January 31, 2021
The State Bar of Michigan mourns the loss of its 60th president, Jon R. Muth, who died January 29, at age 75.
Muth holds the distinction of being the longest-serving president of the State Bar of Michigan, assuming the presidency six months earlier than expected when, in 1994, his predecessor Michael Hayes Dettmer was appointed United States attorney for the Western District of Michigan. While president, Muth also served as acting executive director of the State Bar of Michigan following the death of Michael Franck and headed the executive director search committee while in that position.
Janet Welch, executive director of the State Bar, observed “Jon Muth’s simultaneous service as both president and executive director makes him a unique figure in the history of the State Bar of Michigan, but in truth his powerful legal skills and exemplary integrity would have left a lasting mark on the Michigan bar even if the State Bar had not been fortunate enough to have him at the helm at a crucial time in the bar’s history.”
A 1971 graduate of Wayne State University Law School, Muth received recognition throughout his career, including the State Bar’s highest honor, the Roberts P. Hudson Award, in 1998. Other accolades include the Grand Rapids Bar Association’s President’s Award, the Grand Rapids Young Lawyers Section Service and Mentoring Award, and the Distinguished Service Award from Kalamazoo College, where he earned his undergraduate degree.
In 2011, after Legal News named him Lawyer of the Year, Muth said, “If I had to articulate as a young lawyer where I wanted to be at age 65, this would have been what I hoped: recognized by my peers and successful for my clients — and an honorable person.”
That is exactly how current SBM President Rob Buchanan remembers his friend, saying, “Michigan has lost one of the finest people in its history. Today we mourn, but with pride, remembering Jon Muth as we knew him—a skilled and tireless advocate for justice, an inspiring leader, a cherished friend, and an incredible human. Everyone instantly liked Jon, and he always embraced you as his best friend with that magical twinkle in his eye and warm smile. As a leader, he devised a strategy that was smart, fair-minded, and laser-focused on one goal: succeeding.”
Muth was a retired member and general counsel of the Grand Rapids firm of Miller Johnson, focusing his practice on civil/commercial litigation, professional responsibility and legal malpractice, and mediation and arbitration. He was a frequent speaker for ICLE, where he participated in its Trial Advocacy Skills Workshop and Advanced Negotiation and Dispute Resolution Institute. He was a Fellow in the International Society of Barristers, the Michigan State Bar Foundation, the American Bar Foundation, and served in the ABA House of Delegates.
Working with late State Bar of Michigan President John Cummiskey, Muth helped get Kent County’s Legal Assistance Center off the ground by completing a 23-day cross-country bicycle trip, raising over $20,000 for legal services offices throughout Michigan. Starting in San Diego, California on September 15, 1996, he reached his destination of Charleston, South Carolina, on October 8, 1996. His trip was named “Leg Aid for Legal Aid” and he gathered pledges per mile from attorneys throughout Michigan. He pedaled an average of 125 miles per day for a total of 2,881 miles.
Muth is survived by his wife, Carol, two sons, Jeffrey and Daniel, brothers Andy (sister-in-law Patricia) and Jim (sister-in-law Myra), and grandchildren Danny, Miles, Madeline, Jeffrey and Hannah.
Jeffrey Muth said of his father: “He will be greatly missed and in many respects the void may never be filled. But he lived life to the fullest, with an unrivaled inner strength, sense of decency and unwavering moral ethic. He died as selflessly as he lived, primarily concerned for the well-being of his family and loved ones. He was quite simply the best dad, mentor and friend that anyone could have ever asked for. And I cannot adequately express the gratitude I feel for being able to claim him as my own.”
In 1995, Jon Muth wrote what would become one of the Michigan Bar Journal’s most well-known President’s Page columns, “The Good Lawyer: A Letter to My Son.” Twenty-five years later, in 2020, Jeffrey Muth responded to his father’s words in a column of his own.
Tributes and reminiscences from other past presidents of the State Bar
“George Googasian called last night to give Teckla and me the news that was not unexpected but news that I couldn’t digest. George and Phyllis, John and Carol became dear friends during and after our years with the Bar. We remain close friends. Traveling together, and a lot of good cycling trips — the Midwest, Canada, Erie Canal, Vermont and New York. And when you spend seven or eight hours a day pedaling, you can and do solve every political issue facing not just the law profession but America as well. Truly a smart and civil man and really funny. And I have to acknowledge, he never forgot or forgave me for allowing him to serve half of my term as president! A lot of evenings in restaurants and bars that I bought the dinners or drinks simply out of my guilt in giving him the opportunity of being the Bar’s longest serving president! Jon will always be a Fresh Lawyer. And a great friend.” — Michael Dettmer, SBM President 1993-1994
“One year separated my and Jon’s honor to serve as president of the State Bar of Michigan. And, I had the privilege of witnessing his unprecedented 18 months of service, while he also functioned as the bar’s executive director. Jon was to be watched and studied; he represented the highest leadership, integrity and decency we should aspire to emulate. Later in his career as he became a masterful mediator, lawyers around the state awaited their turn to hire him because of the respect for and trust they placed in Jon. As I did. I called him a friend. I will miss him.” — Victoria Roberts, SBM President 1996-1997
“Jon was a great husband, father, grandfather and friend. He was also a wonderful lawyer, counselor and mediator. Those of us who counted Jon as a good friend will miss his intellectual curiosity, humor and wisdom. The State Bar of Michigan is fortunate to have his leadership.” — Bruce Neckers, SBM President 2001-2002
“For my final President’s page/column I attempted to thank the membership by ‘replaying' for them one of the finest President’s columns I had ever read — it was a letter by Jon to his son Jeff (who was just entering law school) explaining to Jeff what it meant to be a Good Lawyer. Jon Muth was that Good Lawyer that he was describing in his letter to Jeff—and so much more. In addition to being an outstanding lawyer and person, over the years Jon was the ethical and moral compass for the Bar and the profession. Jon will be sorely missed but never forgotten.” — Thomas Cranmer, SBM President 2005-2006
“As many have already written, Jon was a great lawyer, a great leader, and always a gentleman. Let me add that no one was more committed than Jon to the mission of the State Bar to improve the administration of justice, promote the legal profession, and build public understanding of our legal system. Jon was a giant of the Bar and will be sorely missed.” — Ronald Keefe, SBM President 2007-2008
“There were 20 presidents of the State Bar of Michigan between Jon and me, and our practices were geographically and substantively distanced. But indelibly etched in my memory is a speech Jon gave regarding pro bono work and access to justice. Maybe some of you heard and remember it, too. Listening to Jon tell the story of a bicycle trip through an impoverished area, I was taken in like a child being read a story by a beloved, animated teacher. Jon’s words continue to inspire and guide me to this day. May Jon’s passion for justice for all remain alive in all of us.” — Lori Buiteweg, SBM President 2015-2016