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Lester Van Tatenhove, 86; Retired O.C. Judge, Activist

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Retired Orange County Superior Court Judge Lester Van Tatenhove, a Democrat who hired the county’s first black clerk in the 1960s and formed a United Nations Assn. chapter that was the target of protest by the John Birch Society, has died. He was 86.

Remembered more for his gentle, empathetic court demeanor and Democratic activism than for a particular legal case over which he presided, Van Tatenhove was eulogized Tuesday before a crowd at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Ana, where he had been an elder and a member about 50 years.

Speakers and mourners ranged from church brethren; retired judges; former law students; his African American clerk, John Smith; bridge partners; and a few political veterans.

“One of the guys said he first met Lester at a booth the Democrats had at the Orange County Fair,” Judge C. Robert Jameson, presiding judge of Orange County, said after Van Tatenhove’s service. “Lester got him into volunteering for UNICEF on the spot. That was in the 1950s.”

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Alan Slater, chief executive officer for the Superior Court and its 143 judicial officers, said he first met Van Tatenhove in 1972 when he started working at the courthouse. Although Orange County was the fastest-growing county in the state in the 1960s and 1970s, the court system was small enough to run with a single clerical pool. Slater said all the secretaries fought to work in Van Tatenhove’s courtroom.

“Everybody loved to go to his court--lawyers, secretaries--because he was just so nice, such a gentleman. Some of the other judges scared the secretaries,” Slater added with a chuckle.

Born Sept. 25, 1914, in Michigan, he attended Hope College in Holland, Mich., and Harvard Law School. After arriving in Santa Ana in 1940, he practice law for a couple of years before joining the U.S. Army. Four years later, he returned to Santa Ana and spent the next two decades as a lawyer. He also taught law--a few of his students became judges themselves, friends said.

Van Tatenhove served as county Democratic Central Committee chairman. He was appointed to the Orange County bench by Democratic Gov. Pat Brown in 1961. He handled all types of cases, but had the reputation of being one of the best probate judges in California, Slater said.

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“He was very people-oriented, and that’s a court where you deal with people-oriented cases,” Slater said.

Jameson laughed over the mental image of Van Tatenhove advertising his newly formed U.N. chapter by nailing up fliers, even while irate John Birch Society members put up protest billboards nearby.

UNICEF, the U.N.'s division that aids children throughout the world, was Van Tatenhove’s particular passion. His family said he had helped build a child-care center for the poor.

After serving 18 years on the bench and winning reelection three times, Van Tatenhove stepped down in 1981. He announced his plans to retire in a now quaint-sounding statement. State law regarding pensions meant he would either lose money or have to leave before another six-year term ended. His statement at the time, colleagues said, captured his class.

“It would take substantial efforts of my supporters and the raising of in excess of $30,000 to wage a campaign,” he explained. “It would not be fair to those who contribute and work for my reelection to not serve a full term.”

Even after retiring, Van Tatenhove served as a court arbitrator for another 11 years, his family said.

He also was an elder and youth worker at his church.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the First Presbyterian Church Scholarship Fund, UNICEF, or Wheelchair Tennis of Los Angeles.

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He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Dorothy; three children; six grandchildren; and a great-grandson.


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