Rural upbringing helped instill lifelong values in retiring judge


 District court Judge John Conover at the bench in his out-county Davison courtroom.


By Paul Janczewski
Legal News      

As a boy growing up on a farm in rural Danville, Ill., there were not many distractions for John Conover. Nor were there many things to lure him into his future work life – except visiting the big city with his grandfather and watching the local attorneys and judges try cases, apply rulings, and mete out justice.

So it became a natural fit that Conover would also one day like to enter the legal profession. After all, “There wasn’t much to do,” Conover said. “There were only three television networks, no Internet, so the lawyers became theater, and entertainment.”

Conover, 72, looks back on that early legal exposure as a precursor to where he is today. He has served for 22 years as a 67th District Court Judge in Genesee County. Before that, Conover was in private practice for 20 years, specializing in family law.

And through both of those, along with his upbringing, Conover has developed a quick wit and wisdom in dispensing tough but fair rulings, from the simplest misdemeanor to the most heinous felony — from farm animal disputes to child torture and murder, from rulings rooted in small, rural communities or the mean streets of crime-laden urban areas. Conover has gained a reputation for fairness, integrity and judicial temperament that has made him a respected judge, speaker, and community activist.

Now, Conover is about to enter yet another stage in his distinguished legal career. He will retire this December due to age limit restrictions that prohibit him from running again. But he already has signed on, and been accepted, to be a visiting judge, where ever the case may be. He is mulling over several other legal opportunities.

And later this year, Conover is coming out with a book, Off Balance, a collection of 175 of the most amusing, and often head scratching, situations he’s seen in his court. 

“I’ve had more than 40 years in the law profession, and it has been an absolute joy,” he said. “I have never complained about going to work a single day of my career, and I have been blessed to do what I love every day, both as a lawyer and as a judge.”

It was a different life, growing up. There was no work on Sunday, and they sat around making ice cream and listening to St. Louis Cardinals games on the radio. His grandfather would take him into the city where they would take crops to the elevator. Usually after catching chickens in the morning, he would sit at a local gathering place in a store, around a pot-belly stove, and listen to the old-timers argue, discuss events of the day, and just shoot the breeze.

Occasionally, those trips ended at the local courthouse to watch whatever was going on in the hallowed halls of justice. 

“It was fascinating stuff, watching the formality of the court and the sternness of the black-robed judge,” he said. “As a kid, I soon got the impression that there was an exciting world out there somewhere that needed fixing.”

Conover’s father worked for a shoe company, so the family moved several times, to Chicago, Wisconsin, and finally, to Michigan. The factory his father worked for and the shoe stores he serviced meant several transfers. His father specialized in making shoes for athletes and soldiers injured in war, using a mold of their feet;  he received a letter from then-General Dwight D. Eisenhower after a mold he made, and also once made a pair for National Basketball Association great Wilt Chamberlain.

Conover was a self-proclaimed “political junkie,” and followed state, local and national races and issues. He later wrote a letter to then-President Eisenhower, who responded and sent Conover’s government class pictures of Cabinet members.

After graduating from high school in Grand Ledge, in 1959, Conover went to Michigan State University, living on campus for two years and then commuting for the final two. He graduated in 1963 with a degree in economics and accounting. Conover said he continued working on the farm during the summers, but “I was so happy for fall to come so I could get back to school.”

Conover then began work as an insurance adjuster while his wife, Karen, finished obtaining a teaching degree. 

“I guess any thoughts I had about being a lawyer had somewhat faded while I joined the work-and-pay-bills world,” he said.

But he still harbored the dream of law, and several co-workers tried to push him back to that dream. He eventually took the law school entrance test “on a whim” and scored well enough to get in, aided by a colleague who was friends with the dean at the Detroit College of Law (later MSU College of Law). Conover began his law studies just as his wife embarked on her teaching career.

To supplement their income, Conover worked at a Kmart, cleaning floors overnight. 

“Nobody ever gave me a penny,” he said. 

He took the bus to school as his wife worked. They had no children yet, and spent their free time cooking out with neighbors.

In 1970, he graduated with his law degree. His wife was working for Flint Community Schools, and they moved into the area. Conover set up his private practice outside of Flint. 

“I had several offers elsewhere, but I had roots here from working as an insurance adjuster, and knew some people,” he said.

He had no money, no clients, and “I sat there cold-turkey,” Conover said, in his Burton office. “I was one of the very first attorneys with a suburban office.” 

But with factories booming at the time, and all the traffic on Davison Road, Conover slowly but surely built up his practice. “I made a nice living just from the people who worked at A.C., and Lapeer people who didn’t want Lapeer lawyers, to keep their business quiet,” he said. “It worked out really well.”

The family grew. Conover and his wife had two children – a daughter, Bree, now an attorney, and a son, Chad, who works in law enforcement in Michigan.

His wife, after spending most of her career teaching in various Flint schools, was elected to the school board in Davison. And Conover put his name in the hat to become a judge. His first try was unsuccessful, but a later opening in the Davison court came up and he was selected by Gov. John Engler, gaining support from previous Gov. James Blanchard and the United Auto Workers.

That was in 1993, and Conover has presided on the bench there ever since. His wife also continued to win re-election to the Davison School Board. 

“Between us, we’ve had many elections, and I’ve never had any opposition,” he said. “I was fortunate. The timing was right.” 

He prides himself in keeping his docket current. And Conover treats everyone with kindness, understanding, humor, while maintaining his integrity. He says the key is being “consistent, not too tough and not too lenient, with a keen understanding of judicial temperament.” He is one of a handful of judges who also allows the media in court for virtually every case.

Conover said the opportunity to become a judge is rare. 

“There are an awful lot of good lawyers, but very few opportunities,” he said. “And I believe that’s the ultimate career goal of many. I was just fortunate.”

As his judicial career comes to a mandatory close, Conover said he still enjoys it, and learns something new every day. His strong work ethic has gained applause, and he’s only missed a half-day on the bench during his stay. 

“I hope the people I’ve represented think they’ve gotten their money’s worth from me,” he said.

Although he will be forced from the bench because of age limitations, Conover said, “I have no intention of retiring.”

“Retirement and being bored are two words I’ve never allowed my kids to use,” he said. “In a farm community, there’s no such thing as retirement.”

Conover will spend his partial retirement enjoying the things he loves – his grandchildren, traveling through Michigan, speaking about his upcoming book, and hunting and fishing. Professionally, there’s the visiting judge gig, or perhaps serving as a tribal judge or teaching law. 

No matter what, Conover wants to be remembered for what he’s done, and his work with young people, such as his involvement with the D.A.R.E. anti-drug program, coaching youth baseball, and working with teen mock-court programs. 

“I’ve tried very hard to keep this community safe, and I’ve done the best I can,” he said.

Conover will be holding an open house/retirement party/book unveiling in early December. But he plans to keep those life lessons from the farm a part of his routine – the value of ethics, honesty, hard work, and common sense values.

“As I look back on my career, I just hope my grandfather and those men around the pot-bellied stove would have approved.”