Hundreds turn out for funeral of prominent lawyer

Tuesday, May 17, 2005
John Oliver

It was John L. Oliver's friends and family members who gave the closing statements Monday, describing the prominent Cape Girardeau lawyer who died Thursday as a passionate seeker of justice, an inexhaustible civic leader and a loving family man.

More than 300 people attended Oliver's service at First Presbyterian Church Monday morning, the largest funeral to be held there since U.S. Rep. Bill Emerson died in 1996, according to the church's pastor, the Rev. Paul Kabo.

"Here is a gentleman who was extremely influential in developing the future of the community," Kabo said. "There's a reason so many people came to the service. He obviously was very respected."

A large number of those who attended were high-ranking colleagues from the legal profession, including Missouri Supreme Court Justice Stephen N. Limbaugh Jr. and federal judges Richard Webber and Stephen N. Limbaugh Sr. Oliver was a third-generation lawyer.

There were also numerous local lawyers and judges, elected officials and those from the law enforcement community, including Mayor Jay Knudtson and police chief Steve Strong. Oliver's wife, Debi, is the domestic violence officer with the Cape Girardeau Police Department.

Those who knew Oliver, who died at 62, said he was an intelligent legal scholar. He graduated at the top of his class at the University of Missouri law school and later graduated with honors from Yale.

"He was a top-notch lawyer, no question," said Circuit Judge Ben Lewis. "He was very bright, very aggressive and extraordinarily hard working. I think he was pretty intense about his law practice. But he had a very lively sense of humor, and he was quick-witted."

Clinton Summers, a lawyer from Poplar Bluff, was a classmate with Oliver at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Because both did a good deal of work in the medical negligence field, Summers said, he sometimes found himself on the opposite side of a case.

"He was a formidable adversary," said Summers, who knew Oliver for more than 40 years. "He was the consummate lawyer."

Summers said Oliver was also a dear friend.

"When my son was in college at Southeast -- and that's been 25 years ago -- if he had any problems, I sent him to John," he said. "John would always take the time to take care of him."

Oliver's son, Jack, spoke at the funeral. Jack Oliver is well-known in political circles, serving as President Bush's top fund raiser in the last two elections.

Jack Oliver said his father wanted to make a difference.

"He wanted to do what he could with his talents to make things better," Jack Oliver said. "He was a pillar of strength to all of us. He was someone you'd want in the foxhole with you because he'd never leave, no matter what the cost."

Oliver also made many civic and community contributions, including his work with his church, his many years with the Missouri Highway and Transportation Commission and his volunteer work with the Boy Scouts of America.

'Sense of adventure'

But longtime friend Rick Lamb, who spoke at the service, said there was more to Oliver than a brilliant legal mind and community work.

"John had a sense of adventure, a love of life," Lamb said. "He felt like life was supposed to be fun, and he wanted those around him to enjoy life as well. ... I can't say that John never told me a big fish story because he always caught a bunch of big fish when I was with him."

Lamb said Oliver worked hard at his profession, quickly earned people's trust and wanted people to trust him.

"These are the ingredients of what we call character," Lamb said.

Cape Girardeau businessman Mike Kohlfeld sang at Oliver's wedding 25 years ago. On Monday he sang "How Great Thou Art" at the funeral.

"I was singing through tears," Kohlfeld said. "I think I cried through the whole thing. He was a wonderful friend. When you lose a really good friend like that, it is just an awful empty feeling."

Kohlfeld got to know Oliver when Oliver served on the corporate board of Kohlfeld Distributing. He soon came to know, trust and like him.

"You could always count on him," Kohlfeld said. "He always made sense out of chaos. He was an incredible human being. The city of Cape and the legal profession have lost a valued friend."

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