Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Jim Van Voorhees

A Man with a Legal Mind and Community Spirit

First published in the Central Oregonian 11/22/2013

Jim Van Voorhees in his Prineville office

Sitting with Jim Van Voorhees recently in his downtown Prineville office, I was struck by both Jim’s resemblance and mannerisms to the Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. 

In several roles Hoffman embodies characters that are not afraid to speak their minds – while at the same time modeling a spirit of community service.

So it is with Jim Van Voorhees.

Born and raised in West Caldwell, New Jersey, Van Voorhees was raised in a career-minded family that wanted him to succeed at whatever profession he chose.

Heading off to Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, he thought he’d like to be a research chemist but quickly found out that discipline wasn’t his cup of tea. “I wasn’t very good at Organic Chemistry, German, or Calculus so I knew I had to find a different direction.”

This mind-set of “looking for the open door” would serve Van Voorhees well throughout his young professional career. “I have always viewed life as a hallway with a series of doors in it and you go through the doors that make the most sense.”

He switched his major to Psychology but also had another path in mind, one influenced by his father’s profession. “I received my degree in Psychology and, when trying to decide what to do with it, decided it wouldn’t be a bad thing to go to law school.”

During the early 1960’s Van Voorhees’ father was the Public Relations Director for the American Bar Association. As a result young Jim was exposed early to the law profession. And his father’s network in the profession didn’t hurt.

But being accepted to a law school didn’t go smoothly. Rejections were received from several eastern law schools. An Assistant Dean at New York University gave Van Voorhees some sobering advice.

 “We’d have to admit you to our school because of what your Dad’s done (in the industry), but you wouldn’t do well here because you’re not much of a studier.”

Van Voorhees took the “reality check” to heart and began to look for another open door.

“The Dean encouraged me to apply other places so I applied to the law schools at Willamette University, the University of Oregon, and the University of Washington. But unfortunately all three passed me over at first.”

It was August of 1966 and Van Voorhees, in what would had become his straight-forward approach to challenges, decided to boldly take matters into his own hands.

He called the Dean at Willamette University.

“So I called the Dean at Willamette and told him that, while I wasn’t sure where they were with their decision on me, I needed to get out there if I was going to start later that month (August 1966.) He told me right there and then that he could find me a room. Apparently he wasn’t aware that they were going to pass me over me but, because he found me a room, he decided they had to admit me.”

Van Voorhees began classes later that month, graduating in 1969 with a law degree. He was glad he made the career move into law. “I really enjoy law. If I had stayed with Psychology I would have had to get a Doctorate (degree) and I wasn’t too sure what I was going to do with that anyway.”

Van Voorhees’ introduction to Prineville came during his third year at Willamette University. Floyd Steger’s law office was trying cases in Prineville and asked Van Voorhees to help out by doing the investigations. He enjoyed the area and, while working for Steger, connected with another law firm that liked what they saw in the budding lawyer.

“I met Rodney Glantz (Bodie, Minturn, and Glantz law firm) who had an office in Prineville. He said ‘We have an opening and, after you pass the Bar (exam), you can come and work for us.”

“I checked out Prineville a little before interviewing with Glantz and liked it. I was hired that very day,” said Van Voorhees.

Forty-four years later and Van Voorhees is still practicing law in Prineville. Over those years he’s seen a lot of changes in the legal profession in Crook County.

“In the past criminal cases were the exceptions, now they are driving the entire court system because there are so many of them. It has to do mainly, I think, with drugs. When I first started out, people passing bad checks were the main thing we worked on.”

These days Van Voorhees’ law practice covers a broad spectrum of the law. “I really don’t specialize in any one (legal) thing. I quit doing domestic relationships and criminal cases though, because I didn’t like it very much.”

Van Voorhees has been actively involved in the community during his 44 years here. He’s been a Prineville-Crook County Chamber member for many years and served as Board President for a year.

“Mary Thurman was the President right before me; and between Mary and BeBe Shindler, who was the Chamber Manager at the time and doing a great job, I didn’t have too much to do when I took office.”

Scouting has been an important part of Van Voorhees’ life since childhood. He and his wife, Katie, got involved again in Prineville through their two boys, Steven and Andrew.

“My family was involved in scouting when I grew up and in college, at Colgate University, I was an Assistant Scout Master for a year. Here in Prineville I was a Scout Master for a couple of years with Troop 28. Katie was Pack Master with Pack 28 for several years as well. I then became the Commissioner to help all the troops in the area and I’m still on the Fremont District (Scout) Council. I help the Eagle Scouts get their projects approved,” said Voorhees.

Van Voorhees believes that Scouting provides valuable experiences to youth, lessons that will help in adulthood.

“The most valuable thing is that boys learn leadership skills. They are the leaders, not the adults. They decide what they want to do, they run the program, and the Scout Master is there to make sure they don’t cross any lines. When they get out in the real world they know how to run a meeting, how things work. It helps them a great deal.”

Since arriving in Prineville during August of 1969 Van Voorhees has watched the evolution of the area and believes that not all that much has changed. “I think it’s a little smoother than it used to be. Obviously there are more people and buildings but overall it hasn’t changed all that much.”

Understanding that Crook County is still trying to recover from the “Great Recession,” Van Voorhees reflected on a past recession. “I think that things will start coming back as time goes along. It’s going to be a longer recovery than the recession we had back in 1978-80. But there are good things happening now – the new hospital, Facebook, Apple, etc.”

And he has his own views on what will benefit Crook County, economic development-wise, over the long term.

“I have a theory and it might be controversial. There are a lot of towns back east that are just residential towns. I think we should put more money into developing Crook County into a nice residential area. We have a nice park system and lots of nice property. If we can attract more upscale people to live here we’d have more money for school budgets and a lot of other things.”

“There are thousands of communities across the country all trying to attract clean industries that employ upscale people - and it just doesn’t happen. People are happier commuting (to Bend or Redmond) than they used to be and, if we developed Prineville that way, we’d have a pretty nice community.”

While he believes Crook County is a wonderful spot for tourists, he doesn’t believe the area should hang its hat on that industry.

“If you have tourism there’s nothing wrong with it – but you don’t want to base your economy on it. They are not high wage jobs unfortunately.”

Van Voorhees is pleased with the administrations of both the City and County.

 “I’m really impressed with the city manager (Steve Forrester); he’s very good and knows what he’s doing. I also think the City Council is pretty good at what they’re doing. And the County Court is also doing a pretty good job as well.” 

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