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About Varnum

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Brushes with History

The wife of an early partner was an accomplished artist, specializing in children's portraiture. Among others, she painted portraits of royalty (Prince Harald of Norway) and children of such celebrities as Walt Disney, Edgar Bergen (Candace Bergen), Fred Astaire, Joan Crawford, Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn, and Eve Arden. Who was it?

  • Roberta Mann Merrick
  • Zoe Shippen Varnum
  • Elizabeth Judson Johnson
  • Virginia Johnson Travis
Show Answer Answer is B
The Backstory: In December 1960, Jacqueline Kennedy asked Zoe to do a portrait of Caroline as a surprise Christmas present for John F. Kennedy while they were all at the Joseph Kennedy Palm Beach residence preparing for the following month's inauguration. Larry Varnum accompanied Zoe to entertain Caroline while Zoe sketched and photographs. The oil portraits of Larry Varnum and Carl Riddering that hang on the 17th floor were painted by Zoe Varnum.

Grand Rapids Good Neighbor Award

Which early partner of the firm received a national award in which he was characterized as "Grand Rapids' No. 1 Good Neighbor" He also served as the very first president of what is now United Way of Kent County.

  • McGeorge Bundy
  • Robert Montgomery
  • Philip Travis
  • Benjamin Merrick
Show Answer Answer is D
The Backstory: Jack Wierengo's history of the firm states that Merrick was "greatly interested in service to his fellow man." Among other things, Merrick was the first president of the Social Welfare Association which was the forerunner of the Community Chest of Grand Rapids and which is currently known as United Way of Kent County. Before WWI, Merrick was president of the Michigan Conference of Social Workers and chairman of the Michigan Commission to Investigate Public Relief. He was chairman of the home service department of the Grand Rapids Red Cross Chapter for six years and was secretary for many years of the Foster Welfare Foundation. He served on the board for D.A. Blodgett Home for Children, and for three years he was the director of the YMCA. He served many years on the board of Butterworth Hospital, eventually serving as vice president and for five years as president.

Trouble Brewing

In 1958, the firm was involved in a $5.5 million lawsuit brought by a beer company against Anaconda, claiming that fumes from the Anaconda Wire Coating plant in Muskegon had contaminated the beer and forced the company to shut down its local brewery. The case never came to trial. After almost two years of investigation, the president of the brewing company was deposed and cross examined by Laurent K. Varnum, representing Anaconda. Varnum's cross examination took five full days and incorporated several large boxes of documents subpoenaed from the beer company's records. Soon after, the matter was settled for a nominal amount – less than it would have cost to go through the trial and win. What was the name of the brewery?

  • Blatz Brewing Company
  • Stroh Brewing Company
  • Goebel Brewing Company
  • White Cap Brewing Company
Show Answer Answer is C

The (Almost) Annexation of Walker Township

In 1960, the City of Grand Rapids attempted to annex portions of what was then Walker Township. The carefully-gerrymandered map included some choice industrial properties, but no residential areas. How many people were eligible to vote in the annexation matter when it came up on the November ballot?

  • None
  • One
  • Two
  • 23
Show Answer Answer is B
The Backstory: John L. Wierengo served as the attorney for Walker Township (and later the City of Walker) from 1951 to 1980. In his history of the firm, he wrote: "The carefully engineered area included the property of General Motors Fisher Body Plant No. 2 and other properties but also included the property of Berman Brothers Iron & Metal Company at 2001 Turner Avenue, N.W. To prevent pilfering and watch the Berman Brothers properties, that company had placed on its property a watchman who resided there in a mobile home. Eureka! Walker Township had a voter in the affected area." Varnum associate attorney Eugene Alkema was assigned the duty of seeing that all went smoothly on election day at the polling place, and the annexation was defeated in Walker Township through the one and only vote cast. (Had the matter been decided by a tie vote – which it would have been if no votes were cast – the petition to annex would have passed.) The close call spurred township officials to move on the question of incorporation as a city, and the incorporation and home-rule charter of the City of Walker were duly approved by the electorate on Nov. 6, 1962.

Shared Quasquicentennial

Just for fun: Varnum isn't alone in celebrating its quasquicentennial in 2013. The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce is also celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. So is an iconic Kent County watering hole. Which one?

  • The Pickwick Tavern
  • The Bow Tie Tavern
  • Nick Fink's
  • The Cottage Bar
Show Answer Answer is C

Firm Merger

In the late 70s, the Varnum firm considered opening offices in various cities including Lansing, Traverse City, Kalamazoo, Benton Harbor/St. Joseph, Petoskey and Cadillac. Toward the latter part of 1982, however, thinking began to shift away from geographical expansion in favor of becoming the preeminent and strongest firm in the Grand Rapids area. Very early in 1983, events leading to the merger of Schmidt, Howlett, Van't Hof Snell and Vana with Varnum, Riddering, Wierengo & Christenson progressed rapidly. The merger became effective on:

  • March 15
  • July 4
  • August 31
  • September 1
Show Answer Answer is D

Mutual Home Federal Savings & Loan Building

As the local legal industry grew, so did the Varnum firm. While the firm spent 75 years in the Trust Building with adequate space, in a dozen years it had outgrown its space in the Old Kent Building. After considering a number of options for new office, it was finally agreed to lease space in the new building being constructed for Mutual Home Federal Savings & Loan at the southwest corner of Monroe and Pearl streets. Which young attorney (with an engineering background) was in charge of planning the new space?

  • Bob Eleveld
  • Dan Molhoek
  • John Pestle
  • John McGarry
Show Answer Answer is B

Presidential Appointee and Blood Donor

Bob Howlett had a stellar practice in labor relations and mentored many young attorneys in the Schmidt Howlett firm. He received numerous high-level public appointments, including appointment by then-Gov. George Romney to what is now the MEDC and presidential appointments by both Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan to the Federal Service Impasses Panel. He was also committed to the local community, and made time to serve to a wide variety of organizations including the Urban League, the Chamber of Commerce, the Aeronautics Committee and Civic Theatre (even appearing in a 1953 production of "Mr. Roberts"). He was also a regular blood donor. How much did he donate in his lifetime?

  • Seven pints
  • Two gallons
  • Eight gallons
  • Thirteen gallons
Show Answer Answer is D
The Backstory: One of the few early attorneys who did not attend the University of Michigan, Howlett was proud of the education he received at Northwestern. "Whenever anybody had a baby, Howlett would always send congratulations and a Northwestern bib," Peter Smit recalled.

Industry Growth

The 1970s and 80s were a period of phenomenal growth in the local legal industry. Varnum partner John Wierengo was president of the Grand Rapids Bar Association in 1957-58 and at that time, the entire membership of the association was 294 (all of whom he personally knew by name). Membership tripled over the next 20 years. In the 1970s, the State Bar of Michigan published the information that more than half of the lawyers in the State of Michigan had been practicing for how long?

  • Less than 20 years
  • Less than 15 years
  • Less than 10 years.
  • Less than 5 years
Show Answer Answer is C
The Backstory: In 1980 the Grand Rapids Bar Association had 887 members, and by 1985 it had grown to 1179 lawyers, an increase of 33 percent in those five years.

Fur Farming

Laurent “Larry” Varnum was born and spent most of his early boyhood in Chicago where his father was a lawyer. In 1912, his family purchased a farm in Hart, Michigan, where Larry enjoyed the outdoor life. As a boy, he was briefly interested in trapping. On his first attempt using a steel trap, he caught:

  • A skunk
  • A muskrat
  • His own foot.
  • The neighbor’s cat.
Show Answer Answer is D
The Backstory: “Even before we bought the farm, when we were still living in Chicago Lawn, I sent to the fur houses for their books on trapping and studied them assiduously. I even bought a steel trap and set it carefully under the woodshed and caught the neighbor’s cat. After we moved to the farm, I put out a trap line, but soon gave it up when all I caught were woodchucks and an occasional rabbit. I did capture a pair of skunks, but the fur was not in prime, so I built a little house and run for them with visions of raising their young. However, they escaped and thus ended my interest in trapping and fur farming.”

Welcome Aboard

Jim DeBoer

In 1950, Varnum consisted of four partners: Laurent K. Varnum, Carl J. Riddering, John L. Wierengo, and Clifford C. Christenson. The firm was successful and needed help. Which young lawyer became the first associate hired in 1950?

  • James N. DeBoer
  • Eugene Alkema
  • F. William Hutchinson
  • Harold H. Plassman
Show Answer Answer is A

He "Read for the Law"

Chester Woolridge was one of the elder statesmen who joined the Schmidt Howlett firm in the sixties. He was one of the few remaining lawyers who had “read for the law,” a practice (before the advent of law schools) in which one became a lawyer by reading and learning under the tutelage of a mentor lawyer. He also had the distinction of experiencing which unique natural phenomenon?

  • He was caught in a supercell on a trip through the plains.
  • He saw Venezuela’s “permanent storm,” considered to be the greatest single generator of ozone on earth.
  • He saw Halley’s comet. Twice.
  • He was traveling in Honduras one spring when it literally rained fish.
Show Answer Answer is C
The Backstory: As a young boy, Woolridge was coming home one night on his bicycle when the comet streaked across the sky so vividly he was frightened by it. In 1986, when the comet was again making an appearance, Woolridge decided to make the trip to Veen Observatory to see it again. After peering through the observatory’s high-powered telescope for several moments, Woolridge asked one of the astronomers to point out the comet. The view was somewhat less spectacular than the one he had as a child. “I didn’t have the heart to tell him it wasn’t as impressive as the last time,” he said.

Lawrence D. Smith

Lawrence D. Smith

The Schmidt Howlett part of the firm traces its roots to approximately 1948, when Laurence D. Smith and Robert G. Howlett began to practice together. Laurence Smith was singled out by two Federal Court District Judges as one of the best trial lawyers to appear in their courts. Smith was also known for another talent. What was it?

  • He was an amateur magician.
  • He could perfectly mimic dozens of bird calls.
  • He was a sought-after toastmaster for public gatherings.
  • He played the ukulele.
Show Answer Answer is C

Lake Michigan Pipeline Case

Lake Michigan Pipeline Case

One of the most notable cases in the Varnum’s history was the Lyons/Lake Michigan Pipeline case. A severe storm in 1940 destroyed a significant section of the pipeline. In order to obtain federal government assistance to repair the line, liability had to be determined by special counsel – Laurent K. Varnum. After a ten-week trial, the jury determined that while the contractor had not met the specifications of his contract, it was the storm that breached the pipeline. The jury awarded the City of Grand Rapids:

  • $6
  • $600,000
  • $60,000
  • Six cents

Largest Judgment of 1934

Largest Judgement of 1934

In 1934, Varnum obtained what was then the largest judgment ever in local courts when it secured a $2.3 judgment for firm client Michigan Trust Company (acting as receiver for the Berkey & Gay Furniture company) against which well-known mattress maker?

  • Sealy
  • Simmons
  • Serta
  • Sterns and Foster
Show Answer Answer is B

Guilty or innocent?

Guilty, as charged.

Carl Riddering’s only criminal case was in federal court as the court-appointed defense lawyer. He was young and fought valiantly for his client, and was in great pain at the guilty verdict. He was relieved when the Marshalls, after transporting prisoner to incarceration, reported back to Carl that the prisoner said:

  • Tell my lawyer it wasn’t his fault; I was framed.
  • Both my brothers are there, too.
  • At least I’ll get regular meals.
  • So what. I done it.
Show Answer Answer is D

Earning his Wings

American Airlines

Before becoming a founder of the Schmidt, Howlett firm, Robert Howlett honed his litigation skills in New York, where he represented the parent company of which iconic airline?

  • PanAm
  • American Airlines
  • TWA
  • Southwest
Show Answer Answer is B

Art by Design

Bust of Cicero

In the latter years of his life, Philip Travis spent a great deal of time travelling and occasionally brought back items of décor for the firm offices. What item graced the 10th floor lobby of the Michigan Bank Building for many years?

  • A bust of Cicero
  • A tapestry depicting a scene from Shakespeare’s Henry VI.
  • A large hour glass
  • The original dogs-playing-poker painting.
Show Answer Answer is A

Carl Riddering

Carl Riddering

Carl Riddering began his legal career as a litigator. Following his first court appearance, the judge called him into Chambers and told him…what?

  • He did not have the makings of a trial lawyer and should consider another area of law.
  • He was the tallest member of the Bar.
  • He has seen Carl on the golf course and asked for a lesson.
  • He asked where Carl got his shoes.
Show Answer Answer is B
Back Story: When Carl Riddering became a member of the bar, Fred M. Raymond was the federal district judge, and Carl recalled that after he had first appeared in his court, the judge called him into chambers and said: “You know, young man, until you arrived, I was the tallest member of the local Bar, and you have displaced me.”

Laurent Kimball Varnum

Laurent Kimball Varnum

Laurent Kimball Varnum and Carl Riddering joined the firm as associates within a year of each other, but Varnum was nine years older, having served in the Reserves and being called into service during the Mexican border dispute as well as having served and been wounded in action near Soissons, France during WWI. In addition, he had spent some time in another profession before taking up a career in law. What was it?

  • Farming
  • College professor
  • Banking industry
  • Poet
Show Answer Answer is C

Career Changes

Following WWI, the field of securities was a booming practice. Which two attorneys left the Varnum firm in the 1920s to join a Chicago firm focusing on this practice?

  • Travis and Merrick
  • Merrick and Johnson
  • Merrick and Warner
  • Warner and Judd
Show Answer Warner and Judd

Varnum's First Phone Number


In 1912, two telephone companies served the Grand Rapids area – Citizens and Bell. What was the firm’s phone number with the Bell Company?

  • 8897
  • UPtown 9-1333
  • COngress 5-6631
  • 83
Show Answer Answer is D

Michigan Trust Building

Michigan Trust Building

In 1911, the firm was located on the fifth floor of the Michigan Trust Building, the premier office building in Grand Rapids. In 1921, the firm moved to the tenth floor. How long did the firm remain on the tenth floor?

  • One month
  • One year
  • Eight years
  • 45 years
Show Answer Answer is D

More Career Changes

Michigan Supreme Court

Why did Robert Montgomery leave the firm in 1891?

  • He enlisted in the army.
  • He was elected to the Michigan Supreme Court.
  • He joined another firm.
  • To become a writer.
Show Answer Answer is B


Montgomery & Bundy

Who were the first two attorneys to practice in the firm known today as Varnum?

Show Answer Robert Montgomery and McGeorge Bundy


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