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Distinguished Business Attorney, Esteemed Varnum Partner Jim DeBoer Dies

July 6, 2015

Longtime Varnum attorney James N. DeBoer, Jr., who retired in 2010 but retained the title of emeritus partner due to his high esteem within the firm, passed away on Sunday, July 5. He was 90 years old.  

DeBoer served the firm for more than 50 years and worked with many of the firm's largest clients, serving as a trusted advisor in their early stages and helping them grow to become some of Michigan's best-known companies.

DeBoer joined Varnum in 1950 after graduating from the University of Michigan with both a law degree and MBA. At the time, he was just the 5th member and only associate of the firm, which now has more than 150 attorneys. In the early years, when the firm had a small number of lawyers, he gained experience in many areas affecting business, including real estate, retirement plans, labor and employment related issues, corporate law and contracts.

Later he focused on representing clients in merger and acquisition activities, including both publicly-held and privately-owned corporations. As a result of his work helping privately-owned companies go public, he helped establish the firm as a leader in public offerings and securities work. He also counseled clients on corporate organization and governance, and served on the boards of many corporations, including Herman Miller, Inc., Tower Automotive, Sparton Corporation, Batts, Inc., Trust Investment Management, Roskam Baking Company and Dickinson Press, Inc.

"The fact that Jim was asked by several well-known public and private organizations to provide not only legal counsel but to serve their boards, providing guidance and oversight, is a tribute to the high esteem in which he was held by so many," said Varnum managing partner Scott Huizenga. "Many of these were very long-term relationships – 25 to 40 years. I believe that speaks not only to the value of Jim's wisdom and business acumen, but also to his demeanor and likeability as a person. He was an incredible asset to his clients and to this law firm. We will miss him greatly."

Within the firm, DeBoer was widely admired by both his partners and by the younger associates and staff. In 1980, he was unanimously elected chairman of the firm, after first turning down the opportunity due to his heavy involvement with the needs and concerns of his clients. A committee was formed to review the management structure of the firm, and, primarily because of the high regard in which he was held by the partnership, the role of chairman was changed sufficiently so as not to burden him with administrative responsibilities.

In 1988, in celebration of Varnum's 100th anniversary, the firm honored DeBoer with a contribution to the University of Michigan's capital campaign, and his portrait is displayed at the UM Law School. A similar contribution was made by the firm to the Metro Health Hospital Foundation capital campaign in 2007, in recognition of DeBoer's years of service to the Metro Health Hospital Board of Directors.

DeBoer was recognized by The Best Lawyers in America® for more than 20 years, and held an AV® Preeminent™ rating -- the highest possible -- by Martindale-Hubbell.

In addition to his extensive board activity, DeBoer served as a director of Metro Health Corporation and trustee for Davenport University for more than 40 years. When the DeBoer's son, Douglas, died in an accident in 2010, Jim and his wife, Joy, established the Douglas DeBoer Memorial Fund through Grand Rapids Community Foundation. The fund makes grants to support the arts, Gilda's Club, Salvation Army, Van Andel Institute and YWCA.

"For at least several decades, Mr. DeBoer was the premiere business lawyer in Western Michigan," said Varnum partner Mike Wooldridge. "He was the true trusted advisor to many of the firm's most significant clients.  More importantly, he was as kind and humble a man as you would ever want to meet.  He was never too busy to share his time, whether you were his client, a firm colleague or any member of the Varnum family.  His commitment to client service, wit and humility left an indelible mark on this firm."

Services for Mr. DeBoer are set for Thursday, July 16, at Mayflower Congregational Church. Contributions can be made to The Douglas DeBoer Memorial Fund, care of The Grand Rapids Community Foundation, or Hospice of Michigan.

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