Tribute to an Unsung Denver Hero, Bill Reynard
by Christine McManus
The lifetime of court cases that the late Bill Reynard took on would line up alongside an outline of Colorado civil rights history.
As one of the founders of Colorado’s ACLU, Bill Reynard began getting involved in civil rights advocacy before the early 1950s. His memorial service was Oct. 11 at the First Unitarian Church on 14th and Lafayette streets in Denver.
"Bill Reynard was a true pioneer," said Jim Joy, former executive director of Colorado ACLU, 1977-1996. "I could count on his long history of experience in civil liberties to guide me. I don’t know that the legal community back then, or now, really understands who he was. He wasn’t someone to brag or draw attention to himself."
Reynard grew up in rural Colorado. A very self-reliant person, being from a farm family helped define him as a thorough person, with a quiet diligence, said friends. Another early influence in Reynard’s life was growing up gay in the 1920s-1940s, when it was taboo in society to even talk about homosexuality, let alone policy and rights.
But Reynard was comfortable with himself. He was a private person, who knew who he was, friends said. While on the forefront of early gay and lesbian rights, Reynard didn’t just limit his sense of justice to one realm. He cared deeply about civil rights for all.
Reynard initially got involved in civil rights in one of his first jobs as a lawyer in Denver, working with Carle Whitehead, one of the grandfathers of civil rights here. In the 1930s, Whitehead and Rev. Edgar Wahlberg, a minister of Grace Community Church in Denver, were Denver’s first civil rights spokesmen.
After World War II, the number of Colorado members of the National ACLU grew enough to justify a formal recognition. In 1952, the National Executive Director, Patrick Malin, met in a Denver hotel with Whitehead, Reynard, Charles Graham and Glen Donaldson and established the affiliate, according to the ACLU.
Reynard helped guide the Denver-based affiliate for more than four decades. For 30 years he actively worked on the national ACLU board as the Colorado representative.
"He was a bit professorial in the way he spoke. He was passionate about whatever he was addressing. He laid out what he believed, and got right to the point. And you listened doubly hard because he was somewhat soft spoken," said Ed Kahn.
His influence spanned far and wide, as a man who would not let even the smallest civil rights violations slip by. Even if he had to pay the court filing fees himself.
"He wanted to make sure the ACLU wasn’t the kind of group that just sat around and complained, but rather, took action and tried to solve problems, be dynamic and get things done," said Joy. "He didn’t want us to just sit around and worry."
During the McCarthy era Red Scare, he represented Morris Judd, an untenured professor at the University of Colorado – Boulder who was fired for an insignificant contact with the Communist Party.
He represented men who were conscientious objectors against serving in Vietnam and Korea, including Dale Noyd, a publicized case of a decorated U.S. Air Force pilot.
Reynard also jumped in to help when one of ACLU’s own longtime staff members, Dorothy Davidson, was arrested in 1968 for loitering near a hippie hangout spot at 19th and Pennsylvania streets. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that police were misusing the loitering statute to make false arrests.
In the 1960s, as the national organization started diminishing a little, Reynard successfully infused it with energy and resources — largely his own, said Davidson.
Reynard’s selflessness meant he suffered financially, especially in his later years, when he had to revamp his practice in his 80s to survive. Former law firm partner Rob Booms said he himself admired and believed in ACLU’s mission, yet "someone had to pay the bills," and that was often Booms’ role at the firm.
Reynard represented a mother who had been denied visitation to her children because she was a lesbian. He traveled to Utah to represent a man on death row, who was eventually executed by firing squad.
"I can’t think of a wiser or more committed person, who knew the issues and took a stand. The basis for his positions was always rooted in the law," said Gwen Thomas, an English professor who served the national board with Reynard. "It takes a lot of character to know what’s right, and then to do the right thing. He never took a case based on whether it would win, but rather, based on the moral position."
He was very musical, playing the piano, performing satirical songs he’d rewritten and singing in the choir at the First Unitarian Church. He helped raise his nieces, taking them to restaurants, movies and out dancing.
"He had a wonderful sense of humor," said Cathy Hazouri, the current director of ACLU in Denver.
One former ACLU staff member further reflected on how Reynard’s spirit could inspire the legal community of today.
"As I get older I realize confrontation is appropriate in certain circumstances, and you can argue and disagree in ways that are respectful and civil," said David H. Miller, a former ACLU advisor who now works at Qwest. "[Bill Reynard] was a lesson for teaching that perspective, because he was a gentle soul while remaining passionate about civil rights. He was a lesson in kindness and civility."