John Mortensen Burman, born January 28, 1955, in Worland, Wyoming, died at home in Laramie on February 21, 2019, of spinocerebellar ataxia (SCA), a hereditary brain disease that causes atrophy of the cerebellum, the area of the brain that controls motor functioning. Though it brought his own death and that of two siblings and his father, John quipped good-naturedly even about SCA: “The good part of the disease is that other parts of the brain do not atrophy, so that cognition remains the same. I am no smarter than before.”
He grew up in Laramie, graduating from Laramie High School in 1973. As the starting center for two years on the LHS basketball team, he demonstrated many of the qualities that would characterize his later life as lawyer and professor: swift decisiveness, fluid dexterity, joyful competitiveness, and love of teamwork. He graduated from the University of Wyoming in 1978 with a major in history, and then Magna Cum Laude from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1981.
John had a profound love of family and Wyoming. He married Marilyn Paules, the true love of his life, in 1979. Of Marilyn, also a Laramie native, he wrote, “There is an old saying that behind every successful man is a woman. I think we need to update that saying, because I don’t believe that Marilyn has ever been behind me. Rather, she has always been in front of me encouraging me to start projects I really did not want to do; cajoling me to finish projects of which I had tired; and dropping back once in a while to help me through a rough patch.”
John knew the importance of family: grandparents, parents, in-laws, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews. He told graduating law students in 2011 that, “No one gets through law school alone. Rather, he or she makes it with the help of others.” He relished time with family and friends “taking it to the heart” in his favorite wild places (Boulder Ridge, the Absaroka Wilderness, the Wind Rivers, and the nearby Park and Snowy Ranges).
After working as a Special Assistant Attorney General for the State of Minnesota, John returned to Laramie in 1984 to join the law firm of Corthell and King. In 1989 he became a full-time faculty member at the University of Wyoming College of Law. He directed the Legal Services Clinic and later became the Carl M. Williams Professor of Law and Ethics. “Students,” he wrote, “are great. And while it is almost impossible to select the best part of teaching, it is not difficult for me. The best part is the students, followed closely by former students.” More than 1,500 students took courses from him. He was recognized with multiple awards, a few of which include the University of Wyoming’s John P. Ellbogen Meritorious Classroom Teaching Award, the Thurman Arnold award for “outstanding contributions to the legal profession and to the College of Law,” honored by the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association for “extraordinary devotion and commitment to legal ethics and professional responsibility in Wyoming and across the nation”, the Wyoming State Bar’s President’s award, the [Justice Michael] Golden Award from Wyoming Children’s Justice Foundation “in recognition of leadership on behalf of children and families,” and he was named as Outstanding Faculty Member by eight graduating classes of the UW College of Law.
John was a lawyer’s lawyer, appearing in Wyoming’s courts thousands of times, and maintaining an active practice at Corthell and King until he died. As a legal ethics guru, John’s Ethically Speaking column appeared in the Wyoming Lawyer every two months from February 1996 through December 2014. He also wrote articles for a national quarterly (WealthCounsel), published numerous law review articles, wrote the treatise Professional Responsibility in Wyoming, and even published fiction short stories. Even so, he was never too busy to keep up with countless former students and colleagues who turned to him for advice. As one wrote, “more importantly, when John’s phone rang, he answered it. Regardless of whether you were the Chief Justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court or a ‘just trying to get by’ newcomer to the practice of law, he answered every inquiry from every judge or lawyer who found herself in an ethical bind.”
Born with wanderlust, he travelled to over 30 countries, usually with Marilyn, often as a member of legal delegations (to Russia, Belarusia, China and Jordan) attempting to cultivate the rule of law around the globe. He was thrilled to receive a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship at Petrozavodsk State University in Karelia, Russia, in 1998.
After retiring early due to his health, John unexpectedly found the other love of his life: the State of Wyoming Judicial Nominating Commission. As a champion for gender equality, he relentlessly advocated for his belief that equality should be reflected in our judiciary, especially when female candidates of equal or higher qualification applied for judgeships. He was delighted to see three women serving on the Wyoming Supreme Court — a step, he thought, in the right direction.
John is survived by his wife, Marilyn, his mother Mary Mortensen Burman, brothers Bill (Kari) and Tom (Elizabeth) and his sister Mary Evelyn (Charlie DeWolf), as well as by his sisters- and brothers-in-law, Miriam and Bob Grant, and Linda and Bob Littlewood. He loved his nieces and nephews and their families: Jim (Sarra, Shareef, Layla and Dounia), Aaron (Valerie, Rhys and Jaden), Matthew (Emily and Davis), David and Erin Burman, Ella DeWolf, Jill Hellevang (Reagan) and Tia Tenbrink (Todd, Raquel and Cole). He was preceded in death by his grandparents, Adolph and Jenny Burman and Axel and Mabel Mortensen, his father, Robert Burman, Marilyn’s parents, Leon and Grace Paules, brother-in-law, Merle Paules, as well as his brothers, Jim and Edward.
As Augustus McCrae, one of John’s favorite characters from Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, put it: “It’s been quite a party, ain’t it!” John did not want any services or flowers, but memorials can be sent to the John Mortensen Burman Nursing Scholarship at the Denver Health Foundation (601 Broadway, MC 0111, Denver, Colorado, 80203), the Wyoming Children’s Law Center Inc. (112 S. Fifth St., Laramie, Wyoming, 82070), and the Albany County Public Library Foundation (310 S. Eighth Street, Laramie, Wyoming, 82070).
“God Bless Wyoming and Keep it Wild.” — Helen Mettler
Go to www.montgomerystryker.com to send condolences or to sign the online guestbook.