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About Utah: 100-year-old attorney beats law of averages

Published: Friday, April 13 2007 12:32 a.m. MDT

Exactly 100 years ago today, a baby boy was born to Richard and Bertha Bird of Salt Lake City, who named the child after his father.

You might want to wish Richard Bird a happy birthday today.

You can catch him at his law office.

But call ahead of time. He might be busy with a client.

All centenarians get to 100 a little differently. Richard got there by going to work.

"My feeling is that people who stop working die," he said. "This (coming daily to the office) keeps me interested, it keeps me alive, and that's why I continue to do it."

And so far, no one's been able to prove him wrong.

I first heard about Richard Bird a month ago when a reader, Dave Brunelle, sent me the following e-mail:

"I wanted to tell you about my attorney. He was recommended to me by a friend for my divorce 20 years ago. He said, 'He's 80 years old, (but) he is really good and cheap.' Somewhat skeptical, I used him, and several times since, never losing a case. He turns 100 in April, goes to work 9 to 5 Monday to Friday. This amazing Utahn deserves recognition while he is here to get it."

I immediately called Richard Bird at his office. He picked up the phone on the second ring. He agreed to an interview on one condition: I couldn't write anything about him turning 100 until he actually made it.

"I don't want to jinx it," he said.

For context, he told me about a brother-in-law of his who made it to 99 1/2, came home from church one Sunday, and never saw Monday.

So I kept my promise until the Big Day — today. Richard Bird has not only turned 100, but he still has his driver's license (it expires in 2010), his downtown law practice, his wood-paneled law office and a mind that remains, if my recent conversation with him is any indication, as sharp as the day he graduated from Harvard Law School in 1933.

He worked at a variety of assignments in a law career 74 years and counting, including a stint with the federal government in Washington, D.C., before settling into private practice in 1943. He's been running his own firm ever since. First it was Richards & Bird, then Richards, Bird & Hart, and currently Richards, Bird & Kump.

Bird's son David, 53, earned a law degree and joined his dad's firm when Richard was 72.

"I thought I'd practice with him for a few years," said David, who has now worked side-by-side with his father for 28 years.

The decor in Richard Bird's office suggests this is a man who does not look backward. There are no mementos or plaques on the walls save one: a certificate that authorized him to present cases in the United States Supreme Court in the 1930s, when he worked for the Justice Department.

But he does not gush about once having argued at the highest court in the land.

"Routine stuff," he said. "Part of the job."

The secret to his longevity and ability to keep working? He's not really sure. He said he thinks exercise has helped, noting that many years ago, he sent away for a $30 exercise book, and he's exercised a half-hour a day ever since.

"I have a good diet, I don't drink, I don't smoke," he added. "And I've done a lot of church work and community work."

His resume shows that he's worked on more boards than a house framer, including those for the University of Utah and Salt Lake City libraries, the Mental Health Association, the Community Services Council, the Salt Lake Housing Authority and, appropriately, the Salt Lake Council on Aging. He's been an LDS bishop, president of his Kiwanis Club and a Scoutmaster three times.

And he's rarely been alone. His first marriage, to Mirra Jacobs, produced four children and lasted 57 years until 1992. He was married again three years later to Doris "Alex" Clawson.

Family lore tells about 78-year-old Alex Clawson asking a friend whether she should marry someone who was 88.

"Well, I guess if you had three good months, what could it hurt?" came the reply.

The marriage lasted nearly 12 years until Alex died last August at the age of 90.

"Dad always said getting remarried helped," said David Bird, who, along with his sister Katharine, will host Richard's 100th birthday bash later today — providing they can pry him out of his office.

Richard would not participate in plans for the party, other than agree to attend if he made it that far.

But by yesterday afternoon, David reported that he could see confidence finally rising in Utah's newest centenarian.

"I think at this point, even he's starting to believe it's going to happen," he said.


Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.

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