Vader costume from Star Wars, complete with daunting mask. As this particular segment of the show concluded, Judge Winner stood up in the audience and stomped out with a flair, setting the crowd abuzz. The final number of the show featured all the leading characters of the show, including Darth Vinner. But when Darth removed his mask, it was not Don Cordova but Fred Winner himself! Bob Kapelke and Don Cordova had craftily staged the entire huffy walkout by Winner and the surprise ending of the show, much to the delight of the packed house.

Community and Civic Activities

Don’s community contributions were remarkable, as well. Among other activities, he served on the boards of the Denver Foundation, Blessed Sacrament Church, and Archdiocesan Housing Committee, and as president of the Latin American Education Foundation. He also was a member of the Channel 6 Council for Public Television for many years.

A Gentleman Through and Through

No small part of Don’s professional success was attributable to the quality of his character and his effervescent personality. He was a gentleman in the highest sense of the word, principled and ethical to his core. His nephew Dan Cordova, the head librarian at the Colorado Supreme Court Library, observed that Don had "manners that belied where he came from, and were rooted in the lessons he learned from his parents, the nuns at Holy Trinity, and some inner place."4 Don was Dan Cordova’s surrogate father, and he was the reason his nephew moved to Colorado when he was 23 and enrolled in CU Law.

I was the son Don didn’t have, and he mentored me as though I were his son. He continues to give me the gift of being who he was, and I strive to be worthy for him. I strive to be articulate as he was, half the husband that he was, and love my children as he did.5

To many, Don’s most valuable asset was his wife of thirty-seven-plus years, Patty. Dan was struck by how much Don loved and respected Patty: "I could feel it when he talked about her." A lovely and very accomplished woman in her own right (for example, she served as president of the Colorado Chapter of the League of Women Voters), Patty was the perfect partner for Don. Smitten by a gregarious guy with a smile that "could light up the world," they married in 1965, while Don awaited his Colorado bar results. They raised four daughters—Annie, Amy, Jill, and Jennifer, all of whom pursued successful careers—and have eight grandchildren.

Don and Patty Cordova.

Patty remembers Don as a wonderful husband and father who was humble, never taking himself too seriously nor forgetting from whence he came. His organizational skills came from his mother, his wonderful sense of humor from his father. She recalls that Don had two gears: full force ahead or laid back. "Don loved the law, but he could leave work behind, come home, and be a wonderful family man."6

He had only a couple of regrets. Like many young Hispanics in the 1940s and 1950s, he was discouraged from speaking Spanish so as to better assimilate in the schools. Dan Cordova also recalls Don commenting more than once that he wished he could have spent more time with his girls when they were growing up.

Too Early a Departure

Don Cordova’s extraordinary life ended prematurely when he died of a heart attack on February 16, 2003 while traveling in Hermosa Beach, California. Only a few months before, he had undergone a "gold standard" series of cardiology tests that had indicated a clean bill of health, so the sudden death came as a shock to his family and the Colorado legal community.

He had served as a bankruptcy judge exactly thirteen years on the date of his death. Concluding his eulogy at Don’s memorial service in Denver, Bob Kapelke summarized it best for all of us who had the privilege of sharing Don’s life:

Let me mention just one more special memory that nearly everyone I spoke to, and undoubtedly you, too, will always have of Don Cordova: his warm and infectious laugh. We all loved him and we really miss him.

Plaque in Don Cordova’s honor located at the rock garden on the west side of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.


1. Interview with Bob Kapelke in Denver (Jan. 31, 2013). As Judge Arraj’s clerk at the time, Kapelke was in the courtroom when the exchange took place.

2. Telephone interview with Tom Seawell (May 29, 2013).

3. Interview with Judge Brooks in Denver (April 15, 2013).

4. Interview with Dan Cordova in Denver (Jan. 29, 2013).

5. Id.

6. Interview with Patty Cordova in Denver (Jan. 17, 2013).

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