Eighty-eight-year-old Shirley F. Meuwissen Kohls never technically retired.
In fact, the pioneering attorney — whom friends say was one of the first women to be admitted to the Alaska Bar Association, one of the first women to practice law in Juneau and maybe the longest practicing attorney in Juneau — held an active bar license until the day she died.
“She practiced for so long, it’s remarkable,” retired Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Walter Carpeneti said in a phone interview. “She was a tough-as-nails litigator, she knew her field.”
Family and friends said Kohls died on Sunday after battling cancer. No services will be held, per her request, but the Juneau Bar Association will be hosting their weekly luncheon at the Baranof Hotel at noon Friday in her honor.
“She’s been a huge champion, particularly for female attorneys,” JBA President Renee Wardlaw said by phone. “She was a shining example of what a female attorney in Juneau looks like, and it’s quite important for us to commend her contributions to the legal community.”
Wardlaw said the City and Borough of Juneau will be proclaiming Aug. 30, 2013, “Shirley Kohls Day” to recognize her many years of practicing law. An Alaska Bar member since 1962, Kohls was recognized at the state bar convention in Anchorage last year for her 50-year membership.
Just before her passing, the local bar nominated Kohls for the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame, an outfit based out of Anchorage that recognizes strong women who have shaped Alaska’s history. Bonnie Jack, of the organization, said Kohls’ death will not affect whether she is selected. Jack said the inductees who are selected will be announced in January.
Mary Hunter Gramling, an attorney with the Attorney General’s Office, had the idea to nominate Kohls after meeting her three years ago at the JBA luncheons, of which Kohls was a regular fixture.
“I just think it was pretty astounding that she was consistently in private practice because it’s a hard town sometimes,” Gramling said. “I don’t think there were many women, if any, in practice when she started. That would have been a pretty major thing at the time.”
Born in 1925 in Chaska, Minn., Kohls came to Alaska at 19 years old to work as a radio operator and air traffic controller for the Civil Aeronautics Administration, the forerunner to the Federal Aviation Administration. That was in 1945 when women were recruited to work such jobs to replace men fighting in World War II. She worked for the CAA for 11 years in Anchorage and Kodiak before she transferred to Juneau in 1947.
After graduating from college at the University of Colorado in 1959 and receiving her law degree in 1961, Kohls returned to Juneau and clerked for Alaska Supreme Court Justice John Dimond, after whom the downtown courthouse is now named.
Attorney Doug Gregg then offered her a job at a firm he was forming, and she worked there for the next 10 years. She opened up her own practice, Shirley Kohls Law Office, in 1973.
Longtime friend Gordon Evans said at that time there were only four law firms in town. Because there wasn’t a courthouse yet, court convened in the fifth floor of the Capitol building, which meant the four law offices were all located about two blocks away.
“Things have changed over the years here,” Evans said.
Kohls primarily did family law and also did real estate and wills. She quickly garnered a reputation as being no-nonsense “incredibly intelligent woman,” said retired Juneau Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins who first met Kohls in 1983 as they were working on opposite side of a case.
“I learned a lot from her,” Collins said, who was straight out of law school at the time. “She did not waste a lot of words, but she was an incredible advocate for her clients.”
Carpeneti also met Kohls under similar circumstances.
“I was lucky to be a young lawyer and have Shirley on the other side of the courtroom,” he said. “She was really no-nonsense, she was very practical, she wanted to solve problems, she wanted to represent her clients well.”
Evans said he remembers when he first began practicing law in Juneau in 1970, he heard Kohls was “the best divorce lawyer in town.”
“I heard couples used to race to Shirley to see who could get her first,” he chuckled.
“She was the only woman here for a long time practicing law,” he added.
Evans said Kohls was proud of the fact that over 40 years in practice, she represented three generations of some families. Kohls scaled back her office in the early 1990s when her secretary was killed in a plane crash, and then as time went on, she began phasing out work to spend more time with family and friends, and at her second home in Tenakee Springs.
Mary Fiorella, who ran a secretarial business that had Kohls as one of the clients, said she first began typing up documents for Kohls in 1993 and despite retiring, she kept doing work for Kohls until she died.
“Shirley and a couple of doctors are my only clients,” she said. “I kept her on because I liked her. I always thought of her as my friend.”
Family friend Bride Seifert, who clerked for Juneau Superior Court Judge Louis Menendez two years ago and is now an attorney with the Attorney’s General Office, said it was Kohls who encouraged her to move to Juneau from Minnesota after graduating law school.
“She definitely is a big reason that we’re up here, because she loved it so much,” Seifert said. “She loved the mountains and the water and the people and everything about it. She loved going to plays, going to the pub for a beer and pizza, playing cribbage Monday nights.”
Kohls was a renowned card shark and took home two champion prizes at the Alaska Bar convention’s annual poker tournament. She was also an adventurer who loved the outdoors, fishing and skiing.
Wilderness guide Ken Leghorn, of Pack Creek Outfitters, met Kohls in the late 1970s through the Wednesday hiking group sponsored by Parks and Rec. He remembers she was one member of a small group to go on his business’ first exploratory trip to the Chichagof wilderness area in the mid-1980s. Someone snapped a picture of her during the 7-day kayaking trip, and he ended up using it as the cover photo for the company’s brochure that year.
“She was a tireless outdoors person, always happy to be out in any weather and always up for an adventure,” he said, adding she also was a supporter of the arts and used to regularly attend the Juneau Symphony concerts.
Kohls married Frederick “Fred” Fay Kohls in 1966, and he died after an extended illness in January 2009. The couple had a son, Kevin Kohls, who died in 1983 at the age of 15 from a cancerous brain tumor. Her parents also preceded her in death, as did three of her brothers. She is survived by her brother LaMont Meuwissen and sisters Suzanne Wathen and Mary Jane (Michael) Mohlin, and extended family members in the Midwest.
Seifert said Kohls was active and energetic until her last breath and never had to live in a nursing home. Kohls went to the theater a couple weeks ago and had dinner at Seifert’s place six days before she died.
“She was so full of life, and there was never a day that wasn’t right for having fun, making new friends or learning something new,” Seifert said. “It’s how she lived.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.