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C. Kenneth James Jr.

Published: Wednesday, May 8, 2013 at 5:57 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, May 8, 2013 at 5:57 p.m.

Retired attorney C. Kenneth James Jr., who began his career as Sonoma County's first assistant public defender and went on to become a giant of a civil litigator, has died at age 79.

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C. Kenneth James Jr.

James worked more than 20 years for Santa Rosa's powerhouse Spridgen law firm, much of that time as a partner, before it dissolved in the early 1980s. He then created the firm of James, Gack and Freeman, and until about four years ago operated a solo practice.

James' health had been failing for several years when he collapsed at his Santa Rosa home Saturday from heart failure. He died Sunday afternoon at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.

Fellow Sonoma County law titan and 1951 Santa Rosa High graduate Jack DeMeo said his friend and frequent courtroom adversary specialized in defending insurance companies and their clients.

“He was capable of handling any kind of case. He was a very good lawyer,” DeMeo said. “He was a great mentor to a lot of young lawyers, and just a very decent guy whose word you could take to the bank.

“He left quite a footprint here in Sonoma County,” DeMeo said.

Former law partner Richard Freeman praised James as “a really interesting, multi-faceted man” with deep roots in Santa Rosa, his home since he was in the ninth grade.

“He was very gruff and growly and stern, but underneath he was just a teddy bear. He was known for his generosity to young law clerks and lawyers,” Freeman said.

Born Charles Kenneth James Jr. but preferring to be called Ken, the Montana native played quarterback on Santa Rosa High's football team.

He was serving in the U.S. Navy Reserve when he entered law school at Santa Clara University. He earned his law degree and in 1957 was commissioned a Navy lieutenant, j.g.

He served for two years as a legal command officer in Germany. Upon his honorable discharge he returned to Santa Rosa and took a job as the assistant to the county's first public defender, Frank McAuliffe.

James left that position to join the old, large and prestigious law firm that would become Spridgen, Barrett, Achor, Luckhardt, Anderson, James & Zeigler.

“He was a chief litigator with the firm,” Freeman said.

When the Spridgen firm broke apart, James opened a new firm with Freeman and Ken Gack. That firm disbanded in the late 1990s and James turned to a solo practice.

He received many professional awards, among them the Sonoma County Bar Association's “Career of Distinction.” He served for a time as president of the bar, and he was honored with membership in the American Board of Trial Advocates and the American College of Trial Lawyers.

When out of a suit, James loved to sail and to play golf. He traveled far in his steel-hulled yacht, Minot's Light, and he was a regular at the Santa Rosa Golf and Country Club.

“Golf and sailing were really his things,” said his wife, Donna James. “And he enjoyed good friends and family.

“He was such a personality,” she said. “Ken was definitely an old-Santa Rosa guy.”

In addition to his wife, James is survived by his children, Julie Ann Dempsey of Cotati, Christopher James of Windsor and Mary Beth Moreno of Santa Rosa; his stepchildren, Elaine Pedroncelli of Sonoma and James Kracke of Glen Ellen; his siblings Sharon Bertotti of Susanville, Marcia De'Angelo of Reno, Nev., Michael James of Glendale, Stephen James of El Dorado Hills and Ruthie Bollman of Sacramento; and 13 grandchildren. He was preceded in death by brother Robert James of San Diego.

Recitation of the Rosary is at 7 p.m. Monday at Daniels Chapel of the Roses.

A Funeral Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Oakmont's Star of the Valley Catholic Church.

— Chris Smith

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