In Memoriam The Honorable Joseph Hall Steere

April 6, 1937

Upon the coming in of Court in the afternoon of Tuesday, April 6, 1937, at 1:30 o’clock p.m., Chief Justice LOUIS H. FEAD spoke as follows:

This afternoon has been set for memorial exercises for the late Mr. Justice JOSEPH H. STEERE. I think we will first hear from the State Bar.

 MR. BONISTEEL: May it please the Court:

Tennyson tells us that:

“Every moment dies a man.”

As the representative of some six thousand lawyers of this commonwealth I join with you in this memorial service, a yearly recessional whereby we attempt “to offer up to their memory * * * a tribute of our affection, thereby demonstrating the sincerity of our esteem” for those of our honored profession who now rest from their labors and whose works do follow them, for

“Time like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away.”

In our retrocedent glance of the past year are the names of distinguished lawyers and judges who have served their time and their generation; some have achieved fame and high honors while others have carried on their work content to render to their constituency and clientele that type of modest professional service which marks most of us. The names of all shall be inscribed upon the records of this great Court as a testimony of their worth and of their attainment. In this I know the members of this Honorable Court join with us, because,

“Praising what is lost,
Makes the remembrance dear.”

May it please the Court, I have listed here those members of our profession and Judges who have this past year passed to the Great Beyond.

On occasions of this kind it sometimes seems unfair to single out any particular individual and direct attention to his life and career, but today the lawyers of Michigan unanimously authorize me to speak of one personally known to many of us and whose memory and worth is cherished by all of us.

I can remember as if it were yesterday, shortly after my admission to the Bar of this State, driving in Lenawee county and having my companion point with pride to a distant house and say, “That is where Justice JOSEPH STEERE was born.” I shall never forget the enthusiasm with which he discussed the true worth of Justice STEERE, whose cardinal virtues had so impressed themselves upon my friend.

Again I recall the funeral services in Adrian. I had heard for many years the expression, “He has outlived his generation,” but had never fully realized what it meant until that day when there was hardly one of his generation present to do him final honors. He had lived 84 years, 84 useful years.

Again a fortnight ago, I spent a day and night in the Soo where I heard nothing but praise for the man we honor today, praise as a just judge, as a worthy citizen. I was perhaps attracted to him because he was a collector of Americana, a student of history, and an authority on the Lake Superior country. He had a fine library of many rare books which he gave to the people of the Soo, which represented a lifetime of collecting. His biography is replete with the ideal of the social mind. He never lost the common touch even though high honors came to him repeatedly.

A circuit judge at the early age of 28—and for 30 years he served his circuit; a Supreme Court justice for 16 years, a total of 46 years of the bench, a career judge.

He has made his record. It has been transcribed and the Supreme Court reports reflect his industry, his worth, his wisdom. We honor him with you today.

Let us remember that “the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God and no harm can happen unto them.”

“They say life is a highway and its milestones are
the years,
And now and then there is a toll gate,
Where you pay your way with tears.
It’s a rough road and a steep road, and it stretches
broad and far,
But it leads at last to a Golden Town where Golden
Houses are.”

For there we shall find him.

CHIEF JUSTICE FEAD: We will now hear from the circuit.

 MR. HUDSON: If the Court please:

“The moving finger writes
And having writ, moves on.
Nor all your piety nor wit
Can call it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.”

The bar of Chippewa county and the bar of the eleventh judicial circuit has asked me to present to this Court its resolutions of esteem and respect to our friend and neighbor, the late Justice JOSEPH H. STEERE, and I am happy to be permitted to render this last service of friendship which has grown out of some 36 years of intimate acquaintance and also great esteem.

The Grim Reaper of the universe has again invaded our ranks and has called to the Great Unknown one of our greatest jurists and most admired citizens, Justice JOSEPH HALL STEERE.

Justice STEERE Was born at Addison, Michigan, May 19, 1852, and departed this life at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, December 16, 1936. He was one of the pioneer families of Michigan, son of Isaac and Elizabeth (Comstock) Steere. His father was born in Ohio, after his family moved from Virginia.

J. H. STEERE, as he usually signed his name, was raised on the old homestead in Addison township where as a boy he grew up among good old pioneer surroundings that laid the background for a long and useful life. He was educated in the public schools of the place, and continued his studies in the Raisin Valley Seminary and graduated from there with the Class of 1871. In the fall of 1872, Justice STEERE entered the literary department of the University of Michigan and graduated as a member of the Class of 1876. He then took up the study of law in the office of Geddes and Miller at Adrian, Michigan, and was admitted to the bar in 1878.

Justice STEERE came to Sault Ste. Marie in the year 1878, where he was a resident until the time of his death. During his first year at the Soo he was appointed prosecuting attorney and served in that capacity until 1881, when he was elected circuit judge of the eleventh judicial district. The district then comprised the counties of Chippewa, Alger, Luce, Mackinac, Schoolcraft and Manitou.

Justice STEERE continued to serve as circuit judge of this district for 30 continuous years; a record achieved by few, if any, judges in this State. He was elevated to the Supreme Court of this State in the year 1911 and voluntarily resigned from the court in October 1927. He had served on the bench for the continuous period of 46 years.
In the death of Justice STEERE the bar of Chippewa county, the eleventh judicial circuit, the Supreme Court of the State of Michigan, and the State Bar of Michigan, have lost an able jurist, a tried and trusted friend, and the State of Michigan has lost a valuable and respected citizen. Many of us, his intimate friends and associates of many years, have suffered an irreparable loss.

The bar of Chippewa county, his home county, was particularly proud of Justice STEERE. It was proud of his accomplishments and gloried in the many distinctions bestowed upon him during his lifetime.

Justice STEERE was careful and thoughtful in his work upon the bench. He was particularly helpful and interested in the younger attorneys who were practicing before him. He wrote many outstanding and distinguished opinions while a member of our State Supreme Court, and has contributed an immeasurable quantity to the development of the law of the State of Michigan.

It is not only as a lawyer and jurist that we remember him and grieve at his death, but it is in the loss of a friend. The outstanding element of Judge STEERE’ S personality was his friendliness and his kindliness toward his fellow men. He had a peculiar ability of being able to state his feelings upon a subject without being severe, of commanding respect without belittling the opinions of those who might disagree.

His interest in the welfare of others and his friendliness are the greatest loss to those who knew him and we, the members of the Chippewa county bar association, herewith respectfully wish to place upon the records of this Court a brief expression of tribute and respect to the man who was our friend and a distinguished jurist.
The resolution is signed by the Committee of the Chippewa county bar.*

Perhaps on an occasion of this kind I may be permitted to indulge rather in personal reminiscences than in discussion of Justice STEERE’ S achievements. It seems to me that to have participated with this Court for 16 years in interpreting the expressions and philosophies of a people, as expressed in their laws, is honor enough for one man. To have presided over the lower court in the eleventh judicial circuit for 30 years is enough of service; but to have earned the respect, the affection and esteem of so broad a circle of friends is a glory which, I think transcends even the accomplishments of a great jurist.

Justice STEERE’s record as a law giver is written large in the reports of this Court and others will, no doubt, comment upon it from greater knowledge and familiarity than I possess; but to me there comes an inescapable conviction that his life and his example has made a contribution to society as great as his legal attainments. In my whole intimate acquaintance with Justice STEERE I have never heard him speak ill of anyone, but good of many. I have never known of him to neglect to do a kindly act and those acts of kindliness and charity were done secretly and by stealth. His friends were from the seats of the mighty and from the cottages of the lowliest. I recall when an old Indian guide of his fell afoul of sickness and want, his necessities were provided, and I doubt if old John Gadotte ever knew the source from which his food and care were provided but most of it came from this gentle Quaker judge.

Justice STEERE knew better than most the history of the north land, which he loved, and he left to his hometown an invaluable historical library of the north region. But he left something more valuable than that, he left also the tradition of judicial integrity, the tradition of sympathy and kindliness which has been one of his permanent contributions to his own country. But he was not only familiar with books and the law; he knew the woods and the streams as few men know them. He knew the birds and the flowers, their Indian names and the legends about them. In his study of the out-of-doors, he was as painstaking and thorough as in his study of the law. His patience was inexhaustible and I have seen him go back from a woods camp day after day to study and become familiar with the habits of the woods creatures.

The “moving finger” has indeed written the story of this gentle Quaker, of a great jurist and a great gentleman, and no line of the story need be erased. The precedents set by JUSTICE STEERE, in our judicial circuit, of kindliness and sympathy, and of justice, have not only been impressed upon the bar but have been followed by his successors.
The presence of a great personality is never wholly lost. Its effect upon a community may not be expressed in words; it may, perhaps, not be consciously felt but it seems to me that the deep affection and esteem of a wide circle of associates must somehow make itself felt for the betterment of them all, and perhaps be passed on to the benefit of those who follow. And one of the most outstanding characteristics, scarcely understandable in a man of such unusual knowledge and ability, was an innate modesty, amounting almost to a reticence. In all my acquaintance with him, I had never heard him make a speech and I have known of his escape from public expressions of appreciation.

Justice STEERE had lived a long life of usefulness and accomplishment, and a life full of the zest of things, of the better things. His end was as peaceful as his life, uncomplaining and cheerful. And as the shadows lengthened, he faced the inevitable with the same gentle humor and the same desire to avoid saddening his friends and his associates.

He might well have said:

“Sunset and evening star
And one clear call to me,
And let there be no moaning at the bar
When I put out to sea.
“Twilight and evening bell
And after that the dark,
And let there be no sadness of farewell
When I embark.”

CHIEF JUSTICE FEAD: We will be glad to hear from any member of the bar who desires to speak at this time.

 MR. LARMONTH: May it please the Court:

I had no idea of taking any part and I can add nothing to what has been said, only I want to say this, that no one could come in contact with Justice STEERE and practice before him as I did for several years without getting a higher ideal of the ethics of the profession. He was willing to excuse a mistake, but a deliberate attempt at a falsehood always met with severe reprimand. He was kind to a fault. The judge was always the same and some of us got the idea that he may be hard hearted In talking with him one day he said to me, “Sometimes when a jury brings in a verdict of not guilty you feel there has been a miscarriage of justice, but when your fellow man stands up before you for sentence you many times wish they had all been not guilty.” It seems to me that showed a part of Justice STEERE that few of us realized.

I can only add my humble tribute to him. I loved him; I respected him; felt free to go to him at any time, not to get an advance decision or anything of that kind, but for any advice on any questions that came up.

CHIEF JUSTICE FEAD: Any other member of the bar desire to speak?

 MR. HANDY: If the Court please:

I had no thought of saying anything today. In fact Justice STEERE was such an intimate and close friend of mine and my family that I couldn’t stand here and do justice to him or myself. I had as high a regard for Justice STEERE as a man and as a jurist as I have of any man in the world. I don’t believe he had an enemy in the eleventh judicial circuit. I couldn’t let the opportunity pass, however, when called upon to say a word.

As I look over this Bench, there is only one Justice who ever presided on the Bench with Justice STEERE. It simply illustrates the passing of time. It is only a matter of time when we must all meet the inevitable fate which met him.

As I say, he was a friend of mine, he was a friend of my family, and when he died I lost one of the very best friends I ever had in the world.

CHIEF JUSTICE FEAD: Anyone else desire to speak?

One of the responses from the Bench will be made by Mr. Justice WIEST, who served on the Supreme Court with Mr. Justice STEERE.

 JUSTICE WIEST: JOSEPH H. STEERE was a noble man; not by decoration but by innate qualities of character, commanding universal esteem. He was the dean of all circuit judges and Supreme Court justices, and his passing has severed the last living link with the judiciary of 55 years ago.

From January 1, 1882, to August 30, 1911, or a period nearly 30 years he was judge of the eleventh circuit, first comprised of Chippewa, Mackinac, Manitou and Schoolcraft counties, and later of Chippewa, Schoolcraft, Alger and Luce counties. From August 30, 1911, to October 4, 1927, when he voluntarily retired, or for a period of 16 years, he was a member of this Court and his splendid opinions are in 74 volumes of the reports.

I had the honor and the privilege of association with him on this bench for seven years. He was a fine associate, kindly, learned, helpful and ever ready to share with others the benefits of his long judicial experience and his knowledge of practice, procedure and precedents.

With right to much assumption he was unassuming. He was too considerate to be censorious and his silences on occasions were ennobling. In a quiet way he had a keen sense of humor. He possessed strong individuality, without the weakness of aggressiveness. He was a scholar, erudite, with incomparable diction and enviable literary style. He had an active mind, with storage capacity for all he garnered.

He had vast lore of northern history and tradition but was too modest to commercialize it.

He was a lover of nature and a true friend of birds and nonpredatory animals.

He has left an abiding and loving remembrance. He has entered the way of no return and his record now belongs to the judicial history of the State he served so long and so well.

Having begun the practice of law in Judge STEERE’S circuit in 1900 I wish to speak of him as a circuit judge and man. He was a pioneer. Because the railroad did not reach all his county seats in the early days, he traveled by team, often over tote roads, tramped through the woods on snowshoes in winter, and used a sailboat when occasion required.

When he was young, the hotels were mere wooden shells, the rooms were cold, and the guests gathered about the great stove in the office in the evening. The company and conversation were rough. It was the day of the lumber jack, hard working, hard drinking, hard swearing and hard fighting specimen of iron manhood, who detested weakness, respected strength and courage, and revered a good woman.

It is not easy to visualize Judge STEERE as a pioneer and in such surroundings. Slight of figure, not of the robust constitution, modest of manner, gentle of mien, quiet of conversation, unassertive, a professing and practicing Quaker, he seemed wholly out of place. But he had in him a hidden spiritual steel which enabled him to withstand the rigors of nature and to compel the unqualified respect of the roughest and most lawless men. He thought nobly and had and radiated the courage to live finely. He loved the forest and the stream, the trail, the rain and snow and the storm, and they were reflected in the sweetness and gentleness of his character and the implacability of his adherence to his convictions.

Judge STEERE had an inquiring mind. There was no subject beyond the realm of his interest. He knew more of the history of the Upper Peninsula than any other man. In his large library, containing the complete letters of the Jesuit Fathers, he had marked all the references to Sault Ste. Marie. He called by name the lakes and rivers and trees and bushes and flowers, and birds and animals, in all the country around. Except the predatory beasts, they were his friends. He had a nearly expert knowledge of such diverse subjects as minerals and lumber, lace and oriental rugs.

But perhaps Judge STEERE will best be remembered by the people of his district as a respected and loved companion. As he rode his circuit, citizens of the towns would go to his hotel just to talk with him for a few minutes. He knew their personal affairs, inquired about their families, told them of things he had learned, and often let fall a helpful hint. On his way to the courthouse he was greeted by many people. In the conduct of the court he was infinitely patient and kindly toward counsel and helpful to jurors and witnesses. But there was no weakness in his kindliness. He demanded decorum and orderly and decent procedure. Not at all captious with counsel, he nevertheless did not hesitate to rebuke when occasion demanded. But the rebuke contained no sting because it was just. In the evening when waiting for a jury to report a verdict, not only the attorneys and the court officers in attendance, but many of the town’s people gathered in the courtroom to listen to his charming and meaningful conversation enlivened with an inimitable humor. His riding of the circuit was a benediction.

In the State Mr. Justice STEERE was known as a jurist of fine attainments. In the circuit Judge STEERE was known as a just and upright judge, but also as a kindly gentleman and a companion to all the community. His life was full of years, of quiet enjoyment, of splendid public service, and he was a friend of man.

The court will now adjourn out of respect for the memory of Justice STEERE.