Oct. 8, 2013 – Former State Bar President Richard E. Sommer passed away on Oct. 5. A partner with Sommer, Olk & Payant LLP, in the Pelican Lake office, his career spanned more than 50 years. Sommer served as president of the State Bar of Wisconsin in 1979-80. He was 81.
Richard M. Olk, Sommer’s partner of 30 years recalled, “Richard E. (Dick) Sommer was a veteran and he loved his country. He truly enjoyed his profession. Every lawyer and judge has a story about his courtroom abilities. He greatly respected the law and was a relentless advocate for his clients, be they rich or poor. He was one of a kind. We at Sommer, Olk, Schroeder & Payant LLP are thankful we had the opportunity to seek his advice and call him our partner and friend.”
Minocqua attorney John Danner who knew Sommer for 34 years recalled, “Richard Sommer was a powerful presence in the legal community here when I arrived. He was in my opinion a tremendous advocate for his clients. He had a commanding presence in front of the court or a jury. He was highly professional as well as colorful. He is a great loss to the legal community in our area as well as the state.”
The Hon. Timothy L. Vocke (Ret.), Rhinelander, shared two memories of Sommer’s lawyering skills:
“As a very young judge, I drew Noranda v. Ostrum in which Dick represented the Canadian mineral exploration company Noranda against the state geologist. The issue was whether it was an illegal 'taking' under the Fifth Amendment to force Noranda to turn over core samples to the state geologist. Sounds pretty dry, right? I tried it for eight days without a jury as I recall. Dick was brilliant. NEVER saw anyone who could think on his feet and adapt like he did. For me, it was like attending a senior level course in geology combined with a trial tactics course … the attorney for the state was terrific as well. I found the disclosure law unconstitutional, and Dick argued in the Supreme Court of Wisconsin, which voted to overturn the Appeals Court opinion and affirm me. Best civil case I ever saw in 40 years of practice.
"I was hired as a defense expert in a lawyer malpractice case. Dick represented the plaintiff. He took a two-and-a-half-hour discovery deposition of me. Dick knew the law; he knew the facts; and he knew me. He knew exactly where the line was that would lead me to give opinions unfavorable to his client. He took me close to that line and never over it. He had me make admissions as to what the insured attorney did wrong, but never what he did right, and never what my ultimate opinion was. As the attorney who hired me and I walked down the street after the deposition, I turned to him and said something to the effect: ‘Now, I don’t' even know who hired me to testify in this case.’
“He was a brilliant attorney; a character in my professional life that I will miss,” said Vocke.
Former State Bar President Myron La Rowe, Reedsburg, said, “Dick and I worked on a campaign that raised $10,000 to produce public service announcements for televison stations. These announcements were broadcast statewide educating people about how to gain access to legal services and how the State Bar could help them. The effort earned the State Bar the 1980 CLIO Award for excellence in advertising.
“Dick was a fun guy to be around and a really good lawyer,” said La Rowe. “I remember well the annual meeting in Mackinaw. Dick was standing at the podium waiting to introduce our guest speaker, American humorist Art Buchwald; not knowing the microphone was on he started singing ‘O Lord it's hard to be humble.’ What a hoot. He will be missed.”
Early Years and Service to the Profession
Sommer was born in La Crosse, attended Northwestern University for his undergraduate education graduating with a B.A. in 1957. He received his J.D. from the U.W Law School in 1960.
His service to the State Bar includes several terms as on the Board of Governors. He was a member of the Executive Committee, and served as State Bar president from 1979 to 1980. He chaired the Special Committee on Insurance for Members for several years and was a member of the Special Committee on Medical Malpractice. He was inducted to the 2013 Class of Fellows of the Wisconsin Law Foundation last week.
A member of the Oneida-Vilas-Forest County Bar Association, he also served as president and was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. District Courts for the Eastern and Western Districts of Wisconsin.
A Celebration of His Life
Friends are cordially invited to gather at the Rusty Nail tavern in Rhinelander on Nov. 3, between 1 and 5 p.m., to hoist a glass and tell your favorite story of Richard. You may leave your private condolences for the Sommer family at www.carlsonfh.com. Comments are also welcome below.