Hot Stove #206 – Raconteur Hall of Fame (Part One) – Paul E. Vardeman

[I’m pausing postseason baseball talk to honor two of Kansas City’s finest. More baseball talk soon – Astros and Phillies in the World Series.]

Last Thursday, October 20, 2022, two of Kansas City’s greatest storytellers died. Paul Vardeman at age 92. Bert Bates at age 96. In this Part One, I’m going to talk about Paul Vardeman. The next Hot Stove will cover Bert Bates.

Paul E. Vardeman: I first met Judge Paul Vardeman when I started law school at UMKC in 1964. He was an active alumnus in the professional law fraternity I had joined – Phi Alpha Delta (PAD). Paul had a sterling reputation – he won the Lon Hocker award honoring him as the outstanding young trial lawyer in KC in 1959, and in 1965 he became the youngest person to be appointed as a circuit court judge in the state of Missouri.

In 1972, Jim Polsinelli opened an office on the Plaza. By 1979, the office had expanded to six partners, all of whom were PAD fraternity brothers from our law school days: Jim, Lonnie, Mike White, David Welte, Bob Wehrman and Dale Schulte. As part of our marketing plan we hosted a party at our offices in 1981. Judge Vardeman was there and told one of our associates that he was considering leaving the bench and wondered if his PAD fraternity brothers might be interested. We pounced, and in March of 1982, Paul joined the firm which was renamed Polsinelli, White and Vardeman.


When Paul joined the firm, we had an existing master action plan that included a goal of never growing to more than 25 lawyers. We enjoyed the small firm atmosphere. For example, we could all eat at the same table at our retreat in the Bahamas (mid-‘80s).


Our growth plan failed. I blame (credit) Paul. He gave us a prestige boost, and we never stopped growing. Now over 900 lawyers nationwide.

Paul headed our litigation department for many years, handling major cases and just as valuable, mentoring young lawyers. He was popular with associates. After Paul died, I got a note from Gerry Brenneman who started at the firm as a summer associate in 1984:

“Paul would take me and other associates to a Mexican restaurant on a Friday every few months. He loved spicy food but it always made his head sweat, resulting in him wearing a cloth napkin on his bald head. As a young lawyer in my 20s, I always got a kick out of watching a well-respected judge in his 50s do this in public and not care what others thought.”

One of Paul’s stellar qualities was storytelling. The raconteur. We loved listening to him. This extended to our spouses who always felt so welcomed by Paul and his wife Connie. To show our appreciation one year, we had a costume party where everyone was to show up dressed as their hero. In a surprise to Paul, we all came as him, wearing masks printed from his photo. Below, Rita and I in our Vardeman masks.


Unfortunately, the two-dimensional mask curved around the face took on an odd look – Mike White said it was like wearing a Batman mask with Marty Feldman eyes. Fortunately, the three-dimensional Paul was there and looked great as his hero, W. C. Fields.


After Paul retired, a group of his former partners annually treated Paul to dinner around his birthday. It was so much fun, we added the half-birthday to go twice a year. Covid and Paul’s health intervened in recent years, but we had a nice reunion with Paul and Connie on his 91.5th birthday. More on that below in the Vardeman/Hot Stove section.

A visit to Paul and Connie’s home doubled as a visit to a nautical museum. Paul was a serious collector of nautical antiques, especially scrimshaw, and his expertise was widely acknowledged. Below, speaking as an “authority on scrimshaw” at a symposium at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in 2016.

Judge Paul Vardeman, an authority on scrimshaw, speaks at the New Bedford Whaling Museum's Scrimshaw Symposium yesterday.

Paul told stories of scrimshaw, judges, lawyers, trials, litigants, local history, the art of Bingham and Benton, and so much more. A deserving member of the Raconteur Hall of Fame.

No memorial service is planned. Memories and expressions of sympathy may be shared on the Mount Moriah website at this link.

Paul Vardeman/Rita’s Journey: When Rita was going through her breast cancer journey in 2012-13, I kept her support village informed with periodic emails. The format was a precursor to Hot Stove which premiered in 2015. She was the editor. Rock ‘n’ roll music was often included. And Paul Vardeman made a couple of appearances. Below are the excerpts:


Rita just got the news: All 10 of the removed lymph nodes were NEGATIVE for cancer.


In a response to the last update, my law partner (now happily retired) Paul Vardeman thought the occasion of the NEGATIVE findings was good cause for rewriting the 1944 Johnny Mercer song “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.” Paul proposes that the song now be sung as “Ac-cen-tu-ate the neg-a-tive and e-lim-in-ate the pos-i-tive….” All join in.


[This email update featured various friends with little hair (chrome-domes) posing with hairless Rita. One of the photos got five at one time.]

Paul Vardeman’s Birthday Party. Nine old-timers from the days of what was then Polsinelli, White, Vardeman and Shalton gathered at Jasper’s last week to celebrate Paul’s 83rd birthday. As luck would have it, five of the group qualified as chrome-domers, and Rita crashed the party long enough to get a photo. Left to right: Fuzzy White, Paul, Hal Goss, Jim Bowers and Jim Polsinelli.  Mike White, Bob Wehrman, David Welte and I did not qualify for the photo, but David came very close.

Paul Vardeman/Hot Stove: Paul’s birthday celebrations also got some coverage in Hot Stove.

February 1, 2021:

This coming Friday is Paul Vardeman’s 91st birthday. This would normally mean a dinner for Paul and nine of his former partners from the Polsinelli firm. We have been doing this for many years, but it never even got to the planning stage in this year of the pandemic.

In addition to Paul’s career as a respected lawyer and judge, and his well-earned reputation as a raconteur, he is an expert researcher and collector of scrimshaw. For decades, he has filled his home with hundreds (thousands?) of marine artifacts, many acquired while on vacations to Nantucket with his wife Connie. Below, a sample from the catalog for an auction when Paul sold a good part of his collection in 2019.

Polychrome scrimshaw whale’s tooth by the Naval Monument engraver with original whaling scene, second quarter of the Nineteenth Century, $84,000 ($60/80,000). This is the only known tooth by the Naval Monument Engraver with an original whaling scene. Most of the carver’s work was sourced from the 1816 and 1837 editions of Abel Bowen’s The Naval Monument. Paul Vardeman Collection.

Sometimes called “the Dean of Scrimshaw,” Paul got some minutes of fame in 2012 on the TV show “America’s Lost Treasures” on the National Geographic channel. When you watch this 3-minute clip, you will see why we enjoy dinner with Paul.

December 28, 2021:

When Mike White and I joined Jim Polsinelli on the Plaza in 1979, we brought the lawyer count up to nine. Our master action plan was to never grow to more than 25 lawyers. Three years later, we got lucky when Judge Paul Vardeman left the circuit court bench and joined the firm. I hold him responsible for fouling up our growth plan. He gave us a prestige boost and we never stopped growing. Today, 900 lawyers in 21 offices.

For many years, a group of retired/former partners have gathered to celebrate Paul’s birthday (and sometimes half-birthday; below, on his 91.5 birthday). Standing behind Paul, starting at the left: Dale Schulte, David Welte, Jim Polsinelli, Fuzzy White, Hal Goss, Mike White, Lonnie Shalton and Jim Bowers.

Lonnie’s Jukebox – Paul Vardeman Selection: As noted above, Paul reversed the lyrics of a 1944 Johnny Mercer song to celebrate a big step in Rita’s journey. Paul was a teenager when that song came out. I’ll reverse it back now to match the positive influence Paul Vardeman had on so many of us.

“You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum/Bring gloom down to the minimum.’

“Accentuate the Positive” (a/k/a Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive) by Johnny Mercer and the Pied Pipers.

RIP Judge