Judge Lyle Wolff dead at age 85

June 23, 2005 12:00 am

By TY GONROWSKI

Of the Baker City Herald

A former Baker County Circuit Court judge who was known for being very intelligent, eccentric and for taking his dog everywhere died Tuesday in Salem.

Judge Lyle R. Wolff, who was 85, was circuit court judge in Baker County from the late 1950s until 1977.

"He was a very colorful man...a very, very bright man," said Milo Pope, circuit court judge from 1989-2000.

Wolff was born in Nebraska, graduated from Harvard Law School and became a bomber pilot in World War II before coming west to start a legal practice.

His longtime friend Gary Dielman said Wolff didn't tell many stories from his days flying missions over Europe, but he did enjoy one from his training in North Carolina.

Dielman explained that Wolff and five other planes went on a training flight over the Atlantic Ocean. Wolff's bomber and the others told the lead plane that they were below their halfway point in fuel and they ought to head back. The lead plane told them to keep going and shortly after they turned around, they ran out of fuel.

"He didn't have to bail out over France or Germany but he had to bail out after a little jaunt over the Atlantic," Dielman said.

A few years after the war ended, Wolff came to Baker County to open a law practice.

"He practiced law here for a number of years," Dielman said.

In the late 1950s Wolff became circuit court judge. The Herald could not locate an election record in time for this story.

While on the bench, Wolff had quite a reputation among some attorneys.

"He was a pain in the neck for lawyers ... for some lawyers," Pope said.

Dielman, who was juvenile director under Wolff, agreed.

"He could be pretty tyrannical, but I never had problems with any of his decisions," he said.

Pope explained that when he was a lawyer he represented Wolff in a matter while Wolff was on the bench. The judge wanted to give his court reporter a raise that the county did not approve.

"Wolff thought (the court reporter) deserved a raise, and they wouldn't give him one," Pope said.

Wolff's legal team, of which Pope was a part, fought the matter all the way to the court of appeals where they lost.

A short time later, Pope wound up sitting in the back of Wolff's courtroom watching a trial. Pope said that attorney Dave Silven was addressing the jury.

"(Wolff) put his arm up and said, ‘Mr. Silven, please take your seat,'" Pope said. "He said, ‘Mr. Pope, please remain in the courtroom.' He leaned over to the court reporter and said ‘you are going to buy Mr. Pope and the court lunch today.' Then he said, ‘Mr. Silven, please continue.'"

Along with his colorful ways in the courtroom, Wolff was also known for taking his dog, Socrates, everywhere.

"Socrates was a poodle," Dielman said. "Not a big, full-grown poodle, but a small version. He brought him to work every day."

The small dog would spend time in Wolff's chambers and occasionally on the roof outside of his window.

Socrates fell from the roof once, but Wolff blamed that on someone enticing him to jump, Dielman said.

Socrates survived the fall.

Wolff also was a frequent dinner guest of the family of Lee Bollinger, the current president of Columbia University.

"(He) taught me a lot about the intellectual world," Bollinger said in a 2002 interview. "I owe a lot to Judge Wolff."

Bollinger's father was publisher of the Democrat-Herald, forerunner of the Baker City Herald.

In 1977 Wolff lost a re-election bid to William Jackson. Shortly after the loss, Wolff moved to Salem where he was appointed an administrative law judge.

This morning's (Salem) Statesman Journal newspaper said that around their newsroom, Wolff was known simply as The Judge, as he would often call their office to give his opinion, tell stories and hear theirs.

While in Salem, Wolff continued to keep in touch with friends in Baker City.

"He had a great deal of friends in town," Pope said.