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TCL > July 2013 Issue > William K. Ris (1915–2003)

July 2013       Vol. 42, No. 7       Page  59
Six of the Greatest

William K. Ris (1915–2003)
by Donald L. Cook

About the Author

Donald L. Cook has been with the firm of Wood, Ris & Hames, P.C. for forty-one years. He has served as a shareholder and is now of counsel. For the first thirty-one of those years, he practiced law with William Ris— Cook thanks Ris’s two sons, Fred Ris of Denver and Will Ris of Washington, DC, for their invaluable assistance and input.


William Krakow Ris was a gentleman of average size, but he was a giant of a man. He was born June 15, 1915, died December 5, 2003, and packed more into those eighty-eight years than seems possible. This writer had the privilege of working with him for thirty-one of those years and always had difficulty keeping up with him.

Early Life

William (Bill) Ris was the fourth of six children born to Reinhart and Anna Ris. Born in Dubuque, Iowa, Bill readily took to skinny-dipping in the Mississippi River and developed a lifelong affinity for the writings of Mark Twain. His father, a hardware merchant, lost the family home in the Great Depression, and the Ris clan decamped to Denver in 1930 to seek better fortunes, living initially in a series of rental houses in North Denver.

Despite the relocation, Bill continued with the Boy Scouts and rose to the rank of Eagle Scout. After graduating from North High School in 1933, he commuted to the University of Denver for a year, making do with the savings from a newspaper route. The award of a $25-per-quarter scholarship allowed him to transfer to the University of Colorado (CU) at Boulder—a move that would significantly change his life.

College Years

CU law student.  

In those days, a baccalaureate degree was not required to enter the law school, and thus Bill matriculated there after two years in the College of Arts and Sciences, receiving his "Ll.B." (as he preferred to spell it) degree in 1939. When a change to JD was offered in the early 1970s, he declined, believing (like many others of his generation) the latter title to be presumptuous; as he said, "we wore the Ll.B. as a badge of bygone honor."

Three significant relationships developed in his college years. His previous scouting activities had led to an introduction to the Stapp family, who owned and operated a summer resort on a private inholding deep in the Roosevelt National Forest west of Ward. Bill started working at Stapp’s Lake Lodge right out of high school. He washed dishes, bussed and waited tables, chopped wood for the lodge’s fireplaces, and did whatever general chores were required to keep the well-heeled guests in wilderness comfort.

At Stapp’s Lake, Bill attracted the attention of Frederic Putnam Storke (1892–1973), a professor at CU Law School. Professor Storke, one of the many tubercular patients who had sought Colorado’s climate in the early decades of the 20th century, persuaded him to transfer to CU and offered him accommodation in his home at 11th and Baseline in return for a variety of domestic chores. Bill became part-time caretaker of Fred and Mary Storke’s son, served guests at their cocktail and dinner parties, and then provided entertainment at the piano. Professor Storke became a lifelong friend and mentor, as well as employer and classroom instructor.

Patty Savage Nash (1916–2012), a history major and the niece of three maiden sisters in the Storkes’ social circle, attracted Bill’s attention and vice versa—to their lasting joy. Patty received her BA in 1938 (Byron White was a classmate) and returned to her father’s cattle ranch near Guffey, teaching junior high school in Florence for two years while awaiting Bill’s graduation, bar examination, and work establishment. He graduated from CU Law School with the class of 1939, ranking first in his class, and was elected to the Order of the Coif.

Marriage and WWII Disruption

  Camp Roberts, 1943.

Bill and Patty married in Cañon City on December 28, 1940. After a short honeymoon trip along the Gulf Coast in a car whose use he had bartered for some legal services, the couple returned to Denver, renting rooms at 944 Ogden Street. He went to work at $75 per month for Lowell White (1896–1983), an established Denver attorney with an office on the seventh floor of the Equitable Building.

That day of infamy intervened. Following basic training, he boarded a ship for Australia and, within a month of his arrival, he wound up in New Guinea. Soon afterward, he was told to report to the Inspector General’s Office. This gave him a promotion to Corporal and some work with legal overtones. It also gave him access to a typewriter, and he wrote lengthy letters home about daily activities. Because he couldn’t say anything more specific than he was someplace in New Guinea, there was much news on food, laundry, and diverse vermin. On March 5, he reported that dinner included "chili with no meat or beans but plenty of grease floating on a little tomato sauce. . . ."

As 1944 progressed, Bill became increasingly connected with the work of the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) office and made application for JAG Officer Candidate School (OCS). When the Warrant Officer in the JAG office was shipped out due to health issues, Bill became the de facto Warrant Officer. In September, he was summoned to the Adjutant General’s office. With no preamble, he was told to raise his right hand, take the oath, sign it, and get fingerprinted. Thus, he officially became a Warrant Officer. There would be no more doing laundry nor bathing in the river. The food was substantially more to his liking, although he had to pay 75¢ per day at the officer’s mess.

In early 1945, he was accepted at the JAG OCS School, which occupied much of the University of Michigan’s Law School facilities. He completed the course, became a commissioned officer, and was invited to stay on to teach. After he established himself, Patty joined him. When they learned that they were expecting their first child, they decided it would be best for Patty to return to the extended family support network in Denver. Fred was born there in February 1946.

In the meantime, Bill had persuaded CU to give him enough credit for his JAG training to receive a BA degree from CU the same month he graduated from the JAG School. However, it took him a few decades to convince his "1946 classmates" that he wasn’t interested in their reunions. He was discharged from the Army and returned to Denver in late 1946. William, Jr. (Will) was born in October 1947 and would complete the family.

En famille, 1949.

Law Practice

In 1947, Bill began working with Ted Wood in the Equitable Building. This was the start of a friendship and association that lasted twenty-seven years until Ted’s death in 1974. Early on in that affiliation, they added another returning war veteran from the Tenth Mountain Division, Gene Hames. Wood, Ris & Hames, P.C. still exists today and is now celebrating its 65th anniversary.

Mechanical and Procedural Challenges

Among Bill’s reminiscences, he mentioned the firm’s first copy machine, which used a thin opaque paper that crumbled with age and especially if left in the sun. Dictating machines also were typically a challenge. They consisted of large, bulky cassettes with reels of thin wire moving quite rapidly from side to side. They had a tendency to fail at the most inopportune times, requiring a call for service not only to splice the wire, but also to untangle a rat’s nest of wires, both of which had to be done before the machine could be shut off. Eventually, Bill became quite proficient in repairing the machines himself.

Bill further recalled that court was quite different in the 1940s and 1950s. The Code of Civil Procedure, a throw-off of common law practice and procedures, was in effect. From a defense standpoint, one never filed an Answer to a Complaint in the first instance. Usually, the first pleading to be filed was a General Demurrer. After a hearing on that (it was generally overruled), a Special Demurrer would be filed. After that was heard and denied, Motions to Strike and To Be More Specific would be filed and argued. Only after such motions had been heard and denied would an Answer be filed. And those were the good old days.


  25th anniversary, 1965.

Bill was on the Colorado Bar Association (CBA) Board of Governors and served on the CBA Executive Committee for many years, which culminated in his being elected CBA President for the 1962–63 term. He was one of the architects of the Colorado Judicial Merit Selection System and, during his presidency, he traversed the state stomping for such reform. In 1966, a voter-initiated constitutional amendment was adopted, removing judicial retention from the political arena. Bill later was appointed to the Colorado Commission on Judicial Qualifications, serving from 1973 to 1977, including one term as president. He was an initial appointee by the Supreme Court to the newly formed Civil Jury Instruction Committee, on which he served from 1964 to 1977.

Surprisingly, Bill still found time for other legal-related activities. He was a member of the Denver Law Club and served as the organization’s president from 1956 to 1957, in addition to being the pianist for several renditions of the Law Club Show during the annual bar convention at the Broadmoor Hotel. He was a Regent of the American College of Trial Lawyers, a life member of the Fellows of the American and Colorado Bar Foundations, and a member of the International Association of Insurance Counsel.

In 1987, Bill was recognized for his lifetime accomplishments when he received the Award of Merit from the Denver Bar Association. The award is the association’s highest honor and is presented "on the basis of outstanding service to the Association or to the legal profession or rendered in the interest of the improvement of the administration of justice."

Exemplary Reputation Before Bench and Bar

As was typical of the 1940s and 1950s, Bill practiced in many legal specialties, including real estate, estate planning, and general business. He was involved in one murder trial, which he always said was one too many. Judge Robert W. Steele appointed him to defend the accused and Bill emphatically declined, stating that he knew nothing about criminal law. According to Bill, Judge Steele’s clerk told Bill that the accused was as "nutty as a fruitcake," and that Bill would get him off on a directed verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. The only evidence the prosecution presented was testimony from a psychiatrist from the Colorado Psychopathic Hospital. Bill made the not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity motion, and Judge Steele granted the motion.

The bread and butter of Bill’s practice was insurance defense work. There were only a few firms representing insurance companies at that time; thus, Wood, Ris & Hames in general and Bill in particular became specialists in that area, handling everything from rear-end auto accidents to Johns Manville asbestos litigation. In the early years, there were very few insurance defense attorneys outside Denver, so Bill handled many cases throughout the state, using local counsel whenever possible. A case in Hugo created a problem because there were no local attorneys in the small Lincoln County statutory town. Bill needed help with the jury selection and approached the town sheriff, who was more than happy to give his two cents, because he had been after the plaintiff for some time. The jury was out eight minutes before returning a verdict in favor of the defense.

The most notorious case that Bill was involved with was Keyes v. School District No. 1, the Denver school desegregation case. It was brought initially on a pro bono basis by Denver’s largest law firm, and the 1969 ruling by Judge William Doyle was against the School Board.1 William Berge, president of the Board of Education, approached Bill about taking over the case in the appellate process. Bill attempted to politely decline, because the case did not conform with his personal views. However, he eventually relented and reluctantly became lead counsel for the School Board.

It was to be a very stressful and time-consuming endeavor. In 1971, the Tenth Circuit affirmed Judge Doyle’s district court ruling,2 and an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court ensued. Bill orally argued the case on October 12, 1972 before a panel of eight justices. Justice Byron White recused himself because he and Bill were classmates and friends from CU days. (As an aside, Bill was among the few people who knew that Justice White hated the nickname "Whizzer.") In June 1973, the Supreme Court essentially affirmed the previous holdings in a 7–1 decision, which generated four individual opinions—from Justices William Brennan, William Douglas, Lewis Powell, and William Rehnquist (dissenting).3 The School Board was ordered to desegregate the entire system, root and branch.

That was hardly the end of it. The district court was to supervise the desegregation plan, and such supervision lasted more than twenty years. Though Bill didn’t see the case through to the final discharge in 1995, he did participate in many proceedings with Judge Doyle and subsequently Judge Richard Matsch (whom he greatly admired). All in all, this was a very difficult and tense time in his life.

An active member of the CBA and Law Club.   Nantucket, 1985.


During his early 60s, Bill decided that he would retire from trying cases at age 70. He wanted more time to travel, and he also didn’t want to have to worry about practicing law past his prime. Many of his clients were not entirely happy with his decision, but he spent several years transitioning them to other members of the firm.

Even before retirement, he had started to indulge his taste for seeing new things, which included heavily researched trips to Europe. When China was opened to general tourism, he and Patty were among the first to visit and they made a point of getting as much off the beaten path as allowed. There, his pure white hair (acquired in his 40s) was the source of much interest and astonishment. On a trip to the Soviet Union, Bill sampled caviar at the amazing price of $3, not realizing until the bill arrived that the tariff was per gram. He took this as a joke on himself; his general good nature and sense of humor wore well.

Retirement, 1985.   Bill and Patty were married for sixty-three years.


Macular degeneration and hearing loss did not deter Bill’s optimism and good nature. When he was diagnosed with colon cancer, he was the best of patients, "radiating dignity" as one of his son’s high school classmates put it. After a short struggle, he died at Denver Hospice at age 88. In his practical style, he had long since prepaid all mortuary and funeral arrangements. His cremains, and now Patty’s, are interred at St. Luke’s church.

Though he may be gone, Bill Ris certainly is not forgotten. He left his mark on his adoptive state, and the legal profession is in a better place because of him. His legacy is firmly implanted in Colorado’s legal profession.


1. Keyes v. School District No. 1, 393 F.Supp. 279 (D.Colo. 1969).

2. Keyes v. School District No. 1, 445 F.2d 990 (10th Cir. 1971).

3. Keyes v. School District No. 1, 413 U.S. 189 (1973).

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