In tribute: Defense attorney remembered as peacemaker

File photo Fred Tharp, shown in this 2007 photo, practiced law for 41 years and was the state’s first public defender.

Kevin Wilson

Fred Tharp spent years learning the law, and decades more applying it. But he tried to live his life by a law that wasn’t in any courtroom.

“When we stop caring about our neighbor, we’re in trouble,” said his son, Ken Tharp. “That was really how he lived.”

Fred Tharp, born July 31, 1932, in Clovis, practiced law for 41 years throughout New Mexico and was the state’s first public defender.

He died June 26 at Plains Regional Medical Center, where he once served as board president. He died of complications from pneumonia related to non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He was 77.

Family members said in Fred’s career and life, he felt he was judged by what he did for people in their greatest times of need.

“Daddy would bring home people that had some woe,” said his daughter, Cynthia Lakin-Burke of Clovis. “He would take care of them. It wouldn’t matter if they had money. He was passionate about serving the truth.”

Bob Orlik, a district judge in Clovis who shared an office building with Tharp for nearly 18 years, felt Tharp could be characterized as a real-life Atticus Finch from the book “To Kill a Mockingbird,” who would take chickens, eggs and milk for payment and sometimes do pro bono work.

And just as money never drove him to avoid cases, money couldn’t convince him to keep others.

“We did a divorce against one another that got so contentious,” Orlik said. “We were in offices next to each other and we were at each other’s throats. We decided it wasn’t worth it and shook hands and fired our clients.”

Tharp avoided litigation whenever possible, and lived by Abraham Lincoln’s philosophy that a lawyer can do the most good, and still have plenty of work, by being a peacemaker.

“He was the type of guy that was very prone to resolve issues,” Orlik said. “He was famous for trying to sit people down and resolve and negotiate rather than litigate. He would look at the courtroom as a place of last resort.”

When he wasn’t at a negotiating table or in a courtroom, Tharp could be found in the garage or in nature. Ken Tharp, his son, said the family would visit Canyon de Chelly when he worked in Gallup and the caverns when he worked in Carlsbad.

But his favorite times with his father were spent figuring out how stuff worked or how to make it work again.

“By the time I was in third and fourth grade, I knew how a four-cycle engine worked,” said Ken, now an aircraft engineer for Honeywell in Phoenix. “By the time I was in seventh grade, we had rebuilt car engines.”

Other times, daughter Sharon Crowder said, he was building character.

“As a family growing up,” said Crowder, a mental health services administrator trained in social work, “one of the things for me was that dad and I would have long, very frequent discussions about philosophy about social justice, about spirituality.”

But the building didn’t end when the kids became adults. They said they received the same level of support, and would talk to him on the phone for hours a week about anything.

“I was widowed really young,” Lakin-Burke said. “My dad called me every night before he left work. He’d say, ‘Hey, checking up on you, baby. How are you doing?’”

Fred was married twice, first to Virginia Marie Buchanan in 1951, the year after he graduated from Clovis High School. The couple stayed together for about 25 years before having a respectful breakup.

His second wife, Jan Tharp, said the couples vacationed together after both remarried, and she helped take care of them in their final years when they were diagnosed with cancer.

“We loved to travel,” said Jan, whom Fred met Oct. 12, 1975, and married Oct. 12, 1976. “When we first got married, he didn’t know what a vacation was. I said, ‘We’re taking a vacation every year.’”

His favorite vacations, Jan said, were cruises, because he could escape everything — his phone, newspapers, even the Fox News he watched whenever he could get the remote at home.

In a 2007 interview with the News Journal, Tharp said one of his favorite memories had nothing to do with a case. It was his 75th birthday party, and he figured just a few people would stop by. About 250 people showed up.

Lakin-Burke said he wanted to buy an advertisement that said party guests would be exempt from attending his funeral, but the family talked him out of it.

They probably would have showed up anyway. Jan Tharp said a few people were expected at the June 26 services, but Muffley Funeral Home had to get folding chairs to deal with crowding at The Chapel.

He retired Sept. 1, 2009, and spent his career avoiding personal injury, bankruptcy and corporate law cases. He told his children his choices may not have made him rich, but he felt he could always look at himself in the mirror every morning.

“I’m really glad,” Ken Tharp said, “he was my dad.”