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TCL > July 2013 Issue > James W. Wilson (1925–2000)

July 2013       Vol. 42, No. 7       Page  71
Six of the Greatest

James W. Wilson (1925–2000)
by Jeffrey P. Kelson

About the Author

Jeffrey P. Kelson is Jim Wilson’s son. Kelson is a career law clerk for Judge Robert E. Blackburn, U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado— Special thanks are due to Brian Lindner who, over many years, has thoroughly researched and preserved the history of the Camel’s Hump bomber crash. The author welcomes additional stories about or photos of Jim Wilson.


"You’re going to lose both hands and both feet," the Army doctor told a young soldier.1 "It will be rough. You will be able to do simple things afterward, but that is about all. You have got to face it."2 With that, the doctor turned and left.

The young soldier was Jim Wilson. The year was 1944 and Jim was 19 years old. Jim lay in his bed and wept, knowing that his hands and his feet would be amputated. A few days later, he said to himself, "I’m going to prove that guy wrong."3 Relying on the personal strength he gained in his childhood, as well as the support of the other amputees he befriended in the hospital, he began to rebuild his life.

Less than ten years later, Jim began his career as a Colorado lawyer. Throughout his life, he traveled an extraordinarily difficult path; nevertheless, with high levels of strength, skill, generosity, and optimism, Jim practiced law in Colorado for more than thirty-five years. As a lawyer and in countless other ways, he moved from the simple to the extraordinary. Every day, he happily proved that doctor wrong.

Youth in the Deep South

Jim was born in Miami, Florida in 1925, the youngest of five children. The Wilson family was living in Miami because Jim’s dad, Mack, had found work there. In 1926, work in Miami dried up and the Wilsons moved back to their hometown of Tifton, Georgia. As the Depression gathered force, the Wilsons lived on the thin economic edge.

In 1931, Mack was diagnosed with tuberculosis. In an effort to treat the disease, the family drove west in a 1929 Chevrolet, towing a homemade trailer.4 For a short time, they lived in an army surplus tent in El Paso, Texas, hoping the dry air would stem the disease. That hope failed, the family returned to Tifton, and in April 1932, Mack died at home in Tifton. At the height of the Great Depression, Jim’s mother, Mary, was left penniless with five children and no bread-winner. Jim was 7 years old.

Mary had many relatives in Tifton. Her family, the Mullis family, looked out for each other. For a time, Mary worked for minimal wages in various Mullis family businesses and in a peanut mill in Tifton. Eventually, Mary moved the family to Jacksonville, Florida, so she could take a job in the Swisher Cigar factory. The wage of ten dollars per week seemed bountiful compared to the five dollars per week she earned in Tifton.

Mary worked many other jobs while raising her five children. In later years, Jim often praised his mother’s remarkable strength and determination during these hard times. Jim spent the latter half of his childhood in Jacksonville. Typical of the Depression, he and his siblings also worked various jobs to help the family make ends meet.

Jim Wilson at 12 years old, 1937.

A Midnight Ride With Mr. Wise

In the early 1940s, when he was 16 or 17 years old, Jim worked at the Foremost Dairy in Jacksonville. One night, while working the overnight shift, he was told to drive a truckload of ice cream to Daytona Beach with Mr. Wise, a well-liked and well-respected older employee.5 Mr. Wise was black. Jim was white. As Jim and Mr. Wise drove south in the dark wee hours, Mr. Wise suggested they get some coffee. He stopped the truck in front of an all-night diner.

Jim knew Mr. Wise would not be permitted to enter the diner, but he was too embarrassed to acknowledge that harsh fact to the respected Mr. Wise. So, Jim said, "C’mon, let’s go in." Mr. Wise responded in a stern voice: "You know I can’t go in there. The only way we’ll get coffee is if you go in there, buy it, and bring it back out to the truck." Jim obliged.

The coffee purchase opened a discussion between Jim and Mr. Wise. As they continued driving south, Mr. Wise told Jim what it was like to be black. He told Jim of the signs on the edge of many small coastal Florida towns that read: "Nigger, don’t let the sun go down on you here."6 Mr. Wise described how those signs were deeply terrifying to him and to everyone he knew.

More than fifty years later, his ride with Mr. Wise still reverberated in Jim’s mind and brought tears to his eyes. Often, Jim said that certain specific childhood experiences—such as his ride with Mr. Wise—cued him to begin thinking about racism. Other experiences prompted him to begin thinking about elitism, education, politics, and other social issues. As a teenager, Jim did not develop strong opinions on such topics. Rather, as he matured, he often looked back on his childhood experiences as a guide for his approach to life.

War and Airplanes

As a high school student, Jim couldn’t "apply himself to his books and he had no compelling ambition."7 He dropped out of high school. He loved cars, but never had the money for anything more than a broken down jalopy. He loved airplanes, too.

As World War II raged and Jim came of age, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He underwent basic training at Tyndall Field in Georgia, a place he always called "Camp Swampy." As a member of the Army Air Corps, his dream of flying was realized, but flaws in his vision prevented him from becoming a pilot. Army training took him all over the country. Ultimately, he was assigned to the crew of a B-24 Liberator, a heavy bomber that was a mainstay of U.S. air power in World War II.

Jim (left) and unidentified companion next to a B-24 bomber, early 1950s.

The Camel’s Hump Bomber Crash

In October 1944, Jim was stationed at Westover Field, Massachusetts. Pilot or not, he was happy to be training as a crew member on a B-24. On the night of October 15, the crew was scheduled for a routine late-night training flight over New England. The crew was assigned a B-24 Liberator numbered 51067. The night was cold and 51067 was not equipped with windows in the waist gun positions, near the tail of the airplane. Before takeoff, Jim and his friend Richard Wynne "discretely removed the waist windows from a nearby Liberator and installed them in their own plane. They knew these windows would help to keep them warm on a night like this."8 The bomber took off from Westover Field around midnight and climbed to 8,000 feet.

At 8,000 feet, the airplane was very cold, roughly 6 degrees Fahrenheit, and the crew’s fleece-lined leather flight suits did not provide sufficient warmth. As 51067 made its scheduled turn over Albany, New York, most of the crew remained forward in the airplane, trying to keep warm. Jim had no assigned tasks and he decided a nap was in order. He crossed the catwalk through the bomb bay, stepped into the waist section of the plane, and made himself as comfortable as possible. The borrowed waist gunner windows made things a bit warmer and Jim dozed into a shallow slumber.

A short time later, the pilot permitted the bomber to descend to 4,000 feet, a descent that would increase the outside temperature from the single digits to the low teens.9 Navigational charts showed most mountains on the remaining parts of the flight path to be under 2,400 feet. A mountain named Camel’s Hump was shown at 4,083 feet.

Jim continued to doze as the bomber made a right turn near Burlington, Vermont. Flying at about 185 miles per hour, 51067 headed toward Manchester, New Hampshire. In the darkness and without warning, eighteen inches of the bomber’s left wing tip struck the cliff on the west side of Camel’s Hump, about 200 feet below the summit.10 Liberator 51067 was doomed. Jim woke up to the terrifying sound of scraping, tearing metal. He knew they were crashing. He was bounced into a standing position and then immediately was knocked unconscious. As the 36,000-pound airplane slammed into the south slope of Camel’s Hump, it broke apart and wreckage scattered widely. Jim’s nine crewmates died instantly in the crash but, remarkably, Jim remained in the waist section of the fuselage as the airplane disintegrated.11 Ultimately, he came to rest at the bottom of a steep embankment, inside the broken waist section. The clock on the bomber’s instrument panel showed 1:58 a.m., Monday, October 16, 1944. The ground was covered with fresh snow and the temperature was in the low 20s.

Incredible Bad Luck—Incredible Good Luck

Had the bomber been flying just eighteen inches to the right of its actual path, the crew and their airplane would have flown past Camel’s Hump without incident. Instead, Jim’s nine crewmates were dead and the bomber was broken and scattered. Jim had the incredible good luck to survive the devastating crash. With a concussion, a bad gash over his left eye, and a broken right knee, he lay alone in the cold wreckage. He had no idea where he was and had no ability to protect himself from the cold. As he lay dazed in the wreckage, he saw parachute fabric in the trees and thought the others had tried to bail out without him. He worried about the return of the waist windows he and Richard Wynne had borrowed from another bomber shortly before takeoff. As he lay in the fuselage, Jim could see that the waist windows now were missing. Of course, his problems were much more serious.

Heavy fog and clouds obscured the wreckage from view by aerial searches all day Monday and into Tuesday morning. The clouds finally cleared on Tuesday afternoon and the wreckage was spotted from the air at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday. Quickly, Vermont Civil Air Patrol (CAP) Wing Commander William Mason realized that the Army had mis-plotted the map coordinates of the crash site. Mason called Westover Field to report the error. Bluntly, a captain at Westover told Mason that the Army knew what it was doing and the CAP should consider itself off the case. The Army sent a rescue mission, but that team was sent to the wrong side of Camel’s Hump.12 Knowing the Army’s rescue efforts were misdirected, Mason called his son Peter, a senior at Waterbury High School. Peter gathered several other high school CAP cadets and the CAP mounted an independent rescue mission, a mission focused on the actual crash site.

At about 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, five CAP cadets and one adult leader reached the summit of Camel’s Hump. More than forty hours had passed since the crash. Looking down at the south slope of the mountain, they saw wreckage and two parachutes flapping from small trees. As they descended from the summit, the smell of aviation fuel filled the air, wreckage was everywhere, and the ground was covered with six inches of fresh snow. Crawling through the brush and wreckage, they heard a faint call. Following the sound down a steep embankment, they found the waist section of the fuselage, the broken tail section, and a semi-conscious Jim Wilson, now outside the fuselage. Jim’s forty-one hours alone had ended.

The rescue crew comprised five high school students and one adult leader, Dr. Edwin H. Steele, a local dentist.13 The crew was ill-equipped to spend an October night in the snow on Camel’s Hump, much less to nurse a critically ill patient. They had one flashlight, a package of Oreos,14 no shelter, and grossly insufficient clothing. They gathered canvas engine covers, parachutes, and other material from the bomber to give them and Jim shelter. Under those improvised covers, Robert Ladd, a CAP cadet, gave Jim a body hug throughout the night to restore warmth to his body. Using an oxygen bottle from the bomber as an assist, the rescuers built a small fire, despite their fear of igniting aviation fuel spilled across the snow-covered mountainside. When asked about the crash, Jim could not even say his name. Throughout the night, he often spoke deliriously to his rescuers. They feared he would not survive the night.

Without his rescuers, Jim would have died that night of hypothermia. He had the amazing good luck to survive the crash, plus the astonishing good fortune to be rescued by Vermont locals who knew the Army’s search efforts were misdirected and who had the skills and initiative to make their own rescue effort.

At dawn on Wednesday, Dr. Steele and one CAP cadet hiked out and informed the Army about its survivor. Later in the day, Jim was carried on a stretcher over a long and difficult trail to the base of Camel’s Hump. Three days after the crash, he was loaded onto an airplane at the Burlington airport for the flight back to Westover Field. In 2011, the pilot’s flight log for Jim’s flight from Burlington back to Westover was discovered. The flight log includes this remarkable entry: "Almost crashed on takeoff."15

The waist section of the bomber, where Jim rode out the crash and later was found.   Late Wednesday afternoon— Jim on a stretcher at the base of Camel’s Hump. He is being spoon-fed coffee, his first sustenance since Sunday.

It’s All Just Preparation

Jim at England General Hospital with his new hooks, 1945.  

In his forty-one hours alone on Camel’s Hump, Jim suffered severe frostbite to both hands and both feet. Initially, doctors took a wait-and-see attitude about the fate of his limbs.

Jim’s cousin, Hazel Feldhaus, went to visit him in the hospital. She recalled about her visit:

At that time, they were still doing the amputating. They literally took his fingers and toes off one by one—they didn’t know how far up the arms and legs his frostbite [and gangrene] went. I had planned to stay several days, but I couldn’t take it.16

Hazel had grown up with Jim and had seen how tough he could be. Now, she saw that Jim’s tough childhood was preparation for this major trial.17

  Jim walking on Atlantic City Beach, 1945 or 1946. "Best Army duty I ever had," he said.

Ultimately, Jim’s hands were amputated between the wrist and the elbow and his feet were amputated between the ankle and the knee. After the amputations were completed, he contracted double pneumonia. He had lost seventy pounds and he was depressed. At the amputation center of the England General Hospital in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Jim was placed on a hospital ward with three other amputees, whom he recalled as being "the biggest hell raisers in the place."18 Although his multiple disabilities were much more severe than theirs, the other amputees treated Jim as an equal and prodded him with their unique gallows humor and grim horseplay.

Customarily, a new patient who had lost both feet was given a box of foot powder, presented ceremoniously by a committee of other amputees. Amputees who had lost both hands were presented a manicure set. Jim used the same humor throughout the rest of his life. Initially, he was fitted with prosthetic hands, which he always called his "hooks," because they literally were metal mechanical hooks. He would hold up one of his hooks and say, "I guess I’ll never go hitchhiking."19 Later, he was fitted with prosthetic legs and feet. Ever blunt and pragmatic, Jim always called the remaining portions of his limbs his "stumps." When one of his children complained about an ingrown toenail, Jim said, "I found the cure for that." When he was looking for a home in Florida, someone mentioned nearby alligators. Jim said, "I used to play with alligators all of the time!" Primarily, he used this humor to make others feel comfortable.

While he was a patient at England General, Jim received a package and a letter of support from someone who also dealt with disability. The package contained a long cigarette holder and a warm letter signed "Franklin D. Roosevelt."20

A gift from the President, 1945.

Jim recalled the amputation center at England General Hospital as a place filled with good spirits and high morale—a place where self-pity was not permitted.21 In many ways, Jim’s fellow amputees gave him the unique support and encouragement only they could provide. His fellow amputees helped him learn to use his hooks and his new legs.22

Jim with his brother Mack (left), sister Marie, and brother Ray, 1946.

Back to School

In October 1944, when the bomber crashed, Jim was a high school dropout whose ambition was to become a mechanic or a truck driver.23 In February 1946, he left England General Hospital walking on his artificial legs and using his hooks as his new hands. His circumstances and his ambitions had shifted dramatically.

Jim returned to Jacksonville, where he was celebrated widely for his amazing recovery. He attended Jacksonville Junior College for two years, and then entered the University of Florida, in Gainesville, in a pre-law course. As he prepared to leave Jacksonville Junior College, he sold some books to a young woman named Dorothy Mortenson. On June 5, 1950, Jim received his BA from the University of Florida. Three days later, he married Dorothy. On their way to honeymoon in Canada, they stopped in Vermont to visit Jim’s rescuers.

While in college, Jim realized he could not live in the hot, humid weather of the South. His skin surface had been reduced by the amputations, and that significantly diminished his ability to dissipate body heat. Also, to wear his artificial legs and his hooks, he had to put thick wool stump socks on his legs and cotton stump socks on his arms before inserting them into his artificial limbs. Wearing all of this, Jim often was hot. Air conditioning was still mostly a dream, and the cool, dry climate in Colorado held great appeal.

  Jim and Dorothy ready to roll, 1950.

To a modern-day law student, Jim’s description of his application for admission to the University of Colorado (CU) Law School sounds impossible. As he told the story, he simply wrote to the dean of CU Law School saying he had just graduated from the University of Florida and asked whether he could begin law school at CU the upcoming fall semester.24 He described the dean’s response to be: "You bet. Come on!"25

Dorothy and Jim arrived in Boulder in the summer of 1950. Dorothy continued her undergraduate work at CU while Jim began law school in CU’s Guggenheim Law Building. Chuck Butler, who attended CU with Jim, recalls seeing him climbing the long set of stairs to the main door of Guggenheim, carrying an armload of books.26 Chuck watched Jim take notes in class, holding a pen in one of his hooks. Lacking full confidence in his own abilities, Chuck looked at Jim and thought: "If he can do it, I sure can!"27 Looking back, Jim always spoke very fondly of his experience at CU. Most of all, he enjoyed his classmates, some of whom became lifelong friends.

Into the Deep End

Early 1950.  

"In law school, they never taught us where the courthouse was located!" For many years, Jim often made that observation, with a slightly critical tone in his voice. Jim and his good friend Charles Montfort graduated from CU Law School in 1953, and they began to practice law together in Denver in early 1954. The Camel’s Hump bomber crash was less than ten years behind him. Finding the courthouse ultimately was the easy part; learning to practice law was a big challenge—but it also was a grand adventure.

Jim took many appointments from the U.S. District Court in Denver. These were appointments to defend indigent criminal defendants without pay. Throughout his life as a lawyer, he was staunchly loyal to the concept that all criminal defendants deserve a robust defense. As a new lawyer, he knew these appointments would be a fertile training ground.

Jim recalled U.S. District Judge William Lee Knous with great respect and appreciation.28 "Judge Knous held my hand through my first four or five trials," he said.29 "After that, he let me know that I was on my own and he pushed me into the deep end."30 Apparently, Judge Knous’s tutorial was sufficient. Jim continued to accept criminal appointments into the 1970s, while also developing a successful and widely varied law practice.

Prejudice in a New Form—McCarthyism

As an American growing up in the early 20th century, Jim saw many forms of prejudice. His midnight ride with Mr. Wise typified the stark and brutal racial prejudice he saw as a child and young adult. In other ways, he sometimes was on the receiving end of prejudice. As a kid from a poor family, many people looked down on him simply because he was poor. In Jim’s view, those snobs had no idea about who he really was, and he was offended by their baseless snap judgment of him. When he returned to Florida as a recovered quadruple amputee, he often was celebrated, but sometimes prejudice held sway. Jim’s cousin Hazel recalled that he "would be out to dinner and the waiter would ask the person with him what Jim wanted to eat. That was frustrating; they thought that since he had lost his limbs, he had lost his mind."31

In the 1950s, Jim found McCarthyism to be similarly offensive. In his view, McCarthyism resulted in snap judgments based on fear of a person’s union membership or controversial political beliefs, and not on facts about a person’s plans to overthrow the government. Like the reckless assumptions of racism, the reckless assumptions of McCarthyism needled him mightily.

In 1956, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the key government tool of McCarthyism, scheduled two days of hearings in Denver.32 The Denver HUAC hearings were preceded by well-publicized criminal trials in which several Coloradans, based on their alleged activities as Communists, had suffered federal criminal convictions for violating the Smith Act.33 As the deep offense of McCarthyism planned a visit to their backyard, the newly hatched lawyers at Montfort & Wilson considered the prospect of representing some of the people who had been subpoenaed by the HUAC to testify in Denver. With that prospect in mind, Jim and Chuck sought the advice of William Doyle, a respected Denver lawyer.34 Doyle advised Jim and Chuck not to represent these clients, fearing the two young lawyers might draw severe retribution that would cause serious damage to their budding careers.35

Jim and Chuck respected Doyle’s advice, but they rejected it. They each represented two clients at the Denver HUAC hearings.36 Gene Deikman was a young Denver lawyer who was subpoenaed by the HUAC in 1956. Many years later, Gene said it was great to have Jim, a man "with the status of a war hero," on his side in the McCarthy era.37 Chuck and Jim feared retribution as they considered these clients, but they never felt they actually suffered any retribution.38 Recalling the Denver Smith Act trials, Jim always expressed great respect and appreciation for the Denver lawyers, including many from what he called the "silk stocking law firms," who volunteered to represent the controversial defendants in those trials.39 More than forty years later, he still was deeply offended by McCarthyism and the Denver HUAC hearings. In 2001, recalling the 1956 Denver HUAC hearings, Chuck Montfort said: "It certainly was un-American."40

Thriving as a Colorado Lawyer

  Jim and Jon Boltz in their office in the E & C Building, 17th and Curtis Streets in Denver, 1957.

By 1957, Jim had significant trial experience, gained mostly through his no-pay appointments in criminal cases. In addition, he had learned bankruptcy law. In the mid-50s, the clerk of the federal district court frequently referred bankruptcy clients to Jim, initially at the suggestion of Judge Knous.41 Jim seized that opportunity and trained himself in bankruptcy law. In 1957, Jim and Chuck Montfort dissolved their partnership. Chuck had other business interests and he found that Jim "did so much work I had to quit."42

Without Chuck, Jim had more work than he could handle. Jon Boltz, a recent graduate of the University of Denver College of Law, was told about Jim’s need for help and contacted Jim about the possibility of working with him. The two men hit it off in their first meeting, and Jon immediately began working with Jim.43 With Jim as his mentor, Jon learned trial work and bankruptcy law. Over many years, the two tried many criminal cases and many personal injury cases together, while also managing a busy general practice.

"Pragmatic" is the key word Jon Boltz uses to describe Jim as a trial lawyer.44 In trial, Jon says, the jury would see from Jim a straightforward assessment of the facts and evidence, plenty of common sense, and no "hide-the-ball" tactics.45 Jim’s trial objections were precise and well stated. That approach, Jon says, "lends to your credibility" and, in a close case, can "draw the jury in your direction."46 In his criminal cases, Jim filed many appeals with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. In oral argument before the circuit, Jon recalls, it was rare for the judges to interrupt Jim. In Jon’s estimation, Jim’s well-focused arguments and the respect he engendered combined to make the judges less prone to interrupt. Recalling their high-volume bankruptcy practice, Jon says Jim’s knowledge of bankruptcy law was encyclopedic. "We confronted a wide variety of bankruptcy issues," Jon says, but Jon rarely had to do research on bankruptcy law. "I just asked Jim," he says.47

Jim Wilson in his office, 1963.  

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Richard Matsch was an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Denver. Jim was appointed to represent defendants in several cases on which Matsch was the prosecutor. In 1974, Richard Matsch became a federal district judge in Denver. Judge Matsch recalls first meeting Jim in the 1950s and wondering how he would treat him, and how he would handle such an opponent in front of a jury.48 This anxiety quickly was eliminated, Judge Matsch says, by Jim’s skill with his hooks. "He made things seem normal."49 He made others comfortable and his disability seemed to go away.50 "Judges used to say, ‘Mr. Wilson, you don’t have to stand to make objections,’ but he always stood."51 "He didn’t want anyone to give him special consideration."52 Recalling Jim’s acceptance of many appointments to defend the indigent accused, Judge Matsch said, "I think a large part of that was his commitment to his view of justice. I think he felt he had a special obligation."53

In 1969, Dave Brougham was a newly minted lawyer in the office of the Denver District Attorney. Dave was told by his colleagues about Jim’s use of his handkerchief during closing argument.54 As he delivered a closing argument, he sometimes would remove his handkerchief from his jacket pocket, using one of his hooks, mop his brow, and then nimbly replace the handkerchief in his pocket. Apparently, this held jurors in rapt attention. Over a long span of years, Zita L. Weinshienk was a judge in the Denver County Court, the Denver District Court, and the U.S. District Court in Denver. In 2005, Judge Weinshienk recalled Jim’s use of his handkerchief during closing argument. "It was so amazing to watch," Judge Weinshienk said. "I thought it was almost unfair to permit him to put on such a show."55 In several trials over many years, Judge Weinshienk never stopped Jim from mopping his brow.

Dressed in thick stump socks, four artificial limbs, and a suit, Jim often was overheated and sweating, especially when in trial in courtrooms without air conditioning. We never will know how much of his closing-argument-brow-mopping was simply a necessity and how much was a tactic to enhance the persuasive effect of a closing argument. Most likely, his brow mopping was an adroit combination of necessity and a technique of persuasion.

  Jim with son Jeff, Slavens Elementary School in Denver, 1963.

Jack Pfeiffer was a law clerk to Judge Knous from 1954 to 1955, and then an Assistant U.S. Attorney until 1959. As a prosecutor, Jack faced Jim on many cases. Recalling Jim, Jack says: "Everyone perked up when Jim walked into the courtroom. You had a hard time feeling sorry for yourself."56 Courtroom or not, people generally lit up in Jim’s presence. His deft grace in handling his multiple disabilities was humbling and inspiring. In addition, he routinely was happy, engaging, humorous, informed, and hopeful. Recalling Jim in interviews for this article, many who knew him have lit up with their own inspired enthusiasm about their memorable friend and colleague. Jim made people feel good.

As a young prosecutor in 1969, Dave Brougham saw many older lawyers who blatantly sought to intimidate a young prosecutor with their age and purported vast experience.57 Jim was older and more experienced than Dave, but, unlike many of his peers, Jim "did not talk down" to Dave.58 Rather, he treated Dave as a respected equal on the opposite side of the case. In Dave’s estimation, Jim was both "respected and respectful."59

Laughter in Federal Court

Jim Wilson loved people and he loved a good laugh. As a lawyer, he enjoyed thoroughly the huge variety of personalities who came into his life as clients, judges, witnesses, and opposing lawyers. He loved to share this joy by telling stories about his life as a lawyer. A representative favorite is his story of the bank robbers who tried to fly away.

In 1969, Jim was appointed to defend one member of a four-man team with an unusual approach to robbing a bank. Two members of the team stole a Cessna 172 Skyhawk from Sky Ranch Airport in Adams County and flew to La Jara, Colorado.60 The other two stole a pickup truck from a Lakewood Chevrolet dealer and drove to La Jara. The team met at the airfield just outside La Jara, a town of about 700 people. Three of the men drove into town, robbed the bank in broad daylight, and then fled in the pickup back to the airfield. With all four men aboard the airplane, they began to taxi toward the runway. Recent rains had made the airfield muddy, and the wheels of the airplane quickly got stuck in the mud. By this time, an informal posse and one or two police officers were approaching the plane. Some had guns and some had meat cleavers taken from a nearby meat-packing plant. Three of the robbers were apprehended at the airfield. One slipped away but was captured late that night.

The men were tried in a joint trial before U.S. District Judge Alfred A. Arraj. Jim represented the robber who had slipped away. One of the other defendants had a deep, gravelly voice. As Jim described it, this man "was incapable of a whisper."61 As Judge Arraj read the jury instruction concerning flight as an indication of guilt, this defendant leaned over to his lawyer and tried to whisper, "Flight? Hell, we couldn’t get off the ground!" Everyone in the courtroom, including the jury and the usually stoic Judge Arraj, heard the comment and burst out in laughter. Jim loved that "flight hell" punch line. Announcing the conviction of all four men, the Rocky Mountain News headline read: "Jury Clips Wings of 4 Aerobandits."62

Extending a Hook Up

"Money can’t buy happiness, but it sure helps." Jim uttered that aphorism frequently, no doubt recalling his childhood. As a lawyer, he earned a very good living and he felt no qualms about doing so. At the same time, he enjoyed using his skills to help clients who could not afford to pay. "Every lawyer has a red cross in his office," he often observed.63 Through his criminal appointments, family, and other channels, he frequently used his legal skills to help those who could not pay for a lawyer. Like many lawyers, he found that making a good living on some cases made it possible to provide public service in other cases.

Over a long span of years, he devoted countless hours to the Colorado Easter Seal Society64 and the national Easter Seals organization. In that capacity, he frequently visited the Handi-Camp, the Colorado Easter Seals’ mountain camp for children with disabilities.65 "Jim could relate to the kids," recalled Bruce Whitaker, former executive director of the Easter Seal Society of Colorado.66 "It was kind of neat for him to talk with those kids, to encourage them, and he pointed out that the mind is still a very fertile place."67 In Whitaker’s estimation, Jim’s recovery was particularly remarkable because he overcame his disabilities in an era of less understanding. "Jim’s disability was in World War II. [In that era, a] lot of people worked in sheltered workshops. They did not think they could get out . . . and compete."68

Figuratively, Jim hoped to extend one of his hooks to give a hand up, not a hand out. He loved to see people improve their lives with a recipe he knew very well: some help and encouragement from others combined with tons of personal initiative and hard work. Always, he was happy and ready to provide help and encouragement to someone else. He had little patience for those who were able but unwilling to provide the most important ingredients—personal initiative and hard work.

Family and Later Life

In the mid-1950s, Jim and Dorothy had two children, Polly and Jeff. In the mid-1960s, Jim and Dorothy divorced, a divorce still seen by many as stunningly amicable. Jim re-married and his second wife, Agnes (Marie), brought three children, Chris, Mary (Kayte), and Debbie, to their marriage. Jim and Agnes were married until the late 1970s.

Jim was thrilled to share his joy of life with his children, and he did so with great generosity. For his children, simply watching Jim live his life conveyed impressively strong lessons on many fronts.

From the late 1950s through the mid-1970s, Jim and Jon Boltz pursued a thriving general practice. In that long span of years, they joined other partners, including Blaine Boyens and Dee Glenn. In 1965, Jim and Jon built a small office building at 1129 Cherokee Street, banking on its proximity to the Denver City and County Building. In the 1960s and 1970s, they continued to pursue personal injury, bankruptcy, and criminal defense, while also branching out into real estate, divorce, estates, professional liability, business organizations, DUIs, and almost any other topic that came through their door. Their skills were constantly in demand.

As he approached the age of 50, Jim wanted a new adventure. He quit practicing law and bought a small Longmont car dealership from Bob Stapp, one of his clients. Jim loved the cars, but he found running the business to be unpleasantly trying. After a few years, he sold the dealership back to the Stapp family.69 For a time, he worked as a real estate agent for Century 21 Real Estate in Lakewood. Having seen "the other side," he returned to practicing law. When he returned to the law, he again shared office space with his law school classmate, first partner, and lifelong friend, Chuck Montfort.

In 1985, I graduated from the CU Law School. For the next three years, I practiced law under the wing of my father, Jim Wilson. With a new perspective, I was privileged to learn from an accomplished master, to revisit many of the vivid lessons and stories of my childhood, and to see my dad working as a lawyer, day in and day out. Consistently, he continued to exhibit all of the qualities described by his many friends and colleagues, people who had practiced with him for more than thirty years.

In the early 1990s, Jim retired from practicing law and he married his third wife, Ilene Stegeman. After he retired, Jim and Ilene spent six months in Alamosa, Colorado, while Jim worked in the Colorado Bar Association’s Lend-A-Lawyer program.70 Then, he and Ilene spent summers at their cabin outside Dumont, Colorado, and winters in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. In the late-1990s, he was diagnosed with emphysema. Bluntly, he would say "smoking is killing me." He spent the final years of his life living with Ilene on Jacksonville Beach, the beach he often visited as a teenager. Jim died on December 30, 2000.

Jim with grandson Taylor James Kelson, 1991.    Jim with granddaughter Julia Kelson, 1996.


"You’re going to lose both hands and both feet." Jim always thought the doctor’s brusque delivery of that devastating message was crudely blunt, bordering on cruel. Often, he wondered whether the doctor did that as shock therapy or if he was just heartless.71 Either way, he always said the doctor’s prediction that he would only be able to do simple things was a life-changing statement. Describing this incident later in life, Jim said "I decided to prove that S.O.B. wrong."72

Over the next fifty-five years, Jim demonstrated every day how wrong the doctor had been. "This guy was a very quiet hero with the things he did after the crash," says Brian Lindner, who has extensively researched the Camel’s Hump bomber crash.73 In his thirty-five-plus years as a Colorado lawyer, and in countless other ways, he moved from the simple to the extraordinary. Memories of Jim’s strength, skill, generosity, and good humor still inspire those who had the privilege to know him. Every day, in ways big and small, I am heartened and steeled by that inspiration.


1. Sheeler, "From a survivor to a succeeder," The Denver Post 6B (Jan. 21, 2001).

2. McWilliams, "Toughest Break a Man Can Get," Saturday Evening Post 23 (Sept. 15, 1951).

3. Sheeler, supra note 1.

4. Written recollections of Jim Wilson’s brother Mack, Jr. (Feb. 15, 1994).

5. Conversation with Jim Wilson (1999).

6. Towns with such signs are known as "sundown towns." See

7. Muller, "Condensed from Your Life—The Heartening Story of Our Only Two ‘Basket Cases,’" Reader’s Digest 8 (Oct. 1949).

8. Lindner, The History of The Camel’s Hump Bomber Crash, independent report to the Historical Society of Waterbury Vermont (1978). All of the details of the Camel’s Hump bomber crash and Jim Wilson’s rescue, as described in this article, are derived from Brian Lindner’s 1978 publication and his subsequent research on the crash. The work of Brian Lindner has preserved the details of the crash, Jim Wilson’s rescue, and the memory of the nine men who were killed in the crash.

9. There is no record of the basis for the decision to descend to 4,000 feet. It is presumed that decision was made to make the aircraft a bit warmer.

10. Camel’s Hump is located approximately fifteen miles south of Burlington, Vermont.

11. The nine men killed in the crash were Corp. Robert Denton; Second Lt. Robery Geoffroy; Corp. Luther Hagler; Lt. David McNary; Corp. James Perry; Lt. David Potter; Flight Officer John Ramasocky; PFC Richard Wynne; and PFC Casper Zacher.

12. Lindner, supra note 8 at 12-18.

13. The high school student Civil Air Patrol cadets who found Jim were Richard Izor, Robert Ladd, Rolland Lafayette, Pete Mason, and Mac Nelson.

14. Details of the experiences of the rescuers are well documented, but the Oreos are not often mentioned. The presence of the package of Oreos was noted in a conversation with rescuer Rolland Lafayette in Waterbury, Vermont (Oct. 2004).

15. 2011 letter to Brian Lindner from daughter of U.S. Army Flight Surgeon Dallas Wagner. Dr. Wagner was the pilot of Jim Wilson’s flight from Burlington, Vermont to Westover Field.

16. Sheeler, supra note 1.

17. Id.

18. McWilliams, supra note 2.

19. Sheeler, supra note 1.

20. Id. at 51.

21. Id.

22. Id. at 23.

23. Greten, "Lone survivor of plane crash didn’t let handicap get in the way of law career," The Denver Post C-1 (July 28, 1986).

24. Numerous conversations with Jim Wilson (1981 to 2000).

25. Wilson’s law school classmate Chuck Butler describes the admission process he experienced as similarly informal and simple. Telephone interview with Chuck Butler in Denver (April 14, 2013).

26. Id.

27. Id.

28. Before his appointment to the federal bench, Knous served as President Pro Tempore of the Colorado Senate, Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court, and Governor of Colorado. Knous is the only person who has headed all three branches of government in Colorado.

29. Numerous conversations with Jim Wilson (1981 to 1999).

30. Id.

31. Sheeler, supra note 1.

32. Investigation of Communist Activities in the Rocky Mountain Area: Hearings Before the Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, 84th Cong., 2d Session, Parts I and II (May 15–18, 1956).

33. Kelson, "The House Un-American Activities Committee Visits Denver: A Crossfire of Accusations," 35 The Colorado Lawyer 89 (Nov. 2006).

34. William E. Doyle later served as a Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court, a U.S. District Judge for the District of Colorado, and a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

35. Interview with Charles D. Montfort in Denver (Feb. 17, 2001). Decades later, others who knew Judge Doyle well said this cautious reaction was uncharacteristic of Judge Doyle.

36. The House Un-American Activities Committee hearings were conducted from Tuesday, May 15 to Friday, May 18, 1956, in a courtroom of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. That second-floor courtroom now is part of the Byron White U.S. Courthouse in Denver.

37. Conversation with Eugene Deikman in Denver (Feb. 17, 2001).

38. Montfort, supra note 35. Numerous conversations with Jim Wilson (1976 to 1999).

39. Numerous conversations with Jim Wilson (1976 to 1999).

40. Sheeler, supra note 1.

41. Telephone interview with Jon Boltz in Denver (April 7, 2013).

42. Greten, supra note 23.

43. Boltz, supra note 41.

44. Telephone interview with Jon Boltz in Denver (April 28, 2013).

45. Id.

46. Id.

47. Id.

48. Telephone interview with Senior U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch in Denver (April 18, 2013).

49. Id.

50. Id.

51. Sheeler, supra note 1.

52. Id.

53. Id.

54. Telephone interview with David Brougham in Denver (April 16, 2013).

55. Conversation with Senior U.S. District Judge Zita L. Weinshienk in Denver (2006).

56. Telephone interview with Jack Pfeiffer in Denver (April 22, 2013).

57. Brougham, supra note 54.

58. Id.

59. Id.

60. "Four Suspects Arrested in Bank Robbery," The Denver Post 3 (June 20, 1969); "La Jara Bandits Fail in Bank Holdup," Rocky Mountain News 21 (June 20, 1969).

61. Numerous conversations with Jim Wilson (1970 to 1999).

62. "Jury Clips Wings of 4 Aerobandits," Rocky Mountain News 2 (Nov. 6, 1969).

63. Numerous conversations with Jim Wilson (1985 to 1995).

64. Today, the Colorado Easter Seal Society carries the name Easter Seals Colorado.

65. The Easter Seals Handi-Camp is now known as Rocky Mountain Village.

66. Sheeler, supra note 1.

67. Id.

68. Greten, supra note 23.

69. The Stapp family grew Longmont Toyota into what is now Stapp Interstate Toyota.

70. Smith, "Talented people give of themselves," Pueblo Chieftan 5A (Nov. 23, 1990).

71. Id.

72. Bushnell, "Crash on Camel’s Hump," Vermont Life Magazine 49 (Autumn 2004).

73. Id.

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