May 15, 2005 in Features

Raising the bar

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The 9 a.m. shuttle from the Fairwinds Retirement Community ferries residents to grocery stores and pharmacies and shopping malls. Kathleen Taft takes the shuttle each day, too.

Only it’s her ride to work.

Taft, who turns 98 next month, still spends every weekday behind the big, glass-topped desk at the north Spokane law office she founded more than a half century ago.

A cane and a walker now wait under the framed certificates and awards Taft has earned. She moves more slowly than she used to even a couple of years ago, back when she still walked two miles a day. She stopped taking new cases in recent years, but she continues to meet with old clients, answer letters and talk shop with her partners.

The American Bar Association says she’s among the oldest practicing lawyers in the country.

For Taft, though, working is as natural as waking up each morning.

As long as she has lived, she has worked. And as long as she’s alive, she plans to keep on working.

She just didn’t plan on working for so many years.

“I didn’t think I’d live this long,” Taft says from her office, dressed in a dark fitted suit she picked up on a trip to India.

Taft was born in 1907 in what is now Grant County, one of four children of homesteader parents. As a child, she helped tend the animals and take care of the farm.

“We shucked hay,” she says. “We milked cows. It was good for us.”

She graduated from high school in Ephrata, Wash., then went on to what is now Western Washington University in Bellingham. She got a teaching certificate and spent her winters in front of a classroom to pay her way through law school in the summers.

She earned a law degree from the University of Washington in 1935.

“I would’ve graduated sooner but I had to work,” she says.

At first, Taft had little interest in studying law.

Teaching didn’t suit her, she says. And she had no aptitude for science or math. Then she read about a local girl getting her law degree.

“I thought, ‘I can do the same thing,’ ” Taft says.

And she did. But legal jobs were hard to come by in the late ‘30s, so she started teaching at Spokane’s Kinman Business University.

Then, after World War II began, Taft got a job with the Office of Price Administration, which controlled rationing and helped prevent inflation during wartime.

Good news arrived with word that the war had ended. But, for Taft, it meant “I was out of a job.”

She worked briefly for another firm before launching her own practice.

In October 1938, three months after their first blind date, Taft married Willard “Duke” Taft. She was 31 then.

“My sister said I was old and desperate,” Taft says.

But it was a good marriage. Willard Taft, a Republican, served as Spokane’s mayor from 1955-1958, after having spent many years in the state legislature.

Kathleen Taft, whose political leanings sway far left of her husband’s, chose not to talk politics much with him.

“I respected his position and kept my big mouth shut until after he was gone,” she says. “Then I came out of my shell.”

The couple had no children. Willard Taft died of prostate cancer in 1971.

Her husband never expected her to stay home and cook and clean, she says.

“He was very supportive,” Taft says. “He was not a macho man.”

So, in addition to her law practice, Taft took on a part-time post as Spokane County Family Court Commissioner. For 26 years, she mediated family disputes, worked out divorce arrangements, and looked out for the best interests of children.

“She has always been a fierce advocate for her clients,” says attorney Tim Mackin, one of Taft’s partners. “She represents the way I think law used to be practiced. With her it’s first a profession and then a business.”

Mackin took a job with Taft in 1977. Back then, he was just a young lawyer looking for work when his buddy Neal Rielly suggested Mackin join him in the office headed by a 70-something woman.

The two figured, “We’ll just work here a couple of years and she’ll retire,” Mackin says.

The lawyers thought that might happen in the late ‘70s when Taft called “the boys” into her office for a big announcement — she was no longer going to work Sundays.

It was just about a year ago that Mackin found himself touring retirement communities with Taft, helping her pick the best one after she had to sell her home. (He rejected one for her because he feared the threshold of the apartment door might be a tripping hazard.)

Neal Rielly started as a clerk in Taft’s office in 1973 and began practicing law there as soon as he passed the bar. He left in 1989 to become a judge.

“There were just a million things she taught me,” says Rielly, now a superior court judge in Spokane. “I learned how to treat people and how to respect people and how to represent people. She taught me people will treat you just how you treat them.

“She taught me you really have to work hard.”

Rielly took on many of the criminal cases that came to the office in those days. Taft taught him how to talk to a jury, especially women jurors, he says.

Never tell a homemaker, for example, that she doesn’t work. Simply ask, “Are you employed outside the home?” Rielly remembers Taft telling him.

“I understood that,” he says. “But it never occurred to me to say that.”

Often, other lawyers would underestimate Taft, Rielly says. But that didn’t last long.

“She was a bulldog,” Rielly says. “No prosecutor pushed her around.”

Richard Guy, a former state Supreme Court justice, got his start clerking for Taft in the mid-1950s.

Guy, now a mediator working in Hawaii, considers Taft “like a second mother.”

“She’s had a great influence on my life, on being a lawyer and the ethics of being a lawyer and the responsibilities,” Guy says.

Taft has spent much of her career specializing in probate law, helping clients settle their final affairs.

For a time in the ‘80s, Taft became the go-to attorney in Spokane for lesbians seeking to adopt.

“We showed sympathy for them,” she says. “Any of the reports that came in on them were always good. The children did well in school.”

But Taft’s life hasn’t been entirely consumed by work.

She has traveled to every continent except Antarctica. Just two years ago, she toured South America.

“She’s a great traveler,” says Joan Stueve, who retired three years ago after working as Taft’s secretary for nearly 50 years. “She’s so interested in everything. She has a memory like an elephant, even today.”

Stueve has traveled with Taft to Africa, Ireland and the former Soviet Union.

A bad knee will likely keep Taft from ever making it to Antarctica, but, as Stueve says, “She’s game for anything.”

To most everybody around – her secretaries, her law partners, the judges who know her – she is always called “Mrs. Taft.”

“Everybody around here is first name except me and I don’t know why,” she says with a smile.

There was a time you could tell the speaker’s age by how they addressed Taft.

The youngest generation calls her Mrs. Taft. Slightly older lawyers would refer to her as Kathleen. Others called her Katie. And the lawyers of Taft’s generation, most of whom are no longer around, called her Kitty.

But “Mrs. Taft” probably stuck simply because it fits her. She’s authoritative, yes, like the school teacher she once was, but also proper and a bit motherly.

And, besides, she says:

“I’m no Kitty.”

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