City Attorney Mark Westrate dies

Published 8:28 pm Tuesday, August 13, 2013

City Attorney Mark A. Westrate, who died Tuesday at 63, possessed a brilliant mind and could have practiced law anywhere, but stayed in Cass County, close to his family, friends and farming, which he understood.

Friends remember him as compassionate and competitive.

“He was a ‘Cass boy.’ He never forgot where he came from,” said his longtime friend, Judge Susan Dobrich, who practiced law with him between serving as Cass County prosecutor and acceding to the bench in 1995.

Westrate became licensed to practice law in Michigan in 1975 and city attorney in the spring of 1982, succeeding his law partner when the late Herbert E. Phillipson Jr. became Cass County probate judge.

Westrate had been battling lung cancer, but the former Cassopolis valedictorian, National Merit Scholar and Eagle Scout attended his high school reunion and a family cruise to Alaska.

July 26 he went to Public Safety Director Tom Atkinson’s retirement party at Dowagiac Conservation Club.

For 25 years, until 2003, Westrate practiced law in Dowagiac with St. Joseph attorney Jeffrey Holmstrom, who said Westrate “always struck me as extremely intelligent, but he was down to earth as well,” which to clients meant common people received the same attention.

Westrate attended the University of Michigan rather than Harvard.

Moving to a large firm or seeking a judgeship never appealed to him, either.

While the precise, exacting Westrate seemed to have little in common with Phillipson, they were both bright guys who believed in the justice system and in providing ordinary citizens the best representation possible.

Phillipson once said Westrate was “like a son” to him.

Westrate was fearless as an attorney. Holmstrom recalled an armed robbery case they tried early in their careers.

Deciding the suspect was innocent, they went into dangerous Chicago neighborhoods to interview witnesses, but exonerated him before Judge James Hoff.

His career advanced and he became more specialized in public utility law, eminent domain, medical malpractice and property tax, but he was always motivated more by debating and winning cases than money.

Westrate enjoyed many memorable moments as an attorney, such as “residency is a state of mind” being immortalized on T-shirts and coffee mugs after his June 9, 2003, opinion on the contention by some Pokagon residents that a city councilman resided in their township rather than in Dowagiac.

“He loved the art of the law,” Dobrich said.

She recalled a time Westrate turned his math minor prowess on a formula, analyzed the problem and concluded the formula itself was flawed.

The second of six children, he attended Texas A&M before finishing law school at the University of Notre Dame, but never rooted for the Fighting Irish in football, so when Dobrich’s team prevailed over his Wolverines, he found a South Bend Tribune delivered to his doorstep.