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Former Judge Was Known for Open Mind, Humor

By Lloyd Jojola
Journal Staff Writer
      Memorial services will be held next week for former state District Court Judge George L. Zimmerman, who sat on the bench in southern New Mexico for a number of years and had a reputation as an outstanding jurist, administrator and mediator.
       “I've just always considered him a real mentor — I learned a lot from him,” said retired state District Judge Robert Doughty, who served with Zimmerman from 1979-85, including when Zimmerman was chief judge. “The 12th Judicial District seems to be a bit more formal than many of them, and I think that is really attributable to him, and I think that's to our benefit.
       He required you to be above board, prepared and ready to go.”
       Zimmerman, 89, died April 3 in Las Cruces, where he had moved in 2005 after living in Alamogordo. Memorial services will take place at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 18, at the Alamogordo Funeral Home Chapel.
       Zimmerman served as a judge in the 3rd District from 1963-66 and was a presiding judge in the 12th District from 1973-84, according to a family obituary.
       Doughty said Zimmerman also did a lot of work out of district, such as handling cases when a judge in another district was disqualified, and prided himself on the number of courthouses he worked in throughout the state.
       Zimmerman and his colleagues liked to recall and laugh at the time Zimmerman was overseeing a case in Lordsburg and he forgot his robe, forcing a clerk to borrow one from a local Catholic priest.
       “I don't think he would have walked into a courtroom without a robe as some judges might have,” Doughty said. “That's the kind of guy he was.”
       Even after retiring in the mid-1980s from his Otero County position, Zimmerman's involvement in the judicial system didn't end.
       The state Supreme Court in 1985 designated Zimmerman to look into the operational problems within the Metropolitan Court in Albuquerque, according to past news reports.
       Zimmerman also was called out of retirement in 1988 and appointed to hear the high-profile murder trial of Vincent Paul Candelaria, who was accused of killing Albuquerque police officer Kenneth Shawn McWethy.
       He also served as a mediator and arbitrator in the 1990s.
       “He was a most excellent mediator,” said Tim Chelpaty, a Las Cruces-based attorney who used to practice out of Alamogordo. “I think he was able to do what he was able to do, listen to both sides and reach a compromise, as well as anybody I've ever seen — probably better than anybody I've ever seen.”
       Zimmerman was very empathetic, Chelpaty said, but also knew when to lean — or not — on parties to resolve disputes.
       Born in Pennsylvania, Zimmerman attended Temple University and graduated from Waynesburg College in 1947.
       He served as an Army officer in Tokyo during World War II. He met his wife, Reneé Sayers, who was an Army nurse, in the Japanese city. The couple married in 1946.
       They moved to New Mexico from North Dakota, and Zimmerman attended the University of New Mexico, earning his law degree as part of the first law school class in 1950, his daughter Charlotte Zimmerman said.
       “Adventure,” she said, brought them to the state. “They both have this great spirit of adventure, and my dad was intrigued at being in that first class. He thought that was extra-special.”
       Zimmerman practiced law in Carrizozo, Ruidoso and Alamogordo, focusing on areas such as personal injury, water and mining and real estate and insurance.
       “He had the demeanor of the bench,” said David Townsend, a friend of Zimmerman and a New Mexico State University-Alamogordo history professor emeritus. “He felt like this should be a courtroom which operates as a courtroom should in a nation of laws.”
       Townsend, a former state legislator who met Zimmerman through the Presbyterian church they attended in Alamogordo, was among those who spoke during a tribute to the judge on his 85th birthday. Townsend recalled one event that “made an impression on me and helped me moderate my life and my abrasive ways.”
       “At one point during his tenure on the bench and during my younger years in our town, I was summoned for grand jury duty,” Townsend said at the time. “I immediately took pen in hand and fired off a (letter) to the judge concerning my attitude toward the grand jury system.”
       Townsend didn't praise the system. And after the fact, he discussed what he had said with friends and colleagues.
       “I was in the throws of reconsideration and recrimination. I awaited my fate. What I received was a very nice letter from the judge, noting his appreciation of someone who had given the matter some thought and excused me from jury duty. ... Thank you, your honor, for understanding the fervor and arrogance of youth.”
       Recalling that event this week, Townsend said: “The man was open and, although I had challenged the basic idea of the jury system and such, he knew that I had given it some thought. He was very open in that way. I don't think I ever heard George Zimmerman being closed-minded.”
       Townsend said his friend knew the responsibilities and duties he had as a public servant, such as meeting with groups and speaking publicly.
       “George never hesitated” to do such duties, he said.
       Zimmerman's sense of humor was always present, as well.
       “I think he was more well known for his humor sometimes than he was for being a judge,” Charlotte Zimmerman said. “He always had a story or a joke to tell.”
       Jokes like him showing you a picture of his “pride and joy.” From his wallet, he'd pull out billfold-sized novelty photo of “Pride” furniture polish and “Joy” dishwashing detergent.
       Zimmerman was an avid golfer and a singer with groups such as the Sounds of Enchantment in Alamogordo and, more recently, the Good Samaritan Village Singers in Las Cruces.
       He was an honorary member of the Rotary Club for 25 years and received recognition from the Otero County Bar Association for 41 years of service.
       Zimmerman's survivors include his wife of 62 years, Reneé; daughters, Annette Stewart and her husband, Tom, of Alto, Charlotte Zimmerman of Cloudcroft, and Rebecca Robles and her husband, Frank, of Colorado Springs; grandchildren, Dr. Laura Stewart and her husband, Dr. Russell Carson of Baton Rouge, La., Mark Stewart of Tempe, Ariz., and Celia Alcantar of El Paso.

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