If P. Stephen Potter could attend his own wake, he’d be swapping stories with his legal friends like always.
Several eagerly told a few tales this week on Potter, their inimitable peer and colleague from Gothenburg, who died Oct. 24 at age 74 after a stroke 10 days earlier.
A celebration of life will be held at 11:30 a.m. Nov. 9 at the Gothenburg Senior Center. Blase-Strauser Memorial Chapel of Gothenburg, which is in charge of arrangements, is offering an online guest book at blasestrauser.com.
Richard Birch and Michael Piccolo, North Platte’s current district judges, bantered together about sharing lawyer’s tables with Potter earlier in their careers.
He was one of Nebraska’s best and busiest general-practice lawyers for 47 years, serving all manner of clients and sharing his expertise with other lawyers, they said.
“He was always on the road. I named him ‘Roadie,’” Piccolo said. “The guy was all over the state trying cases, federal and state.”
“Sometimes in two or three courts at the same time,” Birch chimed in.
Whenever Potter showed up with his cane, beard and trademark ponytail, he added, “you looked forward to it because you knew it was going to be interesting.”
“Whenever,” you see, was often a relative word with Potter.
There was that time, Birch said, when Potter showed up tardy before the late District Judge John Murphy of North Platte — a well-known local wit.
“He got there 20 minutes into the trial, and Murphy said to him, ‘Mr. Potter, you’re 20 minutes late, but so far you’re winning. You might want to consider whether you’re going to stay.’”
Potter represented Erwin Charles Simants in the first years after he was found not guilty by reason of insanity of killing six members of the Henry Kellie family of Sutherland on Oct. 19, 1975.
Simants’ 40-year Lincoln Regional Center confinement was reaffirmed Wednesday by Piccolo, the case’s current judge.
County Judge Kent Turnbull, a longtime Lincoln County prosecutor, said Potter “added a depth and a breadth to what we do” with a natural flair.
“We fought against each other when I was county attorney tooth and nail, but it was never personal,” Turnbull said. “It’s not going to be the same coming to work without Steve.”
Bob Lindemeier, Lincoln County’s longtime public defender, would wholeheartedly agree.
He was always trading notes and suggestions with Potter, who had offices in Gothenburg and at Sycamore and Sixth streets in North Platte. They’d go skiing in Colorado or deer hunting in the Sandhills near two of the many faraway places Potter owned.
They also one-upped each other for the craziest Christmas outfit, Lindemeier said.
“He and I, independently from each other, started dressing up for Christmas, and it kind of became a competition,” he said. “The last couple years, I’d tell him I was going to put him to shame. ...
“But he always had that hat,” which played Christmas carols. “I never could top that hat.”
Potter would join in the yarn-spinning in the third-floor courthouse law library where Lincoln County’s judges and lawyers would gather after Monday “motion days.”
“I loved to sit and listen to him tell stories, because he had pretty funny stories,” Lindemeier said. “He’d always have a twinkle in his eye, a little grin. It usually ended up pretty funny.”
His friends knew him as a manic bicyclist, Sturgis-going motorcycle rider, Gothenburg High School track star and avid outdoorsman despite an old injury that accounted for his cane.
And as the “Hot Dog Man” in Memorial Stadium, an alter ego from Potter’s 1960s University of Nebraska-Lincoln student days until the turn of the millennium.
As a UNL student at a long-ago Husker game, Piccolo said, “I’m watching this guy throw the hot dogs. I asked, ‘Who is this guy?’ And (a woman) said, ‘He used to be a quarterback for the Huskers.’
“Years later, I met him and asked him, and he said, ‘I never played quarterback for the Huskers.’”
During Nebraska’s 1994 national championship season, Lindemeier said, a UNL fraternity held a skit on a Lincoln lawn while star quarterback Tommie Frazier and backup Brook Berringer were both injured.
“The idea was ‘Who was going to play quarterback?’” he said. “And they brought out someone dressed like Steve as the Hot Dog Man.”
Besides his family members and longtime friends, Potter leaves behind his last law partner, Chevas Shaw, who joined him fresh out of the UNL College of Law in 2017.
“Somehow Steve got ahold of my résumé” through the Nebraska State Bar Association’s Rural Practice Initiative, said Shaw, a Brady High School graduate.
The two met in Lincoln before Shaw’s graduation “and talked about what I wanted to do and how Steve did things, which was certainly atypical,” he said.
As partners, Shaw said, he saw how Potter “was willing to help anybody with just about any area of law, even if it wasn’t an area he was professionally knowledgeable in.”
He also noticed Potter’s fascination with Native Americans, Old West history and Western movies.
“I think he certainly thought of himself as a gunfighter in a movie like ‘Shane’ or something,” Shaw said. “He came into town, he did his job, and he was blowing out of town on to the next stop.”
Potter had fought health problems for about a year but seemed better, his legal friends said. Only Shaw knew Potter intended to retire until just prior to his stroke on Oct. 14, exactly a month before Potter’s 75th birthday.
Potter would have been “of counsel” and worked on some cases, but “he was going to spend his time doing what Steve could concoct in a day,” Shaw said.
Lindemeier was leaving the North Platte courthouse as Potter was coming in on Oct. 11, the Friday before the stroke.
“He said, ‘I’m going to hang it up,’” Lindemeier said. “I said, ‘That’s great, Steve. You deserve it. You can go and enjoy life.’”
Potter’s name won’t quickly disappear. “His name’s on the door,” said Shaw, who lives in North Platte. “And I don’t intend to take it off anytime soon.”
His survivors also include a daughter, Elizabeth, of Fraser, Colorado, and her mother, Elizabeth Barrett of Gothenburg; niece Hollie Wieland (Lance Sears) of Colorado Springs, Colorado; brothers-in-law Steve Sarnes of Lexington and William Barrett of Cupertino, California; and several nieces, nephews and cousins.
He was preceded in death by his parents, Jane and Paul Potter, and a sister, Jane Christian Potter.