District Judge Thalhofer dead at 88

Volunteer, coach, father remembered

staff report / The Bulletin /

Retired Deschutes County District Court Judge Joseph J. Thalhofer, 88, died Friday in Bend, his family said Monday.

A native of Prineville, Thalhofer served stateside in the U.S. Army during World War II and graduated, class of 1946, from Harvard University. He was an irrepressible volunteer, a coach for his children’s sports and a lifelong learner, his daughter, Lorene Jones, of Milwaukie, said.

“He was just always doing something,” Jones said. “My mother (Ruth) was a homemaker; she picked up all the slack at home. He did his job and all of his extra things with the kids and the Red Cross, the Lions Club and the Rotary. They just worked as a team and it always worked out.”

Her father had been in declining health recently, she said.

Thalhofer returned home to Oregon after graduating from Harvard Law School in 1952 to take a position as deputy district attorney in Klamath Falls.

A little more than a year later, he moved to Redmond and into private practice with the Cunning and Brewster law firm.

Three years later, he was elected the first district judge in Deschutes County.

He held the position for 33 years, according to The Bulletin’s archives.

District judges no longer hold court in Oregon, but when they did they presided over misdemeanor criminal cases like drunken driving and shoplifting, small claims, traffic cases, other civil matters and felony arraignments. Circuit and municipal court judges perform those functions now. Thalhofer’s daughter recalled many times when law officers called at night for the judge to approve search warrants.

Thalhofer developed a reputation for a relaxed courtroom, where the bearer of a speeding ticket, for example, could speak his or her piece.

“That’s the kind of treatment people often get in Joe Thalhofer’s court: fair, casual, sometimes offbeat, invariably courteous,” Bulletin reporter David Stone wrote upon Thalhofer’s retirement.

The description rings true with his children, who said he never held himself above another simply because he wore a judge’s robe.

“He was always so respectful of people no matter what they’d done, or their background,” Jones said.

His children in the morning often found him already awake and reading letters asking for a break on a traffic ticket, chiding him for a ruling or thanking him for his fairness.

“I hope some day that you will read and understand the Constitution and understand the intent of its authors,” wrote one unhappy petitioner. “I can only add that if you continue to deny citizens their Constitutional rights, you will end up behind bars where you belong.”

Swami Prem Niren, formerly Philip J. Toelkes, attorney for the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, whose followers created a city of their own in Jefferson County in the 1980s, wrote Thalhofer in March 1982. He thanked the judge for performing the marriage ceremony for Niren and his wife, Ma Prem Isabel, and invited the judge to visit the commune, Rancho Rajneesh, near Antelope. “But if you just happen to drop by, we have visitors everyday, and would be happy to show you around the ranch.”

A third letter, in 1981 from a man jailed by Thalhofer, strikes a conciliatory tone. “The article I took not only cost me time in jail but it also cost me my job — something I love dearly,” the author states. “I want to thank you for dealing with me in such a fair manner. Although it was difficult to be in jail, it has taught me a lesson I will never forget.”

As parents, he and Ruth, who were married in 1948, set high expectations, Jones said. The six children — three girls and three boys — were encouraged to further their educations and to involve themselves in their communities. “But mostly we all felt responsibility to live right and do the kinds of things he was doing.”

He made every athletic event he could, even driving to Salt Lake City to see his daughter Katie McCarthy, at the time a student at the University of New Mexico, play volleyball, McCarthy said.

Young men calling at the Thalhofer home got an even shake from the judge, Jones said. “Whether from a blue-collar family or a doctor’s family, it made no difference to him. It was how they presented themselves,” she said. “It’s not just what you do, but what else do you do?”