Judge Henry Hess (1924-2017)

Judge Henry Hess

We note with sadness the passing of Judge Henry Hess on October 31,  of heart failure. Henry Hess, Jr. was born in La Grande, Oregon on March 29, 1924. His mother Estrid Johanson, a 1902 emigrant from Sweden, died of cancer at the age of 34 when Henry was 10 and his brother Raymond was 7. Henry Hess, Sr. was a La Grande lawyer and politician. He was elected state senator in 1931 and ran for governor in 1937, capturing the Democratic nomination from then-Governor Charles Martin, but losing in the general election to Charles Sprague. Hess Sr. was appointed U.S. Attorney for Oregon in 1945 and served until 1954.

Growing up in La Grande, Henry enjoyed the outdoors. The Wallowa, Elkhorn, and Blue Mountains were fine companions for hiking, skiing, hunting, and fishing. A good student, his favorite classes were math and music. He played clarinet for four years in the La Grande High School band. In 1940, his band won a national competition that included a tour to Los Angeles to perform several concerts and a national radio broadcast on NBC. Music remained a lifelong interest and Hess performed on clarinet and saxophone in several dance bands.

Hess enlisted in the Navy in fall 1942 and was called to active duty in 1943, entering the Navy’s V-12 College Training Program for commissioned officers. After a year of study at the southern branch of the University of Idaho in Pocatello, he moved on to midshipman’s school in New York City, and later to diesel engineering classes in South Carolina. He was an engineering officer on a ship based on the American-occupied island of Palau. He did not see combat and was discharged from the Navy in May 1946. That fall he enrolled in the University of Oregon Law School and went on to graduate fourth in his class in 1949. He married Betty Stone of Willamina, Oregon in October that same year and they made their home in Pendleton. He and the attorney Gene Conklin started a partnership, which they dissolved three years later. Hess practiced solo as a “jack of all trades” with a specialty in worker’s compensation cases. Betty and Henry welcomed two sons in 1956 and 1958, David and Steven.

Henry was friendly with U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, a friend of his father’s, who had a vacation cabin in the Wallowas on the Lostine River. Justice Douglas would fly into Pendleton and Henry then drove him to his cabin.  Henry also knew Senator Wayne Morse and would act as Morse’s driver (when Morse was a Democrat) when he came to town. Always fascinated by airplanes, Henry took flying lessons in the late1960s and shared a four-passenger Cessna with three other pilots for several years.

In 1958, Hess was appointed by the U.S. District Court as a part-time referee to the Bankruptcy Court. He continued in that capacity, maintaining his Pendleton law practice, until 1973 when he was appointed as a full-time bankruptcy judge and moved to Portland. He and Betty used the plane to fly to Portland to look for a home. As a bankruptcy judge, one of Judge Hess’s early accomplishments was standardizing the forms and procedures he and his colleagues Judges Donal Sullivan and Folger Johnson used, a streamlining that saved time for both lawyers and judges. Judge Hess took a special interest in Chapter 13 bankruptcy cases and became a nationwide expert on the subject.

Judge Hess retired in 1993 and received a special award from his colleagues in March 1994. “The Clerk’s Office proudly presents this Chief Judge Excellence Award to Henry L. Hess, Jr. as father of the local bankruptcy rules, the local bankruptcy forms, and inter-district procedure uniformity. You have allowed us to efficiently and effectively accomplish our tasks and thereby, in conjunction with our other judges, receive annual administrative office and U.S. Trustee recognition as one of the top courts in the nation. Thank you for all of your continuing help and support. March 4, 1994.”

In retirement, he enjoyed reading, following politics, and pursuing his hobby of building and flying radio-controlled model airplanes. Judge Henry Hess’s oral history was recorded in 2008 and 2009. His stories range from life in the pristine landscape of Eastern Oregon in the 1930s to the complexities and evolution of bankruptcy law, and reveal a notably successful life and career.