Judge Donald Hull looks back on 20 satisfying years on Hood River County bench

December 28, 2011

Twenty years on the bench did not dull Judge Donald Hull's humbling memories as an attorney pleading before the bench.

At a retirement event attended by more than 100 people in the Circuit Court room Dec. 21, Hull drew big laughter for his memory of a time in the 1980s during the first day of a particularly contentious trial.

Circuit Judge John Jelderks, then-District Attorney Hull and the attorney Will Carey were beckoned to the bench, where Jelderks told them, "If you conduct yourselves the next two days like you did today, you'll be spending the night in jail. So what's it going to be?"

"And he meant it, too! We told him we could act a little better," Hull said.

Hull has been on the other side since 1992, and come Dec. 30 he will depart the District 7 Circuit Court seat, to be succeeded in 2012 by attorney John Olsen of The Dalles, who was appointed by Gov. John Kitzhaber last week.

"I'm going to miss him; he's a wonderful judge," said Hull's longtime secretary, Marsha Hughes. "He's fair, he cares about people and I'm just really going to miss him."

Hull said he is "scared in a way," to be leaving the Circuit Court post. "Marsha has been with me most of the time, for 20 years, and it will be a major change, all of a sudden not coming down in the morning and chatting with her. She's been a major part of my work. She knows a lot of law, and has a good head on hers shoulders, and I'll miss that connection."

"A lot of it is just mutual respect and trust," said Hughes, who will continue working for Circuit Court.

Hull said the most enjoyable thing about being a judge has been "trying to reach resolutions that settle issues between the parties.

"It's interesting; you hear cases, take under advisement what's fair for both sides; and I'll miss the jury trials. Those are interesting to me. I'm going to miss the court interaction and dealing with people.

"It's also fun, dealing with juveniles," he said. "It's not always the rule, but you see kids who make a turnaround, and that's very satisfying."

About five years ago, he took one juvenile under his wing, and saw the good come from it. The young man was a junior at HRVHS. Hull graduated from Hood River High School in 1962, where he played football and basketball and ran track.

"For some reason I had a sense he could succeed, and I told him as part of his sentence, 'I want to see you every week with your homework, and we'll sit down, you and I. I'll review your assignments and tell me how you're doing. I'm going to follow you for the last quarter and a half of the school year.'

"He came in every week; if he had issues we'd talk them over. I told him, 'You ought to consider trying out for football. It's something to focus on, to motivate you.' He did, and he became a top player on an HRVHS football team that went to the playoffs. He totally turned his life around in terms of academics and that made me feel good."

Hull will preside through Dec. 30, but will limit his cases to "straight court work," he said; avoiding cases that would require delayed filing of opinions.

"I don't want to leave here with anything hanging," he said. However, the state court administrator's office has authorized him to continue to oversee two murder cases: Roark Smith in Wasco County and Dane Donaghy in Hood River County.

Upon retirement judges in Oregon are required by state law to work 35 days a year for five years, in bench cases or research and opinion writing.

"I'm excited about that, because it gets me around the state. I'll just grab my fly pole; there's always a river to fish," Hull said.

Fishing and tap dancing are just a few pastimes Hull, 67, is looking forward to pursuing in what is formally his retirement.

"I can now go skiing when I want to go skiing, to play golf when I want," he said. "When I was a state employee it was not appropriate going out on the golf course in the afternoon, unless it was my vacation time."

He has two sons, Jeremy and Chris, both of Portland. His wife, Linda, died of cancer in 2010. Her children are Scott Omlid of Portland and Jody Filkins of Lake Oswego.

"I've always been interested in music," Hull said. "I took piano lessons and learned the guitar, and I look forward to taking lessons again and pursuing tap."

Hull and friends entertained during the courthouse reception Dec. 21 with a tap dancing routine.

His former teacher, Tony Dallman, and classmates Bob Green and Dennis Zimmerman danced on the courtroom stairway landing, downtown Hood River visible behind them. (Hull declined the suggestion that he dance on the bench.)

He now studies with Charlotte Arnold, and said, "As a kid I always wanted to take tap, but as a kid my parents couldn't afford lessons.

"I love music, I think I have a feeling for rhythm and I love to dance," he said. "It's something I enjoyed and it's a great workout. After an hour of class, you are tired. I'm probably the worst in my class, advanced, but they're very charitable; they help me out."

But life will not be all tap and tee times for Donald Hull. In addition to his annual 35 judicial days, he will donate his time at a Portland law firm that specializes in mental health cases and also work in mediation and arbitration.

But he said he will miss the daily pulse of courthouse life in Hood River.

"Coming down to the courthouse you're in the middle of things; you know what's going on from the legal side. It's not going to be the routine, but I'm going to make sure I have a routine."

His start in the Hood River County legal community was far from routine. Hull was elected District Attorney while still in law school at the University of Oregon, where he graduated in 1970.

"It was highly unusual and it hasn't happened since," he said. He won outright in the primary, while still in law school, and by the November primary he was a member of the bar.

He went into private practice in 1975 with the firm of Annala, Carey, Hull and Van Koten, and in January 1990 was appointed District Court judge by then-Gov. Neil Goldschmidt; Hull took the oath of office in February, and was re-elected in May in a race against Ellen Pitcher.

He succeeded Hugh Garrabrant, who resigned, and became the fourth man to serve as District Court judge in Hood River County.

The Feb. 14, 1990, Hood River News reported, "The county Circuit Courtroom was packed with witnesses to the ceremony, despite a snowstorm that kept at least one dignitary away. Oregon Chief Justice Edwin J. Peterson, who was scheduled to swear Hull in, was unable to attend due to the poor weather."

In 1991 he was appointed District 7 Circuit Court judge by then-Gov. Barbara Roberts, and first re-elected in 1992.

Two cases stand out as the most difficult Donald Hull ever encountered as a judge.

One was the case of a 15-year-old boy who was found guilty of a series of robberies. Under Measure 11 he was tried as an adult.

"That one made me sick," he said.

Then there was the wrenching case of a man convicted in Hull's court for the serial murder of homeless men on the Warm Springs reservation in 1992-93.

"It was a tough case, and then at the end I have to say, 'You are going to die by lethal injection.' It's easy for the attorney to say 'He deserves it,' but when you're the one doing (the sentencing), it's 'How did I get in this position?' Telling this guy he's going to the gallows. Hopefully I don't have to do that again. That's tough."

Hull declined to comment on Gov. John Kitzhaber's decision last month to suspend death penalty decisions.

Three other cases give Hull considerably more pleasure to look back upon, including his very first case, which started in that same snow storm that accompanied his swearing-in as district judge. (More on that in a moment.)

Hull recalled the surprising and unique incident when he was trying a drunk-driving case, and one of the jurors fell asleep while jury was getting instructions.

"The defendant took his watch off and threw it, and it hit the jury box partition, and he yelled, 'Wake up (expletive) and listen to the judge!' The jury went out and was gone about five minutes. If I was his attorney I'd have been mortified."

One of his fondest memories is from his first day on the bench, and a unique judicial situation he said has never been repeated.

He asked for a felony case to start with, and it was a projected two-day trial for drug possession.

"It was two days after I was sworn in and there was still two feet of snow on the ground," Hull said. "I got a jury set, and the next day it snowed even more, and Tom Ewald was on the jury. He had a really good snow rig, and he went out and picked up all the jurors, and brought them in and we finished the case the second day."

Hull said, "I wanted to get the case over with and get through it."

He said having the jurors riding in the vehicle together was okay "as long as they didn't talk about the case."

Ewald recalled, "We were in a bind, and the snow was coming down pretty good. I went over to people's homes, and we made it happen and it went well."

"It's never happened since; although there was a time when we ran out of jurors," Hull said. "We didn't have a big jury pool, so I told the sheriff to go bring people off the street, which a judge can do."

(Coincidentally, Ewald is currently serving in the juror pool, for the first time since 1991.)

Ewald said he gathered two or three people at a time in his Ford pickup and drove them to the courthouse.

"I grew up skiing, and spending a lot of time in the snow, so it was no big operation for me," Ewald said.

Hull's boost to the young HRVHS student was an echo of the kindness shown him by his typing teacher at HRHS, Fran Cody of Hood River, who he said is one his greatest influences.

"One day she asked me to stay after class, and told me 'You're not in trouble, but you're not working to your potential. You have the ability to really succeed, and you're not using your ability.' She encouraged me to apply myself academically and I turned into an A student.

"Fran gave me the confidence to turn it around. She helped me turn my life around." (She became his campaign manager in 1991.)

In his senior year, Cody saw a weary-looking Hull in class and asked if he was tired. He said he was, and that he had a track meet that afternoon.

"She told me, 'You go in the other room and put the typewriter cover over your head and take nap.' She let me sleep before the track meet."

It was one of many fond memories of growing up in Hood River in the 1950s and 1960s, a place where "everyone was middle class, everyone was at the same level. It was a quiet town, tourism was non-existent. You knew everyone who went to the high school.

His grandparents, Walter and Fanny Hull, came during late 1930 from the Midwest and lived in a house at Seventh and Cascade, where some condos are now located. He grew up two blocks away on Oak Street, and he spent a lot of time at his grandparents' house.

His parents were Brook and Marjorie Lofts Hull. Her family had a rock-crushing business on the river fill land where Hood River Inn is today.

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