Author remained true to his legal way with words

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Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

Whenever the topic of great courtroom dramas is discussed, the top 10 list invariably includes “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Witness for the Prosecution,” “The Verdict,” “A Few Good Men,” “A Time to Kill,” “Philadelphia,” “12 Angry Men,” and the irreverent “My Cousin Vinny.”
 
For Lansing attorney Fred Baker Jr., the list also features a homespun Michigan favorite, “Anatomy of a Murder,” a 1959 classic filmed in a most unlikely place – the Upper Peninsula.

For more than three decades, Baker has done his best to keep a “Murder” alive.

It has been no small task for the former law school instructor who now is a solo practitioner after spending nearly a decade as a commissioner for the Michigan Supreme Court.

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 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 internationally acclaimed author and former justice of the Michigan Supreme Court met with success, even if Baker and co-founder Richard Vander Veen III had to borrow $10,000 in 1989 to turn their dream into the reality of today.

Since its inception in 1989, the Voelker Foundation has awarded upward of $200,000 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.

Voelker, who died in 1991 at the age of 87, was in his twilight years when Baker and VanderVeen 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 for a couple of years 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 he gave years ago to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of “Anatomy of a Murder.”

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.”

Yes, that “flood.”

Such witticisms helped make Voelker an endearing character, even after he popped up as “Robert Traver,” a moniker 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 his future wife, Grace, whom he had 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 wife and three young daughters 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 a seat in Congress.

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

G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams was Michigan governor at the time 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. Tom Downs and Gus Scholl were sent by Governor Williams to conduct the final interviews and to recommend a choice. According to Baker, after Downs and Scholl finished the standard interview, they asked Voelker, “Why do you want this job?” His answer apparently turned the legal tide in his favor.

“Tom (Downs) says that John laid his finger beside his nose for a minute to consider the question, and then replied, ‘Because I have spent my life on fiction and fishing, and I need the money,’” Baker related. “According to Tom, John’s candor so delighted Governor Williams that he chose him to fill the vacant U.P. seat on the court.”

Coincidentally, the same weekend that Voelker received word that he would be appointed to the Supreme Court, a book company accepted “Anatomy” for publishing.

“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.

Each winter, Baker will join a group of friends for a U.P. outing. 

He undoubtedly will be reminded of the 10-hour drives he and Vander Veen would take to the U.P. to visit with Voelker over the last decade of his life. It was a trip that 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 popular local saloon. After he polished off an opponent, 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, a wonderful drink that sadly has fallen out of vogue.

“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.’”


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