Two months ago, our community lost a remarkable cycling advocate, James R. Brotherson, a lawyer and friend who died far too young at the age of 63. His obituary mentioned that he was legal counsel to the Friends of the Pumpkinvine, and I’d like to expand on how important that was. Simply put, without the skills of the legal team he put together, the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail might not exist today.
|Jim Byron, Jim Brotherson and Doug Mulvaney in 1999.
They were the legal team that helped the Friends
of the Pumpkinvine establish title to the Pumpkinvine corridor.
I met Jim on March 11, 1993 when the Friends of the Pumpkinvine held an informational meeting at the Goshen Public Library to explain our proposal to convert the abandoned Pumpkinvine railroad corridor into a linear park. We were still in the early stages of putting together an organization and raising money to purchase the Pumpkinvine corridor, and these meeting were one way for us to get names for our mailing list. Somehow Jim learned about that meeting and showed up to listen.
At that point, early 1993, our group had had some success gaining support for the proposed trail from the boards and staff of Goshen Park and Recreation Department and Elkhart County Parks, but we (and the proposed trail) were routinely attacked in letters to the editor as a group of bicycle fanatics who were promoting a dangerous and costly trail. Moreover, landowners along the Pumpkinvine corridor claimed that they owned it because it had reverted to them when Penn Central abandoned the line in 1982.
So we knew that we would need legal help to prove our ownership after we bought the corridor, but we also knew that it would take all the funds we had (and then some) to buy the Pumpkinvine corridor. Besides, people told us that no law firm in Goshen would take our case because the proposed Pumpkinvine Nature Trail was too controversial.
Into that worrisome situation – no money to pay for an attorney and no local law firm offering to help – walked Jim Brotherson. He came up to me after that March 11 public meeting and said, “If you need help defending your title, let me know. I’d like to represent your group, and I’ll do it pro bono,” i.e., at no cost. I don’t remember if we hired Jim that night or took some time to think it over – after all none of us knew if he was a competent lawyer – but it wasn’t long before we decided to ask for his help, and he took an active role in the negotiations with Penn Central that summer and fall to purchase the corridor, which happened on Dec. 22,1993.
That chance encounter began a two-decade long association in which he worked tirelessly on behalf of the Friends of the Pumpkinvine. First, just before the purchase from Penn Central, he recruited Jim Byron and Chuck Grodnik from another Elkhart law firm to help with the closing. Then in January 1994, they filed a lawsuit on 17 adjacent landowners between SR 4 and CR 28 that established our ownership of the that 1.75 miles. That section later showcased the trail’s potential to the community and made possible a change in public attitudes and made extending the trail to Shipshewana possible.
After the initial lawsuit, in July 1995 he and Jim Byron then took on the task of defending our title against over 100 adjacent landowners between U.S. 20 to CR 850W in LaGrange County. In all, Brotherson, Byron and Doug Mulvaney (another lawyer added to the team) were our council for eight lawsuits stretching over 17 years. Although we were able to pay for their work after the first four years, I never knew how they justified those many hours of free legal services to the partners in their firms; I suspected they didn’t tell all that they did.
While their value to us was most obvious in their ability to write convincing legal briefs, they were just as valuable in giving us good advice. Their wise counsel redefined for me what it means to be a good attorney.
In recent years, after his law firm moved to South Bend, I didn’t have much contact with Jim, but I would occasionally see him on Saturday mornings shopping at Goshen’s Farmer’s Market, and I would unceremoniously embarrass him with a bear hug, as a handshake was far too passive an expression of thanks for what he had given us.
I’m extremely happy that I organized a lawyers’ bike ride with Brotherson, Byron and Grodnick on the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail between Middlebury and Shipshewana several years ago. I wanted them to see the wonderful trail they had helped create and reminisce about how it happened 20 years ago because of them. Jim was impressed and far too humble about what he’d contributed.
The last email I had from Jim was on Feb. 24, 2015 when he was already quite ill, though I didn’t know it at the time. I had sent him and Jim Byron a note with a link to an article on the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy website ranking the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail as the number one trail in Indiana. http://www.railstotrails.org/trailblog/2014/december/01/top-10-trails-in-indiana/?page=3 I simply said that the ranking was, “The results of your great work for the Pumpkinvine.” He responded: “Thanks, John. That was a nice series of articles, and it’s enormously comforting to think we left a positive mark on our county. It was always a privilege to work with you and the dedicated team.”
A positive mark, indeed. When I see the thousands of people enjoying the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail, how it has raised the awareness of cycling in our community and has expanded with connections to the MapleHeart Trail to Elkhart and through spurs to the Elkhart County Fairground, I’d say the mark he left was indelible.