Longtime attorney Aaron Clay will be honored at a retirement reception Friday, Sept. 14. The open house will take place at Needle Rock Brewing Company, 820 Highway 92, from 5 to 8 p.m. Friends, colleagues and former clients are invited to bring cards and share stories as Clay wraps up his 39-year legal career.
A 1971 graduate of Hotchkiss High School, he received a Boettcher scholarship and attended Western State for one year. He earned a bachelor's degree in physics and education from the University of Colorado Boulder. During his final year of college, he married Gayla, his high school sweetheart. As they began looking for jobs in the physics field, they realized opportunities were limited. An opening for an astrophysist in Houston, Texas, didn't appeal to either of them, so they decided to return to Delta and Aaron used his major in education and his minor in math to land a teaching position. "I taught one year of eighth grade math and got an ulcer," he commented. "I realized I did not have the personality to be a teacher."
While in Boulder, he had taken the law school admission test, or LSAT, and he knew he scored high enough to get into law school. He also realized that if he had a law degree, he could work just about anywhere.
Like most law school students, Clay said he had no clue what a lawyer really did but he and Gayla headed back to Boulder for three years. During the summers, Aaron worked at Jim Briscoe's office in Hotchkiss. When he graduated from law school in 1979, Jim offered him a job. He marked his 39th year of professional practice on Sept. 1.
Briscoe's practice grew to include five attorneys -- Briscoe, Stanway, Clay, Dodson and Harper -- and multiple offices throughout the county. By mutual agreement, Clay and Mike Dodson took over the Delta office with a two-man partnership in 1981. Dodson continues to practice law with Julie Huffman, who joined the firm a year and a half ago. Clay said she is sharp, outgoing and personable, and has proven to be a really good fit for the law firm. She has taken on many of Clay's clients, handling civil cases, contracts and estate work while Dodson focuses on divorces and criminal defense.
Clay says he and Dodson had an amicable partnership for 37 years largely because they share the same philosophy when it comes to practicing law and treating people fairly, whether they're staff, clients or opposing counsel.
In 1982, Judge Robert Brown recruited Clay as water referee. During his interview for the part-time job, he pledged his services for three to four years. That stretched to 26 years and a wealth of knowledge that earned Clay a reputation as one of the top experts in water law. He also served as school district attorney for 39 years and hospital attorney for about 10.
For about 30 years, he's taught a class titled "Water Law in a Nutshell." The eight-hour class is offered annually at the Technical College of the Rockies, plus in Rifle, Montrose, Grand Lake and other Western Slope communities. Although Colorado's water law is firmly established, Clay said each class is a little different because discussion reflects the interests of the individuals in the classroom, but all are fairly intense.
"It's really critical in Colorado to understand how water works because there's just not enough for everybody," Clay said. "I teach the rules of the game."
He will still teach that class, and will continue to represent Tri-County Water Conservancy District and some of the water companies in Delta for another year or so.
But mostly he plans to take it easy. He gives freely of his time to his church and to Abraham Connection homeless shelter, and while he's been asked to consider other volunteer roles, he said it's too soon to take on any other responsibilities. He and Gayla want to do some traveling and spend time with their children and grandchildren. He also wants to play more pickleball, which he jokes is no longer a hobby, but a habit. He also enjoys playing tennis, but said pickleball can be played indoors year-round, whereas weather can hamper tennis.
Clay's retirement party is open to all. Appetizers and a cash bar will be provided.