Nationally and internationally, John Arum was best known as the lawyer who won the Makah Indian Tribe the right to resume whaling, a case that brought him widespread obloquy from those who called themselves lovers of animals and the Earth. But as friends and acquaintances of the brilliant attorney gathered to celebrate his cut-short life over the weekend, it was impossible not to understand that John Arum was completely and utterly dedicated to caring for this planet and the creatures put here by our Creator.
I had the good fortune to meet John on a few of his later cases. I was awed by his ability to completely immerse himself in a case, mastering the obscure details of timber harvesting and stream flow and biology and geology and all the other ologies. I could tell he was a genius. I always figured I’d get to know him better as the years went on. Instead, that knowledge came second-hand from Arum’s friends and family at a celebration of his life Saturday at the Daybreak Star Center in Seattle’s Discovery Park.
The ceremony gave the several hundred present a look at an individual so much more remarkable than I had suspected – sure, a great lawyer. But also a consummate outdoorsman, a loving husband, a true friend, a devoted uncle. I wasn’t the only one learning. Even his widow, Susan Hormannn, said this of the outpouring in the weeks since her husband died in a mountain-climbing accident, “I have gotten a much broader perspective of him.”
Wife. Law partner. Brother. Sister. Father-in-law. Clients. Friends. Climbing partners. Together they sketched a portrait of an incredibly skilled litigator, negotiator and mediator driven to preserve an environment worth handing down to future generations who was at once a master climber, hiker, biker, kayaker and birder – and who still found time to stay in touch with his family and friends here in Cascadia and across the continent in his native New York.
“It is not the years in your life that matter,” Susan said, “but the life in your years.”
“John lived a full 49 years. He packed a lot in.”
The only real serious injury Arum had ever suffered before the one that took his life on Storm King Mountain in the North Cascades was when a child sat down on a ski lift and then started to fall off, said his brother, Richard. Arum, trying to save the child, ended up falling himself and breaking his leg.
Richard Arum said his brother was out “to restore rights that had been lost, to protect land that was threatened, to preserve clean air and water for those who come after us,” adding that his brother was the embodiment of a Hebrew expression that translates to “to make the world whole … while we’re living in it.”
Representatives of the Makah, Colville and Swinomish Indian tribes attended the ceremony, which was held at a center run by the non-profit United Indians of All Tribes Foundation. His clients at the Nothern Cheyenne tribe sent a letter.
“The environment, to the Makah people, is our way of life, and we’re glad John was on our side,” Michael Lawrence, of the Makah tribe.
“I enjoyed watching John get excited. I enjoyed watching John get mad. I think the two went together,” he recalled with a laugh.
Said Virgil Seymour Sr. of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation: “The days of cowboys and Indians are over. Our battles are fought in the courts now.
“We are proud to call John our warrior.”
The fact that more than one tribe was close to Arum was in itself remarkable, said Randy Lewis of the Colville, with a laugh in his eyes:
“It’s unusual that the Swinomish, the Makah, the Northern Cheyenne and the Colville can share a white man. Good white people are hard to find. So when we find one, we’re (usually) pretty proprietary.”
Marc Slonim, a partner of Arum’s at Ziontz, Chestnut, Varnell, Berley & Slonim, told of how a young John Arum had two conditions for joining the firm that specializes in representing tribes: He wanted big chunks of vacation time to go into the outdoors, and he wanted to do environmental cases – pro bono, in many cases. He quickly took to helping tribes, though.
“What was somewhat less known – not in this room, but generally – was that John became one of the pre-eminent tribal attorneys” in the nation, Slonim said.
Even Elaine Spencer, an attorney who found herself on the other side of more than one case with Arum, had this to say in a film put together for the occasion:
“John was always about doing right, rather than showing he was right.”
Climbing partner Milda Tautvydas told of bushwhacking miles with Arum to reach approaches to remote mountain peaks. She dismissed the idea that Arum was living too dangerously, noting that on the same day he died, three people were killed when a woman driving a car on Highway 20 near Anacortes tried to take her sweater off. Arum’s solo ascents of many peaks – 8,815-foot Storm King would have been his 85thof Washington’s 100 highest peaks – were a treasured part of his life, she said.
“John had an accident. It happened to occur on the steep north face of Storm King Mountain," Tautvydas said. "Mountains are not dangerous. Living is dangerous.”
Slonim quoted another mountain-climbing lawyer, the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas: "When a man knows how to live dangerously, he is not afraid to die. When he is not afraid to die, he is, strangely, free to live. . .. A people who climb the ridges and sleep under the stars in high mountain meadows, who enter the forest and scale the peaks, who explore the glaciers and walk ridges buried deep in snow — these people will give their country some of the indomitable spirit of the mountains."
Arum “gave to all of us . . . some of the indomitable spirit of the mountains,” Slonim said.
A ceremony for the Vashon Island community, where Arum lived, is planned Wednesday* at 6:30 p.m. at Camp Burton.
(I wasn’t the only person a little put off by the intial news accounts of Arum’s death, which were focused on the fact that Arum was the son of well-known boxing promoter Bob Arum. Luckily Lynn Thompson did a proper obit for The Seattle Times and the Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber's Natalie Johnson also produced a worthwhile remembrance of Arum.)
When I heard about Arum going missing I was myself headed out to risk my life – although I simply think of it as having a good time – by tromping around out past the religious retreat of Holden into the Glacier Peak Wilderness, not all that far from Storm King. The other “town” on Lake Chelan, also normally reached by boat, is the isolated settlement of Stehekin at the lake’s north end. Arum passed through Stehekin on his way to Storm King, and perhaps that’s appropriate, said the organizer of the Daybreak Star event, lawyer and Puget Sound Partnership head honcho Martha Kongsgaard.
Why? Because in the Salish tongue of Arum’s most famous clients, she said, “Stehekin” means “the way through.”
“For John, it was the way through to the other side,” Kongsgaard said.
* Initially I reported this was Tuesday. My sincere apologies if I have inconvenienced anyone.