Please Wait a Moment


Life after law: Helena lawyer has found new meaning in surprising ways since tragedy struck after retirement

By Ron Waterman

The poet Mary Oliver said: “Save some room in your heart for the unimaginable.” This piece of advice is one I have been living with now for a number of years. 

In 2015, I started the process of retiring from the practice of law, announcing to the law firm I had practiced with for more than 45 years that I would soon be fully retired. I was one of four of the partners, all of whom had over a series of months, left of the firm or moved into retirement. The firm reorganized and then dissolved. In the spring of 2016, I entered into an office sharing agreement with Jim Hunt, who invited me to assist him in reviewing cases, in exchange for office space. This provided a transition to full retirement and was enabled by Jim’s gracious and generous offer.

The summer of 2016, our younger son married and we were able to enjoy the festivities with him and his spouse. That fall my spouse of more than 50 years Mignon and I took a long trip to Italy. During the trip, Mignon experienced some intestinal problems which increased in severity when we returned to the U.S. in late October. Just before Thanksgiving, Mignon was told to get a CT scan immediately. There was something wrong which looked bad on the MRI she had taken. 

By December 2016 we received the diagnosis: stage four inoperable pancreatic cancer. Treatment options were outlined: Chemo, with debilitating side effects, buying perhaps 6 months; or going into hospice with perhaps four months to live but with fewer side effects and a chance for a dignified ending to life. After a chemo treatment to get a glimpse of what the side effects would bring, we opted to proceed into hospice. Mignon died on April 6, 2017. She was 72 years old. I was 73. 

Now what? We had made lots of plans for our older, golden years. None included moving forward alone. If you want God to laugh, make plans for the future. 

I did lots to try to make sense of my life, this new aspect of life which I had never thought I would have to deal with. First, I needed to find acceptance of what had just occurred. Hospice offered grief counseling and never one to think of counseling as an option I found a counselor and she came to the house on a weekly then a bi-weekly basis. I discovered journaling and tried to fill my time with working on cases with Jim Hunt and also devoting time to a variety of civil organizations. Together with Montana Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker and others, we developed a presentation about civility; the time was ripe to talk about how we needed a reset on our public dialogue with others. 
I decided to try to fill a space on Hill Park, where a Confederate fountain, gifted to the City of Helena had stood until, spurred by the demonstrations in Charlottesville, N.C., in 2017 the Helena City Commission authorized its removal. So a project, a new fountain for Helena, was developed. Actually the project was to fill a space in my heart which I needed to fill. My routine became: Get up, get dressed and get involved on a daily basis.

Mignon and I had always had dogs but we put our old dog down in the summer of 2016. When we travelled in Italy, we had picked out a name for our next dog, probably an adult rescue animal. So, I had a name, Shelby, but no dog to give it to. My search, with the help of my son, led me to a rescue dog outside of Big Timber and in early August 2016, Shelby at 4 ½ years, joined my household. 

One of Mignon’s many friends was a quilter and fabric designer, Ann Lauer. Her husband had died in the fall of 2015 and even before I had a dog, she had invited me to hike with her any afternoon. As she said, she and her sister hiked each afternoon and ate dinner together. I was free to come along and do both or either as I wanted. Shelby and I became frequent hiking companions, often staying for dinner and discussing what I was learning about grief and how to fill the void left by the death of a long-time partner, an experience we both had encountered. 

Anyone who understands how attractions start can understand how this story ends. In 2018, I moved in with Ann; late in 2018 I sold the house in town. We did not need two houses and Ann’s house was set up for her business and needs. Besides, she lived adjacent to the forest so hiking with the dogs was just as easy as stepping off the back deck. 
In March 2019 we decided to venture  forth into the world beyond the U.S., going to Sicily, Italy, which I had fallen in love with on a previous trip. While there, we were married. In June, 2019, I changed my bar registration from active to retired and never looked back. I had practiced a full 50 years, almost all with one firm.

Life has been a series of “Now Whats” and this was what I encountered. I had not expected to be a newlywed when I was 75, but I was. Learning to live with another, regardless of how easy it was, still took and takes adjustment, on both parts. But we both are much older and mature, so we know what is important to disagree about and what is not; there are not any disagreements. Also we had both known each other’s spouse. We did things as couples in the past and had respect for each other’s spouse. Mignon was one of Ann’s closest friends. As a consequence we could talk openly about our former spouse without any jealousy over the mention of a prior loved one. Ann did not have children but fortunately my children and their families all loved and respected Ann. So in addition to getting me as a spouse, suddenly she also had two other families, a couple of kids, spouses and two wonderful grandchildren. 

You fill your life with activities. When I was a practicing lawyer, clients and the courts kept my calendar fairly full, often more than full. Since retirement, the burden shifts. You have to invent your own activities; you can’t just wait for things to happen. 

Fortunately there are any of a number of things which a former lawyer can do. As I mentioned, even before remarriage, I had started on a project to build what became the Equity Fountain Project. This involved a bit of a learning curve. While I thought it would just entail going to one of the many arts organizations and announcing that I wanted to construct a new fountain for Hill Park and for the City of Helena, I soon learned that it took much more. First I needed to form a committee. Then since this was a public park, I needed to meet with and gain the approval of the City of Helena. There was a committee which had already been charged with devising a new fountain to replace the former one so I needed to convince them that my project could successfully achieve all of their goals. I was able to do that. 

I learned that one does not just come up with a design. My committee helped me place announcements in national bulletin boards seeking qualifications from artists who might be interested in submitting a design. Four months later the committee chose four artists from the 37 artists from around the world who had submitted qualifications. Next, the four were asked to submit a prototype of their design. Finally the public was offered the opportunity to vote on the winning design and once that vote was received then the committee had to vote on which design had the best artistic integrity for the project. Fortunately, both the public and the committee were unanimous in selecting the same design. Finally the City had to approve the design and allow us to proceed to developing a contract, a payment schedule and to work on final fundraising. The result was a new Equity and Equality Fountain which was installed on Hill Park in 2021. 

What’s next? For me, it was continuing to serve on various non-profit boards. While practicing law I had served for 45 years on the United Way Board and had the privilege of serving both on the national as well as local Florence Crittenton Home and Services Boards. I continued with that service on the Crittenton Boards, having left the United Way Board just before retiring. To keep my hand in legal matters, I joined the Montana Innocence Project Board, and I continue with that service. 

One of the things which Ann and I enjoyed was travel. Having married in Sicily, we have fond memories of the delights which foreign travel can offer. In the summer of 2021 we undertook a trip to Africa which what was a trip of a lifetime. First Uganda to trek for gorillas and then on to Kenya to look at black and white rhinoceroses and then to the Masai Mara in Kenya and Tanzania to see the great migration of the wildebeests across the Serengeti. Absolutely incredible. 

However just before our first gorilla trek, our guide from our tour company, Natural Habitat Adventures, took us to an organization in Bwindi, close to the Gorilla Refuge Center, to see the work Ride 4 A Woman ( R4W) was doing. R4W supported abused and abandoned women in the area, about 300 from 12 villages in the area. Ann, looking at some of the simple quilts the women were making, said to the R4W director that she designed quilt fabric and patterns as a profession. The director, Evelyn, said “We need to talk” and after talking a bit about colors and values, asked if Ann could come back the next day after our gorilla trek. We went back and also the following day with Ann working to show the women some basic quilt techniques. 

As we continued on our African trip, we heard from Evelyn, showing us examples of the quilts the women were making following Ann’s lead. This resulted in a friendship and the support we have been providing to R4W ever since. 

This year, 2023, we returned to Uganda after other travels to Madagascar and Botswana to both trek and also to work at the R4W Center. Ann worked there all five days we were in Bwindi teaching new and more challenging quilting techniques. We will continue to support these women and this organization. For more information, go to Ann’s website through this link: There you see photos and learn ways you can help by donating to a GoFundMe account we established for this project. 
So, what is life after the law? It really depends on what you make it. As a lawyer, you have had opportunities to give back to others in a remarkable number of ways. As a retired lawyer you continue to have many of the skills which you acquired and your service as a Board member on any of a number of civic organizations is a welcome addition to most organizations. If you are interested, you can volunteer at your local library; I am into my second five year term on the Lewis and Clark County Library Board. 

The other thing you can do is donate. Two examples. The first, the Montana Innocence Project. Helping to fund an organization which works to evaluate and then pursue justice for those wrongfully incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. Money always helps. Likewise, as we did, you can look internationally. We have been helping fund Ride 4 a Woman in Uganda. It is incredible how much good can be done in an area where the average yearly income is $880. 

Either of these two organizations, one in Montana, one in Uganda would welcome any amount of funding you can provide. I like to think of just one example. Were 1,000 lawyers, retired or not, able to contribute $1,000 each, that would raise $1 million and either or both organizations would be able to do amazing work with donations from generous individuals. 

Is there life after law? Why yes there is! Just like a life within the law, just like life anytime, it is what you make of it. Leave room in your heart for the unimaginable. 

Ron Waterman worked at Gough, Shanahan, Johnson & Waterman in Helena, first as an associate then as a partner, from 1970 until the firm dissolved in 2015. He has been on the Montana Innocence Project Board of Directors since 2016, serving as chair from 2018 to 2020.