Justice John W. Champlin Memorial

OCTOBER 8, 1901

 Upon the convening of court for the October term, 1901, on Tuesday, October 8th, the Honorable ROGER W. BUTTERFIELD, of Grand Rapids, on behalf of the bar of Kent county, presented, with appropriate remarks, the following memorial of the Honorable JOHN W. CHAMPLIN, formerly a member of the court, who departed this life at his home in Grand Rapids on the 24th day of July, 1901:

JOHN WAYNE CHAMPLIN was born at Kingston, Ulster county, New York, February 17, 1831. He was of English descent, his ancestors being amongst the earlier settlers of Connecticut. His years as a boy were passed upon his father’s farm and in attendance upon the village school. Later on he attended the academies at Harpersfield and at Stamford and Rhinebeck. It was his first purpose to become a civil engineer. He completed his professional studies in the Delaware Institute, and spent the two years succeeding his graduation in the active practice of that profession. Coming to Michigan in 1854, he entered upon the study of law, and was admitted to the bar in 1855. From that time he continued the practice of the law for 28 years, until his election as a member of this court. The growth of his reputation as a lawyer was a gradual and steady one, and at the end of that period he was recognized as amongst the leaders of the bar, not only through the district where he lived, but throughout the State. The range of his practice was very large, and the litigation in which he was retained was amongst the most important.

As a lawyer Judge CHAMPLIN had very strongly-marked and persistent mental characteristics. It was born in him to love justice, and to revere the system by which justice was secured in civilized society. In the investigation of any legal proposition he was remarkably free from prejudice or bias, or any kind of intellectual one-sidedness. It was the necessity of his mental organization that he should see all sides of a question which he was investigating, that he should consider its application and trace its growth from some established principle of the law. There was in him an honesty that permeated his whole nature, which made him not only fair in his dealings with his fellow men, but honest in the processes of his mind. It was part of his creed never to tamper with his own legal judgment. Animated by a sincere sense of duty which a man owes to his generation, he held it to be a very high honor to be permitted to perform that duty in securing the right administration of justice. For the accomplishment of that end he held no preparation too laborious and no effort too severe. It was not in him to become a mere advocate for hire. Each year of the 28 added to the breadth and certainty of his legal knowledge and the development of an accurate legal judgment. He was himself an example of what the right practice of the law can do in the development of the faculties.

Judge CHAMPLIN was elected a member of this court in 1883, and took his seat on January 1, 1884. He brought to his new position, as the result of his training at the law, a wide acquaintance with men and affairs, a familiarity with the learning of the law, an accurate legal judgment, and a judicial habit of thought, resulting not only from the natural tendency of his mind, but from his legal training. He bore with him to the bench the best wishes of the entire bar of Michigan, by whom he was held in high regard. The conduct of Judge CHAMPLIN as a judge upon the bench was not only marked by the traditional courtesy which pertains to the position, but by a gentleness and kindness of
manner that was the natural expression of his character. His whole bearing expressed what his life showed he felt,–a reverence for justice and its administration. The story of his life as a judge of this court is a story of eight years of hard, conscientious work, ably done. The profound reverence which Judge CHAMPLIN had for the law as established may have tended to make him at times too conservative, but there is no doubt but that this very conservatism was a factor for good in the work of the whole court during the time he was a member of it. It is a great deal to say of any one’s work as a judge that it maintains the traditions of the Supreme Court of Michigan, and that it has added to the usefulness and reputation of that court. We think that can fairly be said of Judge CHAMPLIN’S work. The labor of a life buried in judicial opinions soon passes from the mind of the public, but we who are familiar with that work, and who know its value, know that it is the doing well of that work which makes modern civil life successful or even possible, and the faithful worker here deserves well of his generation and of his country. If appreciation is to come only from those who by professional training are prepared to appreciate the work and its doing, it is all the more important that it be fairly and generously given.

In 1887, in acknowledgment of his position at the bar, the degree of doctor of laws was conferred upon him by the University of Michigan. After retiring from the Supreme Court, Judge CHAMPLIN resumed the practice of the law, which he continued until his death. He was appointed one of the lecturers at the law school of Ann Arbor, where for five years he served the University and the profession in the acceptable performance of that duty which every lawyer owes to those who are to succeed him in the profession.

As a man Judge CHAMPLIN, in his character, took what was best in life from a broad horizon. There was no good cause that did not find in him a friend. His life was full of acts of charity and helpfulness, known only to those immediately connected with him, but which left him, at the end of a long and remunerative practice, a poor man. He kept all his life his love for books. The story of the Nation’s history, and the growth and development of his own State, were always dear to him. Caring little for distinctions of creed, he lived and died in a profound faith in the loving and tender care of a Divine Ruler. Alongside of his rugged, hard sense and his intellectual strength there was a certain simplicity of character, that kept his heart young, and made him rejoice in simple things. When the weariness of his later years came on him, he turned to the mountains and woods for strength, with the delight almost of a child.

He was of a type of man to whom a belief was a rule of life. It was not possible for him to turn his course hither and thither at every cry of the multitude. He was true to himself, and, being true to himself, he was true to every trust reposed in him in ever relation in life. It is well that the memory of such a man should be preserved in the court where so important a part of his life work was done. It is by such lives as his that institutions are preserved and made honorable to those who come after them. To those of his generation who knew him, there will be no need of formal record. On their hearts he has left indelibly the impression of his own strong , beautiful, and helpful life.

 Mr. BUTTERFIELD was followed by the Honorable DALLAS BOUDEMAN, of the Kalamazoo bar, who spoke as follows:

We pause today, amidst life’s turmoils and cares, to say a brief word in commemoration of a noble character. In the hurry of the pressing century we scarcely have the time to give due honor, while they live, to those who deserve to be honored. We meet our associates upon the crowded walks of life, we speak a word of greeting, we separate and go our ways, urged on by duty’s call, and we regret for the moment that we cannot stop long enough to enjoy the genial companionship of our dearest friends, gather new inspirations from their cheering words, and refresh ourselves from the fountains of their wisdom. We console ourselves with the thought that at some other time we shall be able to do these things, and to say to them how much we prize their friendship and admire their many good qualities. At last, with scarcely a word of warning, we are surprised and pained that a friend has passed away, and the things which we should have said to him and of him in life are left to be said of him only in memoriam. Thus quickly pass our days, and we receive but a partial benefit from the high attainments and the noble qualities, and catch but a momentary glimpse of the splendid characters, of those about us.

It was my rare privilege for more than a quarter of a century to enjoy the acquaintance and friendship of Judge JOHN W. CHAMPLIN, and my admiration for him has increased more and more during each year of that period. He was one of the great men of the present age. He has for many years occupied the position of a leading lawyer of the State, and he was entitled so to do, because of his attainments, and of those admirable qualities of mind and heart, and of the unimpeachable character, which he possessed. He was unostentatious. He never pretended to be what he was not. He never unduly pressed himself into public prominence, and left it for others to sing his praises. He was well qualified to occupy the position as a leader in the profession. He was clear and concise in his statements of facts and law. While not eloquent, if by that is meant the assembling of words into rounded periods and striking paragraphs, which sometimes may mean much and sometimes little, yet he did possess the quality of eloquence, if that word is construed to mean the logical expression of earnest thought and effective speech. When he, as a member of this court, delivered an opinion, those who read it saw at a glance that he had given the subject thorough consideration, and that he was expressing his honest conclusions upon the matter in hand. The opinions written by him have become a part of the legal history of the State, as they are contained in the Reports of this court, and they will ever stand forth as examples of the clearest reasoning, of well-considered expositions of legal principles, and as showing what great power there is in the English language when properly used. He was absolutely reliable at all times and in all places. His word needed no verification or indemnifying bond. How we all admire a reliable man! His character shines forth resplendently amidst his surroundings of eminent men. As a citizen, none knew him except to do him honor. He was of that class of persons so much needed in a republic like our own, the life and progress of which depend so absolutely upon the purity and substantiality of its leaders.

We have in this State of Michigan been singularly blessed in the selection of those who have presided over our various courts. The lawyers who have been elevated to the position of judges have been an honor to the profession, and faithful to their trusts, so far as my personal knowledge of them has ever extended. And what greater guaranty can we have that the rights of all classes will be protected and guarded than to know that those who occupy judicial positions are honest, faithful, and conscientious? There can be none. Judge CHAMPLIN is a shining example of those who, by faithful and efficient service, have made our State and Nation great, and our liberties secure. It has been said that a few will always rule a republic. This is probably true; and it would also have been true if the further saying had been added that, unless that few consist of intelligent, God-fearing patriots, there would soon be no republic to rule. In a nation of free thought, free speech, and free press, liberty is too often construed to mean license. Discord, commotion, anarchy, and treason are liable to afflict, if they do not annihilate, a republic; and it needs the noble thought, the guiding hand, the rare judgment, and the true Americanism of such men as the one whose taking away is the occasion of this service, to guide and direct the affairs of this mightiest nation of the world’s history, and to preserve it from destruction.

Well may we honor, by the fitting words which are contained in the memorial presented, the life, the character, and the work of the departed. Our words can but feebly express what he deserves. We cannot fathom the depth of the influence of his life, nor can we measure the breadth of its power for good. How many by his example, and by his influence, and by his purity of heart and Christian virtues may have been lifted into a holier atmosphere, into nobler thought, into grander endeavor, and whose ambitions may have been stirred to the accomplishment of greater deeds, we shall never know; but we can fairly believe that whatever he may have accomplished as a lawyer, whatever eminence he may have attained as a judge of this court, will be equaled, if not exceeded, by the good which the world has received by reason of the nobility of his manhood. We speak of his work here as finished, and so it is so far as he can finish it; but its influence and good teachings, and its development of character in others, will continue on and on throughout the years yet to come.

 Chief Justice MONTGOMERY responded for the court as follows: The acceptance of this memorial is more than a mere ceremony to all of us, – to the members of the bar, who had no more courteous, cordial, and genial friend than JOHN W. CHAMPLIN; to the members of this court, with some of whom he was associated during his eight years of service on this bench, to all of whom he was a sincere and loyal friend always. My own acquaintance with Judge CHAMPLIN extended over a period of nearly a quarter of a century. During much of this time my relations with him were intimate, and I learned to appreciate his ability, and to esteem him highly as a man.

Of Justice CHAMPLIN’S service to the State, the best testimonials are the luminous opinions written by him during his eight years of service. His well-balanced mind, his keen sense of justice, his abhorrence of fraud in whatever guise it might assume, as well as his great learning and untiring industry, are here evidenced. What might be said of his services is beautifully expressed in the memorial which has been presented.

Without attempting to enlarge, therefore, upon what is so familiar to every lawyer and to the great mass of the people, I wish to emphasize my appreciation of the great worth of the man, and to acknowledge the value of his inspiring example to all young men, and to the community in which he lived. From the time when he entered upon the practice of his profession, during his incumbency of various minor offices, until he, by natural selection, became a member of this court, throughout all his career, the influence of Judge CHAMPLIN was always on the side of the best citizenship, integrity and purity in public station, and sturdy manhood in private life. He loved his country, his State, his city, and his fellow men, and unselfishly devoted his best efforts to the betterment of the community.

In his family relations Judge CHAMPLIN was singularly happy. Beloved and loving, no service was too much for him to undertake for the wife, who was a true helpmeet during all the years of struggles, as well as during his prosperity. To his children he was a cheerful, sunny companion, as well as mentor and adviser. All the pleasures of his life were multiplied when shared with those he loved.

But a few short weeks before his death I called upon my friend, and could not wholly conceal the shock produced by his changed appearance. I found him tranquil and serene, fully prepared to make the journey known to be inevitable. His faith was sublime. Said he, “It is my time to go. I have lived the allotted age of man, and am even now living on borrowed time. I am ready.” Like another great man whose untimely taking off we have so recently been called upon to mourn, he was prepared to say, “It is His way; not my will, but His, be done.” Well might he, looking back over a life of great usefulness, of unblemished purity, and of good cheer, indulge the hope of a broader and happier life beyond.