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TCL > July 2014 Issue > Charles J. Traylor (1916-2001)

July 2014       Vol. 43, No. 7       Page  49
Four of the Greatest

Charles J. Traylor (1916-2001)
by Robert Traylor

About the Author

Robert Traylor is a country lawyer and a member of the Grand Junction law firm of Traylor, Tompkins & Black, P.C. He enjoyed practicing law with Charles Traylor for twenty years—


Charles J. Traylor, like many trial lawyers, often illustrated lessons in the law for his colleagues with anecdotes. One of his favorites was a story about a personal injury trial before a jury in Western Colorado:

Danny [opposing counsel] had been really emphasizing an accident report as the key to his case because it called into question statements made by my witnesses. When we got to closing arguments, Danny was waiving the document around in front of the jury, emphasizing the points he wanted to make about it, and made the statement that "our entire case rests upon this report." Then he placed the report carefully on the podium in front of the jury. It was warm in the courtroom so the windows were open to let the air circulate. Just then a puff of wind came in the window and the report flew off the podium and landed on the floor. I said, "Well Danny, there goes your case." The jury laughed and I think the spell of Danny’s oratory was broken and it helped my case.1

The lesson is: Anything can happen in trial, even to the best lawyers. Charles Traylor’s life was filled with experiences that he counted as a great education, for life and the law.

From Mississippi to Grand Junction

Charles Traylor, known to many as "Charlie," was born in 1916 and grew up during the Great Depression in Mississippi. He attended grade school and high school in Biloxi, Mississippi. Charlie’s father died early, so Charlie lived with his single mother, a practical nurse. His extended family included uncles, aunts, and cousins, who had a hand in raising him. He often spoke with affection of one particular uncle, with whom he lived from time to time during the summers, who taught him how to fish and hunt in the Mississippi woods. He recalled with longing the days he spent on the coast of Biloxi, fishing from a rowboat and hunting for soft-shell crab at night by torchlight.

  Army days; training in Panama.

His seemingly idyllic childhood was punctuated by observations of society in the deep South—a practical education he applied all of his life. The treatment of his African American nanny, whom he loved, had a lasting effect on his views of equality under the law. His own experience as a working class youngster in the South during the early 20th century engendered a belief in success through merit, as opposed to success by way of social standing, inheritance, or genealogy. He was a practical man who understood that, as he stated, "Nobody said life was fair." However, that practical understanding did not deter him from believing that all people should be treated fairly.

Charles Traylor earned a combined BA and LLB degree from the University of Mississippi in 1941. Coming from the working class and without any scholarship, he worked several jobs and engaged in other enterprises to pay his own way as a student at the university. He joined the ROTC; worked in the student cafeteria; picked up and delivered dry cleaning; and sold "punch cards," a game of chance related to lottery. In his senior year, he was elected student body president of the University of Mississippi. This was a paid position.

His election as student body president demonstrated a knack for practical politics. During his first three years at the university, although not a fraternity member, he cultivated acquaintances among fraternity and sorority members, while maintaining a popular following among non-fraternity students. After obtaining commitments of support from non-fraternity members before the election for student body president, he joined a fraternity, successfully combining the fraternity vote with the non-fraternity student vote. His flair for—and love of—politics lasted his entire life.

After graduating from the University of Mississippi in 1941, he entered the U.S. Army, trained in Panama, and served in the infantry in combat in the European theater of war. Entering as a Second Lieutenant, fresh out of ROTC, he was discharged as a Major. Although a recipient of the Bronze Star, he saw no glory in warfare, preferring to speak little of what he had seen and done in WWII.

Before deploying to Europe, Charlie married Helen Kellogg, who attended Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Charlie returned to Colorado after victory in Europe to raise a family and start his career in law. Colorado had no reciprocity with the state of Mississippi, so he studied for the Colorado bar exam by monitoring classes at the University of Denver College of Law. After being admitted to practice law in Colorado in 1946, he and Helen hit the road to look for opportunity and work. They found both in Grand Junction.

Charles and Helen, after seven children
and more than fifity years of marriage.

Fifty Years in Practice

The law firm of Adams & Heckman hired Charles Traylor as an associate and bookkeeper at the monthly salary of $175. At that time, the population of Grand Junction was 12,000. There were thirty attorneys, none of them female. The first of the Traylors’ seven children had already been born, and the new family found lodging in the basement of the Hilltop Liquor Store across the Fifth Street Bridge on Orchard Mesa. While Helen fought rodents and basement insects, Traylor began his long association with the law and his fellow lawyers.

A Country Lawyer Emphasizing Workers’ Comp

Beginning as a "book carrier" for his fellow Mississippian, E. B. Adams,2 Traylor subsequently took on a diverse caseload for the firm, from paying the bail of prostitutes so that the ladies could return to work (the firm represented a well-known brothel), to the landlord–tenant, mining, and land disputes and probate, divorces, and personal injury cases that fill the calendar of every lawyer in the general practice of law. Traylor tried cases, both criminal and civil, all over the Western Slope of Colorado. His civil practice at one time concentrated in workers’ compensation, especially on behalf of miners who succumbed to lung cancer from the uranium mines, and their widows.

In one of those cases, he made law in Colorado. In Garner v. Vanadium Corporation of America,3 Traylor represented Mrs. Garner, who was seeking workers’ compensation death benefits after the death of her husband, who had died of lung cancer. Initially, Traylor sought compensation in Utah under that state’s occupational disability statutes, alleging that Mr. Garner’s cancer was caused by exposure to radioactive substances. The claim was denied by the Utah Industrial Commission, which found that a causal relationship between Mr. Garner’s exposure to radioactive material and his lung cancer had not been established. That decision was affirmed by the Supreme Court of Utah.4

Traylor then proceeded with a workers’ compensation claim in Colorado, and the Industrial Commission awarded benefits to Mrs. Garner. The mining company and the State Compensation Insurance Fund appealed the order awarding the benefits, and the Colorado Court of Appeals set aside the order. Receiving notice of the decision of the court of appeals, Traylor lamented "I’ll be the only lawyer that tried the same case in two different states and lost both times."

Showing the tenacity that was admired by so many of his clients, Traylor appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court, which reversed the court of appeals’ decision. The Supreme Court viewed the issue as one of causation. Because Mr. Garner’s Colorado employment resulted in approximately 85% of his total radiation exposure, and it was undisputed that his lung cancer was caused by radiation exposure, the last Colorado employer was liable, not the last employer in point of time. Thus, the Colorado mining company was liable.

It was a great result for Mrs. Garner and a great victory for her attorneys. Traylor’s fee for twelve years of work trying cases in two states and appealing to the Supreme Court in both was in the vicinity of $3,000.

A Western Slope Trial Lawyer

  Grand Junction, 1960. Charles, left, with President John F. Kennedy and Rep. Wayne N. Aspinall.

Although Traylor liked to describe himself as a "country lawyer," he made his name as a trial lawyer. He devoted himself to trial practice, taking all manner of cases before juries from Telluride to Meeker. He always said that if you wanted to become a good trial lawyer, you needed to try cases. Traylor tried criminal cases, including murder cases. One infamous case involved child abuse resulting in the death of a baby. His first involvement with a case in Grand Junction was the McMullin murder case, in which he assisted E. B. Adams of Grand Junction and Charles Moynahan of Montrose. Many of his criminal cases were court appointed, and in the early days, there was no public defender to take the most challenging cases. Traylor took the cases to practice his craft and to provide a defense that he believed was necessary to all those who were charged by the state.

One case for which he was hired was a cattle-rustling case tried in Telluride. The sheriff had made wax molds of tire prints of the vehicle, of which he was quite proud. He contended the vehicle was involved in the cattle rustling because the tires on the rustler’s truck matched the mold. However, when it was time to produce the molds, the wax had melted and the molds mostly just resembled melted candles. Somehow, the wax molds had ended up on a radiator. Traylor always cited this occurrence as an example of the uncertainties of trial practice.

Traylor tried personal injury and property damage cases of all types, on behalf of both defendants and plaintiffs. At about the same time that he was awaiting a decision from the Colorado Supreme Court in the Garner case, he obtained a result from that Court in another case that changed the law on the duty of care imposed on those handling dangerous instrumentalities.

Traylor represented the publishing company that produced the Daily Sentinel (the local newspaper in Grand Junction) and its insurance company in a suit against Public Service Company of Colorado, after the Daily Sentinel’s buildings were destroyed by fire that occurred from electrical "arcing" at an adjacent business. The trial court refused to give certain jury instructions tendered by the plaintiffs concerning the standard of care by which Public Service’s conduct should be determined.5 The jury found in favor of Public Service and Traylor, and counsel for co-plaintiffs appealed. A writ of certiorari was granted by the Colorado Supreme Court.

The Court reversed the trial court’s judgment, holding that electric utilities must conduct their businesses with the

highest degree of care due to the inherently dangerous properties of electricity and the utilities’ expertise in dealing with electricity as well as the general public’s comparative ignorance on the subject. Electricity has been described as a silent, deadly, and instantaneous force, and its distribution has been compared to operating a firing range or handling explosives.6

To demonstrate the silent, deadly, and explosive force of electricity, Traylor had submitted an exhibit in the trial of a piece of corrugated metal siding through which the electrical arcing had blown a hole. The prized exhibit had of course been submitted to the Colorado Supreme Court, along with many other exhibits in the appeal. Because the case was to be re-tried, the corrugated metal sheet was an important part of those exhibits. However, inspection of the exhibits returned to the district court after the high Court’s ruling determined that the corrugated metal sheet was not among the exhibits. The exhibit also was not found after several inquiries were made to the Supreme Court. To protect his record, but possibly also to have a little fun at the Supreme Court’s expense, Traylor filed a motion to show cause with the Mesa County District Court on May 1, 1978, in which he requested that the court

require each of the justices of the Colorado Supreme Court or any justice so designated by it to appear before this District Court on June 12, 1978 at the hour of 10:00 o’clock a.m. to explain why certain evidence in the above entitled matter has been irretrievably lost or negligently disposed of by the Supreme Court or its subalterns [and that] after hearing the explanation on the part of said justices, this District Court take such action that it deems necessary and pertinent to rectify such deficiency.

The case was not re-tried; it settled, and the motion was moot.

The incident demonstrates no disregard for the justices; rather, it shows Traylor’s comfort in ribbing those in positions of power. From his standpoint, everybody could make mistakes, and everybody should be willing to laugh at themselves. Such an attitude endeared him to his clients—but not necessarily to those who held positions of power or who felt they were important in the community. Consequently, Traylor was more likely to represent those without office, title, or long and distinguished heritage. Nevertheless, lawyers and judges recognized his skills and character, and employed him to represent them in their business affairs, as well as in difficulties they might encounter before the Colorado Supreme Court Grievance Committee. He also was appointed as a special master by district courts on the Western Slope.

Traylor’s goal was to become one of the best trial lawyers in Colorado, and he succeeded through hard work, common sense, and the ability to talk the language of the jury. He scoffed at attorneys who bragged that they had never lost a trial. "If they have never lost a trial, they haven’t tried very many," he would dryly remark. "I’ve lost cases a school boy could win, and I’ve won cases I never thought could be won." His sense of humor and commanding presence in the courtroom attracted the notice of a wide clientele, as well as attorneys and judges.

Service to the Community and the Bar

  A commanding presence and a dry sense of humor.

In recognition of his superior abilities, Traylor was appointed to the Colorado State Board of Law Examiners (the lawyers who write the bar examination questions), and served in that capacity from 1961 to 1974. His use of comical names—"Sally Silicon," for example—and fact patterns for his tort exam questions often caused general amusement and laughter in the crowd of bar applicants on examination days.

He served on the Colorado Supreme Court Nominating Committee from 1967 to 1973. He knew the best trial lawyers and judges in Colorado, having tried cases with many of them, and recommended them to the bench. Traylor took part in defending Colorado’s system of appointment of judges when that system came under periodic attack from the Colorado General Assembly, either by bills to provide for direct election or confirmation of judges by the Colorado Senate.

In recognition of his trial experience and understanding of the law, especially of personal injury law and torts, he served on the Colorado Supreme Court Committee on Civil Jury Instructions from 1964 to 1990, helping to write and standardize the instructions given to civil juries. He especially enjoyed his association with those lawyers serving on the Colorado Supreme Court Commission on Civil Jury Instructions: Bill DeMoulin, Bill Ela, Buzz Fonda, Justice Robert Lee, Gerald McDermott, Bill Ris, Ira Rothgerber, and Bill Trine. He enjoyed all of it—the work, the arguments over jury instructions and the law, the camaraderie, and the conversation.

From 1983 through 1986, he was a member of the Trial Lawyer Peer Review Board, appointed by the U. S. District Court for the District of Colorado. He also served as a member of the Legislative Advisory Committee on Judicial Tenure, the Federal District Judge Nominating Commission from 1977 to 1980, and the Supreme Court Committee on Delay Reduction.

In 1971, Charles Traylor was the recipient of the Colorado Bar Association’s (CBA) Award of Merit, the organization’s highest recognition. Traylor served as chair of the CBA’s Mineral Law Section in 1957 and the Negligence Section in 1959, and as a member of the CBA Executive Committee in 1962. He was a Senior Vice President in 1963. He also was a member of the Board of Governors and a member of the Trial Specialization Committee from 1975 to 1980.

Traylor was active in the Mesa County Bar Association, serving on the Twenty-First Judicial District Nominating Commission for district court judges from 1984 to 1989 and the Mesa County Judicial Liaison Committee from 1981 to 1986. He also regularly attended the monthly meetings of the Mesa County Bar Association, often admonishing the local bar association for not trying hard enough to improve its image and the image of lawyers in general.

Through his efforts, the "Peoples Law School" was begun and continues to be resurrected from time to time. The Peoples Law School featured local lawyers presenting a series of lectures to the public—live and televised—on practical legal topics, such as landlord–tenant law, premises liability, real estate, labor law, bankruptcy, and auto issues.

Although its paternity is uncertain, "Call a Lawyer Night," wherein Mesa County lawyers provide free legal advice, is likely a result of Traylor’s urging to Mesa County lawyers to provide free legal service to the public, which would not only aid the local community but also improve the image of lawyers in general. He seriously regarded it his ethical responsibility to provide free legal services to the poor, and he continued to provide pro bono legal services to indigent clients until he retired from the practice of law in 2001.

Charles Traylor was recognized by his peers as one of the best trial lawyers in Colorado. He was a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, the International Academy of Trial Lawyers, and the American Board of Trial Advocates. He was a member of the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association and was periodically invited to make presentations at its annual conference, as well as to the Colorado Defense Bar Association.

Emphasis on Education

Charles with his law partner, son Robert Traylor.

Traylor was always interested in education and was instrumental in forming the students, teachers, and parents (STP) committee at Fruita Monument High School in Mesa County. The committee brought business leaders into the school to show the relationship of the theory taught in school and its application in business. The STP committee also advocated for the development of facilities at Fruita Monument High School, which Traylor’s children attended.

His interest in education also led him to represent many teachers who had been involved in legal problems with school administration. He was appointed by Governor Roy Romer to the State Board for Community Colleges and Occupational Education in 1994.

For twenty years, Traylor served as the unpaid campaign chairman of Congressman Wayne N. Aspinall of the Third Congressional District in Colorado and counseled and worked for many Democratic candidates for public office. He wrote of his experiences with Congressman Aspinall and twenty years of campaigns in a 1995 profile of Aspinall in The Colorado Lawyer."7 His long association with Aspinall led him to become the founding member of the Wayne N. and Julia E. Aspinall Foundation, Inc., which provides scholarships to students at Colorado Mesa University and funds a visiting professor at that institution. Traylor sat on the board of the foundation until his death.

Tribal Counsel

For approximately twelve years, Traylor represented the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribe in Towac, Colorado. Although there were difficulties involved because of the language barrier, Traylor—or "Red Feather" as he was known—developed a good working relationship with the tribal council. He would accompany them on trips to Washington, DC to consult with Congressman Aspinall. (Traylor’s relationship with Congressman Aspinall probably was valuable to the council.) During his years as counsel for the tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Archeological Park (which included a pottery factory) was established.

Traylor’s presence at council meetings could sometimes be uncomfortable for him. Most of the discussions in council were carried on in Ute, a language in which Traylor was not conversant. The council might talk for thirty to forty-five minutes in Ute, and then turn to Traylor and ask a question in English. After Traylor’s response, the council would resume discussions in Ute and Traylor would have no idea whether his opinion had been understood or how it had been incorporated into a decision by the council. His long association with the tribe ultimately came to an end because the drives from Grand Junction to Cortez over Lizard Head Pass became too long, lonely, and difficult, especially during extremely treacherous winter weather.

A Purposeful Hiker

  In stylish walking gear.

In the mid-1970s, Traylor decided to walk from home to work using State Highway 340, a distance of approximately three miles. Highway 340 had an inadequate shoulder, but motorists were courteous enough to avoid him. He was soon viewed as an eccentric, in part because his wardrobe for the daily commute did not fit the modern concept of exercise gear. During the cold weather, he wore a homemade conical-shaped knit hat with a tail and tassel that reached to the middle of his back. When the weather was warm or hot, he donned a windbreaker, raincoat, or parka, with khaki pants and hiking boots. He carried a backpack just like the kids walking to school.

For many years, no one knew who the man in the backpack and old knit cap was. Traylor’s children often were asked whether they knew the identity of the mystery hiker, but they would just shrug and change the subject.

Traylor found the hike very useful. It allowed him to organize his thoughts for the day so that could he hit the ground running when he arrived at the office. It made it possible for him to visit St. Joseph Catholic Church en route to the office, to commune with the Almighty. The hike also provided good exercise and kept his weight in check, given his love for sweets, especially ice cream. Finally, the daily hikes improved his strength of purpose and self-discipline, and fulfilled his goals to always be efficient.

Charles Traylor died on February 4, 2001 at the age of 85. The practice of law isn’t as much fun without him around.


1. Traylor’s early life and anecdotes from his professional life are covered in "An Oral History: Charles Traylor," an interview by Warwick Downing, 26 The Colorado Lawyer 27 (Sept. 1997). Traylor authored several articles for The Colorado Lawyer. The articles contain Traylor’s recollections from his life, the practice of law on the Western Slope, his long association with Congressman Wayne N. Aspinall of the Third Congressional District, his life in politics, and his association with and admiration for attorneys with whom he practiced.

2. See Traylor, "E. B. Adams," 18 The Colorado Lawyer 1298 (July 1989).

3. Garner v. Vanadium Corp. of America, 572 P.2d 1205 (Colo. 1977).

4. Garner v. Heckla Mining Co., 431 P.2d 794 (Utah 1967).

5. The trial court had instructed the jury according to the Pattern Jury Instruction defining reasonable care: "Reasonable care is that degree of care which a reasonably prudent person would use under the same or similar circumstances." The trial court explained its reasons for giving that instruction:

The court has refused A and B, the designated letter instructions Mr. Traylor referred to, on the grounds that the [c]ourt feels that ordinary care is the proper construction when modified as in 9:3 by a reference to "under the circumstances," the surroundings, and that gives them a place to argue the dangerousness of the situation and the high degree of care that they think should be exercised by a person dealing with that kind of dangerous instrumentality.

The [c]ourt feels that in adopting these instructions in C.J.I. by the Supreme Court, that they specifically recognized that they want the use of ordinary care in all these kinds of cases and did not want special standards for special utilities and, therefore, the result came out of it, namely 9:3, as what should be given.

6. Federal Insurance Co. v. Public Service Co. of Colorado, 570 P.2d 239 (Colo. 1977).

7. See Traylor, "Wayne Aspinall," 24 The Colorado Lawyer 15 (July 1995).

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