Don W. Sears

Legends of the Month Mar '13

This month, Colorado Law remembers our former dean and professor, Donald W. Sears. Don was born in Chillicothe, Ohio in 1921, and attended Ohio State University for his undergraduate studies. As an undergraduate, Don exemplified the well rounded student. He was a wrestler, sang in the men’s glee club and on the OSU campus radio, and was selected by the faculty as the outstanding senior to the Dipper and Bucket Big Ten honorary society with a 3.95 GPA. In 1943, during the final semester of his senior year, he left college to enlist in the U.S. Army and attend officer candidate school. Sears served in the 8th Armored Division and earned several distinctions, including two purple hearts and two bronze stars for gallantry and bravery. Sears also received several battlefield commissions, and ended his two years in the war theater as a major. His son, Lance Sears (‘75), recalls that his father’s take on the commissions was quintessential Don Sears, “Dad always said he became a major because there was no one left to give it to.” After the war, Sears returned to Ohio State, where he earned his JD, graduating Order of the Coif. He worked in private practice in Ohio for two years and was re-commissioned as a captain in the U.S. Air Force’s Judge Advocate Corps.

In 1950, Sears joined the faculty at Colorado Law, where he spent the next 50 years as an educator, writer, arbitrator, and administrator. He chaired almost every Colorado Law committee, in addition to chairing many other committees at CU and within the state and federal governments. In the 50s and 60s Don was a prolific writer co-authoring, along with Professor Fred Storke, Colorado Security Law, a single volume treatise that is still used by practitioners today.

In 1963, the then president of the university Quigg Newton, received notice from the NCAA that reports had been received that Colorado football players were being paid to play by a secret slush fund with full knowledge and participation by the head coach, Sonny Grandelius. Newton asked Sears to head the committee that would be charged with investigating the matter. At the time, the NCAA lacked the investigative capabilities that it has today and relied heavily on the honor of the institution. It became clear that two factions quickly emerged within the university and the state. One faction wanted a cursory investigation while the other, led by Sears, was determined to get to the bottom of the situation. As a result of the investigation, the coaching staff was fired and approximately 35 football players were expelled. “Those were interesting times,” recalls Lance Sears, “not a week went by when dad did not get at least one death threat. It was a thankless job but he had great affection for Quigg Newton and he felt the integrity of the university was at stake.” Indeed, shortly after the committee report was filed with the regents, Sports Illustrated ran a front page article entitled “The Anatomy of a College Recruiting Scandal.” As a result, the NCAA imposed little in the way of sanctions against CU but created their own investigatory arm. In 1967 Sears received the Associated Alumni Robert L Stearns Award.

As dean of the law school from 1968 to 1973, Sears was instrumental in securing funds from the state legislature to complete renovation and new construction on the Fleming Law building. He received the CU Recognition Medal from the Board of Regents in 1975.

In addition to being an educator, Sears was a dedicated servant of the Colorado legal community. In 1953 he was asked by the Colorado Supreme Court to “form a grievance process and an educational ethics committee of the bar.” He served as a member of the Colorado Bar Ethics Committee for 40 years, five years as chair, and was extensively involved with the Colorado Supreme Court Grievance Committee, both at its inception and, in later years, as a panel member. Sears was elected as the president of the Boulder County Bar Association. He was also an elected member of the Urban League and was appointed to the United States Civil Rights Commission, as the cause of equality was one of his many passions. He formed the first minority program (now called diversity) at a law school in the western United States.

A long time labor law professor, Sears was a member of the National Academy of Arbitrators. Appointed by the baseball commissioner as one of the few Major League Baseball arbitrators, Sears frequently had the opportunity to mediate disputes between players and owners for Major League Baseball. When the arbitration process first started, the arbitrators could request hearing arbitrations in Los Angeles, Chicago or New York. “Dad asked to go to LA because he felt he had a conflict sitting on any case involving the Cincinnati Reds, who he grew up following as a young boy in Ohio,” recalls Lance Sears. “I asked him why he didn’t choose New York and he said the Yankees were his favorite American League team and he would not feel comfortable sitting on their arbitrations either!”

He co-authored and edited labor law books, and authored numerous publications and speeches on labor law, arbitration, professional responsibility, security law, and the Uniform Commercial Code. Three major awards bear Sears’ name: Colorado Law’s Don W. Sears Award, the Don Sears Diversity Scholarship at Colorado Law, and the Colorado Bar Association Ethics Committee’s Don W. Sears Award for Ethical Enhancement of the Legal Profession.

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