The New Era - All about Sweet Home since 1929

John Wittwer celebrates 40 years as a Sweet Home attorney


September 15, 2015

Photo by Kyla Jutte ATTORNEY JOHN WITTWER, second from left, celebrates the 40th anniversary of passing the bar exam and business in Sweet Home with friends, family and former staff. From left are Jeff Goodwin, John Wittwer, Mirja Wittwer and Norene Nelson, Bill Lewis, Wendy Richards and Rachel Kittson-Maqatish.

Attorney John Wittwer dryly discounts 40 years of business in Sweet Home as something anyone can do.

“The only qualification is breathing,” said Wittwer, 68. “And don’t get disbarred.”

Friday, Sept. 18, marked 40 years since he passed the state bar exam. His staff surprised him with a cake and a visit from friends and former employees.

“John has spent his entire 40 year career practicing law in Sweet Home despite the fact that he could have made a lot more money going somewhere else at just about any point,” said Jeff Goodwin, an associate with Wittwer’s office.

“He told me he walked down to Safeway and got a paper and was sitting in his office next door to our current office when he read the news (that he had passed the bar). At first he thought he had failed, because the paper had inadvertently put his name under the wrong town. Putting it in the newspaper was the way they did it back then. This predates the internet of course.”

In those days, the official notification was by letter, Wittwer said, but the Oregonian and the Daily Journal of Commerce published lists of attorneys passing the bar.

He looked under Salem and Sweet Home, and he didn’t see his name, he said. He was instantly devastated.

“I was thinking, am I going to be fired?” Wittwer said.

He decided to look through the list and see who else he knew who didn’t pass, Wittwer said. He just happened to look further down the page and was delighted to find his name in another spot.

“I came here right out of law school,” Wittwer said. Bill Lewis hired him as a law clerk just out of law school, and Wittwer moved to Sweet Home with his wife, Mirja, and oldest son, J.K., in August 1975.

“We rented an apartment for quite awhile,” he said, and then the couple purchased a home on Mountain View Drive.

Lewis was solo at the time, working in an office next door to where Wittwer’s is located today.

“I’ve really moved up, about 15 feet, next door,” Wittwer quipped.

There’s one more qualification, one he learned clearly from Lewis, Wittwer said. That’s to “treat people right.”

“Bill taught me correctly,” Wittwer said. “He was a wonderful mentor.”

Lewis became a judge, leaving the practice to Wittwer, who later served as a municipal court judge in Lebanon from November 1980 to September 1999. He also served as a pro tem judge in Brownsville and Sweet Home.

Starting out, he did a little of everything, divorce, criminal and injury law, he said, but his specialty has become child adoption. He never took to injury law, and throughout most of his career, he has focused on real estate, estate planning and probate, general business and adoption.

Today, he serves on the Oregon Law Commission’s adoption work group and is the chairman of the Oregon State Bar’s standing committee on adoption law.

Wittwer grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. He met his wife while he was on a 30-month mission with his church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, to Finland. He returned to the states, studied two more years and graduated.

He returned to Helsinki, Finland, on a one-year Rotary fellowship, Wittwer said. “We courted during that year. I came back, and she joined me.”

They moved from California to Salem, where they started their life together. He studied law at Willamette University Law School.

They arrived during the

Oregon State Fair, Wittwer said. Local hotels all displayed “no vacancy” signs. They finally found a room after they passed a hotel and noticed the sign switched from “no vacancy” to “vacancy.” He flipped the car around, got a room and the next day, they found an apartment.

Wittwer worked as a cook at Willamette Catering Services and then in the state mental health administration office at the state hospital.

After law school, the family moved to Sweet Home, their home for the next four decades.

“I like the small community,” Wittwer said. “It was always nice. Pete Porter (a retired New Era reporter) did a layout on our family when the kids were running.”

The small-town education and sports were a family affair, he said.

He could have thrived in a place like the Bay Area, but Mirja grew up in a rural area, and the small town life was just right for her.

“It’s a good combination for us, and I like my work,” Wittwer said. “I like being my own boss.”

When he came to Sweet Home, Bonnie Cochran and Jadine Grams were working for Lewis.

“Jadine left, and I thought I was going to die,” Wittwer said. He said he was fortunate to find Norene (Cannon) Nelson, who worked for him for 29 years. She retired, and Wendy Richards has been with him for five or six years.

Wittwer had one partner, Dan Merzenich, during his career. Merzenich, a Harvard graduate, and his father built the Porta Via hotel, later renamed Sweet Home Inn. Merzenich went on to establish a separate practice.

Among attorneys who worked in his office were Sue Whatley, Michael E. Adams and Marcy Engel. Rachel Kittson-Maqatish, who works for Morley Thomas Law Firm from an office in Sweet Home, worked for Wittwer while she was studying to become a lawyer.

Today, Kevin Griggs is staff clerk, and Goodwin is an attorney working for Wittwer.

Business has kept Wittwer and his office busy for 40 years, he said. “The only time we didn’t have enough work is when Bill decided to go to Brownsville and open an office.”

Wittwer recalled briefly sitting in an empty office in Brownsville before returning to Sweet Home.

“I’ve been fortunate to do good work over the years, and people come back,” Wittwer said. He said he has no particular plans to retire any time soon.

“Obviously, we’re going to be shutting down one of these days,” Wittwer said. “I’m healthy, and I’m enjoying my work.”

The business has a learning curve, and all of his experience helps him do quality work, Wittwer said. “I feel like I’m at a point in my career where it’s professionally rewarding.”

It will be the chance to travel and visit his children and grandchildren that will probably drive him to retire eventually.

J.K. is an attorney in Phoenix, Ariz., where he works in insurance. His youngest son, Kai, is a felony prosecutor in Boise, Idaho.

The Wittwers love their home, and they both enjoy working in their garden. John has also been involved in recent years with the Sweet Home Economic Development Group, most recently as its president.

Even after retirement though, “I don’t know we’ll ever move from Sweet Home,” Wittwer said.


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