The Reluctant Cavalryman

Schreck 1920

A large version of this U.S. Cavalry recruitment poster adorned the reception area in Judge Hunt’s personal office area at the Montana Supreme Court.
artist: Horst Schreck, 1920

Rest in peace, Bill.

“Judge Hunt” was one of the reasons I am a lawyer today. To me, he is best remembered as a strong-minded but humble man; someone who did remarkable things yet never tooted his horn about it.  He fought—vigorously—for what he believed in, yet never felt he was better than anyone else; a voice for civility, graciousness and modesty against our current age of rage and vicious aggrandizement. Though I was not a part of his inner circle of friends and family, his influence on me was profound.

When I got a call at the small Macintosh computer repair business I ran back in the mid-1990s, I didn’t know it would change my life. The voice on the phone was an older-sounding fellow who said, “this is Bill Hunt, I need someone to look at my Mac.”

I drove over to a modest home in Helena’s Sunhaven neighborhood, where I was greeted by Bill’s wife, Mary.  She took me down to the basement, where a home office occupied half the rec room, dominated by a state-of-the-art (for the 1990s) Mac and all possible accessories, along with a plethora of scattered books and papers.  A fellow keeping busy in retirement, it seemed.  Bill, then a rumpled-looking gentleman in his 70s, was having trouble with his new trackball, and a bit of troubleshooting revealed that a software upgrade plus a driver installation could solve the problem.  That settled, Mary offered me refreshments and after a brief chat, I was on my way.

What a nice couple, I thought.  Over subsequent months, Bill’s penchant for gadgets and his embrace of technological innovation with modest skills made him one of my more regular customers. Mary’s usual offer of simple drinks and a chat before I left made the kitchen as familiar as the basement office.

I’ve got a bit of tunnel vision when I’m solving a computer problem, so it took a few visits before I began to look around.  I finally noticed a campaign poster with “HUNT” on it, propped in a neglected corner of the basement.  Wait a minute, I thought, I’ve seen that poster before.  Was Bill the judge who ran for the Montana Supreme Court?  He never mentioned that!

A quick web search confirmed it.  Yes, and he was still on the court. Not simply a nice retired fellow at all!  Oh dear.  I suddenly was in a quandary.  Aren’t judges supposed to be addressed with honorifics, and here I’ve been calling this man “Bill?”  Shouldn’t it be “your honor” or something? I once asked him, gingerly, should I say “Judge” or “Justice?” No, just Bill.  I took a deep breath. OK, Bill. Onward.  And how are you doing with that new laser printer?

In those years, (the 1990s are now a generation ago!)  judges kept a lower partisan profile in public, but I’d always been aware that Bill and Mary’s house was one place where I didn’t have to smile and nod while the customer ranted about how the problem with these damn computers was Al Gore inventing the internet.*  Bill was a liberal democrat, and he was not shy about it.  Refreshments in Bill and Mary’s kitchen often included discussions of politics as well as computers.

His preference for informality aside, he was “Judge Hunt” at the office, and I visited the Court for the first time in 1997 when he helped me with the fledgling YMCA Model Supreme Court program for teenagers I was developing. As I waited for him and chatted with his secretary, I saw a U.S. cavalry recruitment poster in his reception area, (reproduced here) and my eyes lit up. “The horse is Man’s noblest companion?”  Oh yes! “Join the Cavalry and have a courageous friend?” What a perfect way to draw horse-loving recruits in those days!  Was my computer-client-and-important-justice actually a fellow horse lover?  He never mentioned that!

As he emerged from his office, as rumpled at work as at home, I complimented the poster. “Yeah,” he said, “I was in the Cavalry when I first joined up.”  Oh wow, I thought, one of the last of the horse cavalrymen.  Bill didn’t tell me he had been a horse person …  “My kids gave that to me.” What a knowledge of history, military training, horsemanship… my brain began to gallop off…a person fond of horses…

“I hated those dumb S.O.B.s” he said.

Oh.  My balloon deflated.  Well, not a fellow horse lover.  OK.  We went on with our meeting. A lot of people of his generation had military service and could not resist using such an opening to tell war stories. He wasn’t one of those folks.  We began to exchange email with ideas for the youth court program, and his signature was always a simple “WEH” (William E. Hunt).  No “the honorable,” no “Justice,” not even “judge” or even “esq.,” which so many of us lawyers can’t resist appending to our signatures.

Bill helped me meet the other members of the court,** and tipped me off to good opportunities to observe oral arguments.  Finally  the YMCA program launched and in the process, I fell in love with the law and the dance of argument at the appellate level.*** Perhaps, I thought, it was time to change my life as a typical “fully employed” Montanan—which meant I held down three part-time jobs that all paid squat—and consider going to law school.  Bill had opened a door to two worlds where I felt welcome: in the Hunt kitchen having a soft drink with Bill and Mary, and inside the courtroom at the Montana Supreme Court.

In 1999, I asked Bill if he’d write me a letter of recommendation to  UM Law—his own alma mater.  He said yes. In typical style, when he handed me the letter, he remarked, “It’s not much, but all they’re going to notice is the letterhead anyway.”  It was “much” though; he spoke with genuine warmth of how great I’d be at law if they let me in.  It worked.

I talked with him about working part time while attending law school; he told me he had done so, working nights for the railroad. “We weren’t supposed to work and go to school back in my day, but I did anyway.” I fretted about being a first generation college graduate going to law school.  “I was, too.” he said.  He made it; I made it.  Thank you, Bill.

The good judge retired from the court in 2000.  At his retirement party—at Helena’s upscale Montana Club, where he seemed a bit outside his comfort zone—his son Jim (also a lawyer in Helena), showed slides that included a Time-Life photo of Bill during World War II—at Normandy on D-Day.  My god.  He’d stormed the beaches.  Though to people who knew him better, he described the experience as one that profoundly shaped his life, he’d never mentioned that to me, either; even with an opening like the cavalry poster. He was one of the true veterans, one who didn’t have to aggrandize his war experience to every person who gave him an opening.

I encountered Bill less often after he retired and I graduated from law school. We had coffee at Flicker’s, where he was pleased that I’d taken my first legal job at the Department of Labor and we talked about his time as the workers’ compensation judge.  His passion for helping the ordinary person was still alive and kicking.  Another time, when I moved to a different job and wondered out loud if I should consider private practice, he was blunt—he warned me that family law was very difficult emotionally.

It is sad to see old friends age; Bill and Mary were about the same age as my own parents, and they all were declining as the 2000s wore on.  I’d gone a year or two without seeing Bill when we ran into each other at the post office; I felt the sadness of generations passing as I could tell he recognized me but struggled to remember my name.  I saw Mary at a few Democratic functions from time to time, moving slower, using oxygen.  Mary passed on before Bill, and when he went into a nursing home in his final years, I didn’t know that, either.  At his funeral, at the Cathedral of St. Helena, I was touched to see how very large his family contingent was:  children,  grandchildren, great-grandchildren, cousins, nephews and nieces; the two men in front of me at the guest book were both relatives who came in from out of state.  The cathedral itself was filled with a who’s who of the Montana legal community and most of the current Montana Supreme Court.  He had touched many, many lives.

Rest in Peace, Bill and Mary.  Your spirit carries on in our memories.  Bless you both.

Copyright 2016, Brenda Wahler

Former Justice William E. Hunt dies at 92

*Actually, Al Gore never said he invented the internet, but his awkward offhand remarks have become a cautionary tale for politicians in general.

**The Montana Supreme Court in the 1990s has subsequently been described as the “Camelot” period in court history due to the multiple landmark decisions it issued, including Gryczan, Armstrong, and MEIC v. Montana DEQ.

***Most appellate cases in Montana are decided on written briefs.  Few cases even request oral argument before the court and fewer yet are granted it.