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Lansing lawyer keeps ‘Anatomy of a Murder’ in the spotlight

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

For the past 25 years, Fred Baker Jr. has done his best to keep a “Murder” alive.

It has been no small task for the former law school instructor who now is Of Counsel with the law firm of Willingham & Cote, after serving as a Michigan Supreme Court Commissioner.

The Flint native helped breathe new life into the “Murder” by befriending an elderly legal scholar whose lot in life was enriched by his years as the best-selling author of Anatomy of a Murder, a masterful work of fiction that was made into a 1959 film starring Jimmy Stewart, George C. Scott, Ben Gazzara, Eve Arden, and Lee Remick.

Good company, for sure.

Which is just one of the reasons that Baker’s efforts to help launch the John D. Voelker Foundation in honor of the acclaimed author and former Michigan Supreme Court Justice met with success, even if Baker and co-founder Richard Vander Veen III had to borrow $10,000 to do it.

Since its inception in 1989, the Voelker Foundation has awarded more than $166,000 in scholarships to Native Americans interested in attending law school. The annual grants of upward of $4,000 generally have been matched by the scholar’s tribe under an agreement between the Foundation and the Inter-Tribal Council, according to Baker. Funding for the scholarships has been generated by sales of limited edition copies of Laughing Whitefish, a historical novel written by Voelker-Traver about a Chippewa woman’s 19th century fight for justice, a battle she waged all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court.

The Foundation also sponsors the Robert Traver Fly Fishing Fiction Award, a $2,500 annual prize presented to an author whose winning work is then published in Fly Rod and Reel magazine. The late Charles Kuralt, famed CBS News correspondent and a board member of the Foundation, “described this as the most prestigious outdoor writing award in the nation,” Baker indicated.

Voelker, who died in 1991 at  87, was in his twilight years when Baker and Vander Veen hatched their plans for the Foundation. He didn’t exactly jump – like one of his beloved U.P. trout – at the idea.

“John thought about it... and finally said that, although it made him feel ‘a wee bit embalmed’ to have a Foundation named for him, it might be all right to do a few good things using his name,” Baker related in a speech years ago to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Anatomy.

Added Baker: “He joined in the incorporating, and donated to the Foundation the right to reprint a few of his books, which he signed over and over, toward the end vowing that in his next life his name was going to be much shorter.”

Baker, who graduated from Big Rapids High School in 1967 and the University of Michigan four years later, is a walking encyclopedia about all things Voelker, lining his office with prized photos of the best-selling author. In his speech at the 2007 National Conference of Chief Justices/State Court Administrators at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Baker presented an engaging and insightful look at the former Marquette County prosecutor, the “first Democrat to hold the office,” Voelker once remarked, “since the time of the flood.”

Such witticisms helped make Voelker an endearing character, even after he popped up as “Robert Traver,” a pseudonym that combined his mother’s maiden name with the first name of his deceased brother.

Voelker graduated from Northern Michigan University, earning his juris doctor from the University of Michigan Law School in 1928. After law school, he spent several years in Marquette as an assistant prosecutor before moving to Chicago to be with future wife, Grace, whom he met at Michigan.

His first foray into the world of publishing was the 1943 release, Troubleshooter. It would be the first of a dozen books that he authored over the course of his career, one of which, Traver on Fishing, was published posthumously. His legal career may have been given up for dead in 1950 when he was ushered out of office as a prosecutor, losing a re-election bid by a scant 36 votes.

The setback at the polls put Voelker at a financial crossroads in his life with a marginal private practice and a family to support, according to Baker. Yet, in 1952, he unwittingly caught his big break. It was as the defense attorney in People v. Peterson, a case that served as the basis for his soon-to-come book, Anatomy of a Murder.

The book was rejected by several publishers, adding to Voelker’s “utter forlornness” after he lost another race at the polls, this time for Congress.

“But just at his darkest hour, an amazing confluence of events combined to elevate this obscure northwoods ex-D.A. from obscurity to worldwide fame and acclaim,” Baker said.

G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams was Michigan governor and he was informed “that the tradition of having at least one seat on the Michigan Supreme Court filled by someone from the U.P. had fallen into disuse,” according to Baker. Voelker suddenly became one of two candidates for a Supreme Court opening. Interviewers sent by Governor Williams to conduct final interviews asked Voelker, “Why do you want this job?” His answer turned the legal tide in his favor.

“[They say] that John laid his finger beside his nose for a minute to consider, and then replied, ‘Because I have spent my life on fiction and fishing, and I need the money,’” Baker related. “... John’s candor so delighted Governor Williams that he chose him to fill the vacant... seat.”

The same weekend Voelker received word that he would be appointed, a book company agreed to publish Anatomy.

“As a result, just after he joined the court, Anatomy was published and began to climb the best seller list, where it stayed at number one for 29 weeks, and among the top 10 for over a year,” Baker said. “Suddenly, John was prosperous and, as he once wryly remarked, found himself ‘a promising young author at the age of 52.’”

His riches continued to grow when Hollywood came calling, lining up an all-star cast to bring Anatomy to the silver screen.

Like Voelker, Baker has had a lifelong love of the outdoors and briefly toyed with the idea of practicing law in the U.P. He was dissuaded by a local judge who told Baker that he “would starve to death;” the graduate of Washington University School of Law  joined the faculty of the Wayne State University Law School, teaching legal writing, research, and advocacy. Over the years he also taught at Cooley Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. From 1986 to 2004, he was a partner with Honigman Miller, serving as one of the firm’s chief litigators.

In 2005, he was appointed a Michigan Supreme Court Commissioner, where he stayed until “retiring” in 2013 to join Willingham & Cote, a firm he worked for 35 years ago.

“Working for the Supreme Court was a real privilege,” Baker said. “It really is a remarkable institution, and I came away impressed with how principled they are. There is a true sense of dedication and collegiality on the current court.”

Baker and wife Irene, a nurse practitioner, have been married for 45 years and have two daughters and three grandchildren. The Bakers live on a 10-acre site outside Lansing where he planted a seven-circle labyrinth of spruce trees that now reach 15 to 20 feet tall.

A planned trip to the U.P. with a group of friends to enjoy cross country and downhill skiing, snow-shoeing, and ice fishing — which he lovingly labels the “sport of idiots” — will undoubtedly remind Baker undoubtedly will be reminded of the10-hour drives he and Vander Veen would make to see Voelker over the last decade of his life. It was a trip  they would sometimes take at a moment’s notice, such as the first time when they hooked up with the author as he played a game of cribbage at a local saloon. After he won, Voelker turned to his visitors and asked if they would like to “come out to the pond?”

“We were stunned and delighted,” Baker recalled. “We would have been happy with five minutes of the great man’s time. He spent the day with us, showing us little oddities and stopping to pick sugarplums, blueberries, and mushrooms. Then we fished at his fabled pond and cooked the little trout we caught with the mushrooms we had picked, accompanied by Old Fashioneds...

“It was a wonderful day, the first of many to come,” Baker said. “As we parted at the intersection north of Sands, he waved to us and said, ‘Come back lads, but not too soon.’”

‘Warrior Lawyers’ to be topic of film
The Voelker Foundation, which has helped 20 Native Americans attend law school over the past 25 years, is in the midst of perhaps its most ambitious undertaking to date – and it could use more than a wee bit of help.

Plans are in the works for a documentary film on the Foundation’s efforts to aid up-and-coming legal scholars from the Native American community, according to Fred Baker Jr. The Foundation, headed by a board of directors led by President Richard Vander Veen III, is partnering with producer Audrey Geyer on a documentary film that focuses on some of the Native Americans aided by the legal scholarship program.

“Audrey produced a documentary called Our Fires Still Burn, which traces the Native American experience and the history of the Boarding School Era when Native American children were forcibly removed from their homes, in effect drumming the Indian out of them,” Baker said. “She is interested in producing another documentary on the experience of some of our scholarship recipients under the working title, ‘Warrior Lawyers.’”

The project is expected to cost $175,000; to date, more than $40,000 has been raised in private donations, Baker indicated.

“We have received some very generous contributions, but we obviously need more to make the film a reality,” he said. “It is definitely a story worth telling. Our first scholar is now well into his 40s and is a successful attorney in the Marquette area. John Voelker would be very proud of the help the Foundation has provided.”

Those interested in supporting the film project and the work of the Foundation may send contributions to the Voelker Foundation, P.O. Box 15222, Lansing, MI 48901. For more information, call Vander Veen (906) 264-5025 or Baker (517) 324-1069.

– By Tom Kirvan