In journalism school we had to write obituaries as “punishment” for having misspelled words in our stories.
Today, while I don’t relish death, I do look forward to reading the obits of people I knew and saying some things about the deceased that would never make the obituaries. I was recently afforded the opportunity by the deaths of two prominent Nebraskans.
Warren Urbom was 91. John DeCamp was 76. Both attorneys. Both veterans. One was a judge, the other was judged.
Yin and Yang. One was the dark swirl who operated in the shadows. The other was light, brightness. But, while seemingly the opposite, they were actually complementary and both played important roles in the tapestry of government and justice that often landed on this reporter’s plate.
DeCamp, a Vietnam veteran, spent 16 years in the Nebraska Unicameral. He also ran for the Republican Party nomination for the U.S. Senate and for Governor. Urbom was drafted into the Army in 1944. He became a United States District Court Judge in 1970 and spent more than 40 years on the bench.
Descriptions of DeCamp ranged from colorful to iconoclastic to lecherous. Depending on who you asked, there were also words that couldn’t be printed. He was a master of the rules of the Legislature and used them to his advantage, often changing his mind – and the game – at the last minute. He had a full-size ping-pong table in his Capitol office and a lot of business was
conducted one-on-one from opposite ends of that table. DeCamp, with or without a ping-pong paddle, was a competitor.
Urbom was lauded as fair and innovative. He survived the Dust Bowl, the loss of his left eye at age 3, and a stint in the Army during World War II. He spent a year in seminary and summers working for his dad’s earth-moving business in South Central Nebraska, before deciding he was going to be an attorney. Among the innovations he brought to the court was allowing jurors to take notes during trial and allowing them to ask questions of witnesses.
DeCamp and his close colleague Senator Loran Schmit of Bellwood (he sat behind Schmit in the George W. Norris Legislative Chamber) often teamed up on issues. One of their collaborations was a proposed pipeline from the coalfields of Wyoming to the steel mills of the eastern United States. It called for crushing the coal into a powder, mixing it with water and pumping the slurry through the pipes across several states. Opposition from the railroads and lack of a plan to return the water to the valuable Ogallala Aquifer effectively killed that measure.
Urbom signed on in 1974 for what he thought would be a weeklong trial of Native Americans who had been arrested during the second battle of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. He stayed on the multiple cases for a year. Early in the trials, federal marshals told Urbom that some of the Native Americans in the courtroom didn’t stand when he entered the room. One of the Natives explained that they didn’t mean disrespect, but simply didn’t want to act as if they did respect the prosecution. Urbom told the bailiffs to leave out the words “all rise” when he entered the court. He said no one ever explained the reason for the “all-rise” to him anyway.
I don’t know that DeCamp ever appeared in Urbom’s courtroom. I don’t know if they ever met. As DeCamp was overcome with conspiracy theories in the case of the failed Franklin Credit Union – he wrote a book about it – it
could have happened. But those matters, including several deaths, which DeCamp blamed on the subsequent probe, never made it to Urbom’s court.
That leaves an unwritten chapter in the lives of these two prominent Nebraskans. So alike, yet so different.
J.L. Schmidt is the statehouse correspondent for the Nebraska Press Association. He has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered independent for 18 years.