When the conflict arose between classes and basketball, John Ulmer, like just about any Hoosier would, picked roundball and, inadvertently, took his first steps toward a legal career that has since lasted more than 50 years.
He was a freshman at Michigan State University, having enrolled with dreams of becoming a veterinarian. He signed on as manager of the men’s basketball team and during his first season, the Spartans went to the Final Four in 1957.
If he had had any doubts about basketball, the spectacle and exhilaration of the championship round erased it. So the choice really wasn’t difficult. Class in the vet school ran from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day and basketball practice started in the afternoons about 1:30.
Ulmer switched his major to business so he could continue to be part of the game he continues to love.
From MSU he went to Indiana University Maurer School of Law, figuring he could translate his undergraduate studies into a career as a business attorney. He graduated and settled into private practice at the firm that is now Yoder Ainlay Ulmer & Buckingham in Goshen in 1963. More than 50 years later, he still goes into the office every day and even picks up the firm’s mail on Saturday mornings.
His colleagues have taken note of his service and contributions to the profession. Within the span of a few months, he received the 2016 Indiana Trial Lawyers Association Lifetime Achievement Award and the Indiana Bar Foundation 2016 Legendary Lawyer Award.
“It makes me feel so humble,” Ulmer said. “I owe so much to so many other people who helped me. I appreciate it.”
Ulmer, 78, grew up in Bluffton, the son of a grocer. Delivering groceries to his neighbors and spending time on his grandmother’s farm instilled in him a comfort with small towns and joy at being outdoors.
He interviewed for a clerkship with the late Judge John Hastings of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, but afterward called the court and removed his name from consideration. Chicago did not hold the allure that practicing law in a small town did.
He had just started his career at Yoder Ainlay when the senior partner of the firm died unexpectedly. The partners had him switch from business law to trial work, where he discovered his competitive spirit honed in basketball was an attribute in the courtroom.
Originally, he represented the defense but changed to helping plaintiffs after getting calls from local folks who needed an attorney to file their cases. For about the past 14 years, he has pursued environmental class actions on behalf of residents in Goshen and Elkhart who are battling former businesses to clean up the contamination they left behind.
Thomas Barnard, partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, has worked with Ulmer as co-counsel on many of these cases.
Ulmer moves easily between giving guidance and deferring to other attorneys who may have more knowledge of the scientific aspects in the case. He does not hog the ball, Barnard said. Nor does he needlessly run up the score. Even if he is winning his argument in court and has opposing counsel trapped in a corner, Ulmer does not embarrass or humiliate opponents.
As Barnard explained, Ulmer does not believe the jurors or the profession is helped by taking a scorched-earth approach.
“He’s a true gentleman,” Barnard said, noting his colleague’s honesty and civility as an attorney. “It is a true pleasure to work with him because he assumes the best in everyone.”
In 1998, Ulmer added another dimension to his career by getting elected to the Indiana General Assembly. He served until 2008.
His father was a legislator and Ulmer remembered, as a boy, accompanying him to Republican caucuses in Indianapolis. There he usually saw one room filled with judges offering appetizers and drinks while accepting campaign contributions.
That memory drove him to halt then-Rep. Ralph Foley’s 2006 bill that would have put the appellate judges on the ballot for election. During his 10 years in the Statehouse, Ulmer did not accept any donations from constituents and he did not think it was proper for appellate judges to accept money.
His effort earned him praise from Indiana Court of Appeals Judge Margret Robb. In her letter supporting his nomination for the Legendary Lawyer Award, she described Ulmer as the reason Indiana’s appellate courts remain a well-respected judiciary.
Ulmer went on to serve on the Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission, interviewing candidates for justice and chief justice seats. Some may recall one question in particular he asked Chief Justice Loretta Rush in 2014.
He had talked to Rush prior to her interview for chief justice and was impressed by her candor about juggling her family life with her professional responsibilities. He thought it showed she could manage many different demands.
But when he asked about how she handles her roles as a wife, mother and judge, social media and the press cried foul. Rush told him she was not offended but the mere mention of “the question” still causes him to groan.
Hook shots and wildlife
To get away from the stress of practicing law, Ulmer retreats to his 150-acre farm west of Goshen. He has turned the area into a park, planting thousands of trees, clearing paths through the woods, creating ponds and providing a habitat for deer and wild turkeys.
“I think he’s perfectly happy and perfectly content when he can be out there on his land doing things,” said Ulmer’s best friend and law partner George Buckingham.
Ulmer’s love of the outdoors has also carried him around the world to hunt big game. And his love of basketball put him on the hardwoods, playing in Goshen’s industrial league.
Ulmer and Buckingham, buddies since the first year of law school, were guards on the Star Tank Co. team but Buckingham recalled his friend really wanted to play center. Although Ulmer lacked the size to fill the big man role, he never turned down the opportunity to play that position, even indulging a sky hook shot or two.
Indeed, thinking back on his years at Michigan State, Ulmer said he really majored in basketball. He now watches the games from the stands instead of the bench but he did get to relive the excitement of 1957 with MSU when the Star Tank hoopsters took home the league championship in 1972.
A photo of that winning team hangs in the firm’s office. Buckingham said he and UImer often show off the picture and recount their victory, just like any Hoosier would.•