He was old when I met him. Indeed, Dick Schmidt was often the oldest person in the room when he met with journalists and lawyers to discuss assaults on the First Amendment. He reveled in that distinction by ludicrously introducing himself at each such opportunity as "the oldest living American." He was never any such thing, of course, but he was always the strongest and most respected voice in the room defending journalists' right to report the news. He died in October 2004. He was only 80 years old.
Richard M. Schmidt was formerly a Colorado broadcaster, by way of Kansas. As a college student in 1943 he hosted a program called "Heroes of the Navy" on station KOA in Denver. Later, while a law student, he interviewed all manner of show-business personalities on station KMYR. With such beginnings, it's no surprise he became a news-media lawyer. He led the fight that made Colorado the first state to open its trial courts to TV cameras. He was later counsel for the Miami Herald in the landmark First Amendment case Miami Herald Publishing Company v. Tornillo in which he persuaded the Supreme Court that a Florida statute requiring newspapers to provide a "right of reply" to political candidates violated the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of the press.
Starting with his service as president of the Denver Bar Association early in his career, Dick devoted a good deal of his career to giving back to the profession and society in numerous volunteer capacities, particularly within the ABA. He was active in helping the organization with its communications strategy and in dealing with the thorny issue of lawyer advertising. He was active in the Forum on Communications Law, and a moving force behind the creation of the National Conference of Lawyers and Representatives of the Media. Outside of the ABA he was involved with the Media Institute in Washington, D.C., and served on the National Press Foundation board--all of which he did while also serving as GC to the American Society of Newspaper Editors and as a partner at Cohn and Marks. Add to those his role as an adviser to the University of Colorado School of Journalism and his life membership on the University of Denver's Board of Trustees. His career was a nice mix of non-profit lawyering and billable hours.
Over the years he developed a gently cantankerous style that effectively put on guard those who would trim news media rights without putting them off. I don't know how he did it, but I often saw him manage to snarl and smile at the same time as he declaimed against another closed meeting or another public record stamped "secret." He used his old fogy persona effectively, never missing a chance to make a joke about his age, or later, increasing infirmity. He brought the house down when, as he accepted the Media Institute's Free Speech Award, he told the dinner crowd of media lawyers, "My father claimed that as a child, I loved to go into fire stations and yell 'theater!'" Later, after he had an operation on his weakened heart, he told anybody who asked how he was that he had been "Cheney-ized."
Over a long career, he became a role model for at least two generations of lawyers and journalists, myself included. Once, during a particularly difficult time in my life, Dick asked me to lunch at his club. He startled me with such a kind, natural and generous expression of support that it actually made me cry right there at the table. I hadn't ever cried in public before as an adult, and I didn't expect to do so again. But it did happen again--this time at a very crowded memorial service for him just a few months ago.