By Janet Simons
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Perhaps it’s Colorado’s history with the Broncos that makes us want to cheer for the underdog in the Super Bowl. But if you’re still feeling kind of bad that the Arizona Cardinals couldn’t pull out a last-minute victory, you can take comfort in the knowledge that Colorado also has a rooting interest in the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Byron White, the only native Coloradan and the only former professional football player to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, played the 1938-’39 season for the Steelers, then known as the Pittsburgh Pirates.
White was appointed to the court by President John F. Kennedy, who also tapped Colorado’s Joseph Dolan to serve in his administration. (Stay tuned. More on Dolan later.)
White, born in Wellington in 1917, was both a natural athlete and a natural scholar. Although neither of his parents were high school graduates, White graduated first in his class at both Wellington High School and the University of Colorado, where he earned one of the highest grade point averages in the school’s history. He also was student body president his senior year.
At CU, White earned varsity letters in football, basketball and baseball and was named an All-American in football, becoming the first All-American athlete to emerge from Colorado. Denver sports reporter Leonard Cahn dubbed the running back “Whizzer” White for his speed on the field, and the name stuck with him throughout his life, although he hated it.
On graduating, White won a Rhodes Scholarship, which he deferred for a year to play professional football with the Pittsburgh Pirates (now Steelers). In 1938, White led the National Football League in rushing yards, becoming the first rookie ever to lead the league in any category. And that wasn’t his only rookie-year record. His $15,000-a-year salary was the highest salary ever paid to a professional football player up to that time.
In 1939, however, White left fame and fortune behind and headed off to England and Oxford University, where he met John F. Kennedy, whose father, Joseph Kennedy, was U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James.
White returned to the U.S. to play for the Detroit Lions in the 1940-’41 season, again leading the league in rushing yards. During the off-season, he studied law at CU.
Immediately after the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor in 1941, White quit football and joined the Navy. He served as an intelligence officer in the South Pacific during World War II, renewed his friendship with PT boat commander John F. Kennedy, and was awarded two Bronze Stars for courage in action.
White returned to law school after the war, graduating from Yale magna cum laude in 1946. Turning down several offers from prestigious East Coast law firms, he returned to Colorado and joined the Denver firm of Davis, Graham & Stubbs.
White entered the political arena in 1960, employing his football-hero celebrity to help Kennedy win Colorado, and serving as national chairman of Citizens for Kennedy.
In December 1960, Attorney General designee Robert Kennedy selected White as deputy attorney general. President Kennedy named White to the U.S. Supreme Court in March 1962 to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Justice Charles E. Whittaker.
White served 31 years on the court before retiring in 1993 and returning
to Denver. He died in Denver on April 15, 2002, and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in 2003.
Another Kennedy appointee from Colorado was Joseph Dolan, who served as assistant deputy U.S. attorney general from 1961 to 1964.
Dolan was born in Woodhaven, N.Y., and came to Denver to practice law after finishing his bachelor’s and law degrees at St. John’s University in Manhattan. He began his career in Colorado politics as campaign coordinator for President Harry Truman’s former secretary of agriculture, Charles Brannan, who made an unsuccessful effort to win Colorado’s Democratic Senate primary in 1956. (Brannan lost the nomination to John Carroll, who went on to win the open seat.)
Dolan was elected to represent Denver in the Legislature in 1958. In 1960, Dolan teamed with White on the national Kennedy presidential campaign, and when Kennedy was elected, he resigned his seat in the Legislature to take a post with new Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Robert Kennedy stayed nine months in Lyndon Johnson’s administration after his brother was assassinated, and Dolan stayed with him, writing federal civil rights legislation and acting as “point man” in its passage.
Former state legislator Jerry Kopel, who served as a bill drafter in the Statehouse when Dolan was a legislator, recalls that, “In 1964, Kennedy ran and won the U.S. Senate seat from New York. Joe Dolan was Kennedy’s top assistant, running a staff of 80, and Dolan played a prominent role in persuading Kennedy to run for president in 1968.”
After Robert Kennedy was assassinated, Dolan returned to Denver and remained active in politics and public service, serving as director of Colorado’s revenue and highway departments and as U.S. attorney for Colorado. He died in Englewood on Sept. 3, 2008.
This is part of a periodic series on presidential appointees from Colorado. If you’d like to contribute information or personal recollections, please send e-mail to Janet@coloradostatesman.com.