He was a musician, a historian and a judge. Whatcom community will miss Ira Uhrig.

Remembering Whatcom County Judge Ira Uhrig

Ira Uhrig, a longtime Whatcom County judge who died May 21, 2018, also was a musician who performed under the stage name Johnny Waco. He played solo at the Haynie Opry on August 23, 2008, using a guitar formerly owned by Johny Cash.
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Ira Uhrig, a longtime Whatcom County judge who died May 21, 2018, also was a musician who performed under the stage name Johnny Waco. He played solo at the Haynie Opry on August 23, 2008, using a guitar formerly owned by Johny Cash.

Before the start of every trial, Superior Court Judge Ira J. Uhrig gave what was known to local attorneys as his "Magna Carta" speech.

It would start with King John, move through the history of the United States — in which he would describe to the jurors how the government was formed, how important the Constitution was and explain the role of their civic duty — and end with their instructions for trial.

At hearings and meetings, he would celebrate holidays no one had heard of and would use little-known events in history to illustrate his various points. On the 800th anniversary in 2015 of the Magna Carta’s signing, he gave the three other Superior Court judges commemorative mugs, “a sign of his great respect for the rule of law and the legal system,” Presiding Superior Court Judge Deborra Garrett said. They were small ways he combined his love for history and law.

“He really was a scholar of history. You often learned something new in history talking with Judge Uhrig,” she said.

Uhrig died Monday of complications from cancer, which he battled for several years. He was 61.

“Judge Uhrig was first and foremost a judge. It was an important calling to him, one that he took very seriously, as we all do. But he certainly was aware of the big responsibility and trust that the community places in judges and he worked hard to be worthy of that trust,” Garrett said.

Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Eric Richey, who has known and worked with Uhrig for nearly 25 years, said while the lawyers in the prosecutor’s office didn’t always agree with his rulings, they enjoyed practicing in front of him due to his demeanor on the bench.

“He was always fair and always pleasant and treated everyone in the courtroom with respect,” Richey said. “We’ve lost a very bright and caring judicial officer and we’re all going to miss him. He was a great judge and he was a good friend to all of us in the legal community. It’s just sad for all of us.”

Judge Ira Uhrig
Judge Ira Uhrig in Whatcom Superior Count in Bellingham in 2009. He died May 21, 2018, after battling cancer for several years. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

Uhrig served as a Superior Court Judge since 2004. He was previously a judge in Whatcom County District Court and the local magistrate with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. He was last elected in 2016 to a four year term in Superior Court.

Garrett said Uhrig’s experience as a District Court judge and magistrate prepared him well for the job in Superior Court.

“He understood the importance of the judge conducting trial proceedings with dignity and professionalism and he prided himself on doing exactly that,” Garrett said. “Judge Uhrig was truly a servant of the legal system and community. He believed very strongly in the rule of law.”

Despite his illness, Uhrig remained positive, said Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney David McEachran.

“He was extremely optimistic and ... was an absolute pleasure to deal with. He had such a bright personality and even if he was not feeling well, you would never know by talking to him. He was always smiling and really engaged with you,” McEachran said. “He was just a delightful person, I really liked him. I just really thought the world of him.”

In a piece he wrote for the Whatcom County Bar Journal in April 2017, Uhrig discussed his struggles with his illness and his excitement about being able to return to work.

“Despite this illness, I am thankful every day for the many blessing in my life. All things being equal, I would certainly rather not have had either pneumonia or cancer, but I still can’t complain. Naturally, nobody ever wants or deserves cancer, but it happens to some of us, and many folks go through struggles far greater than mine,” Uhrig wrote. “I am thankful for every day I have here on God’s Earth, and neither cancer nor pneumonia will change that. … Thank you for your kind thoughts and prayers. LIFE IS GOOD!.”

Uhrig bagpipe
Judge Ira Uhrig plays the bagpipe at the beginning of a ceremony honoring Spc. Aaron Aamot at the Whatcom County Courthouse in 2010. Uhrig died Monday after battling cancer. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

Outside of the legal system, Uhrig was known to be passionate about music, his family, Scottish culture and cowboys, among other things.

“He was a very talented musician. He was eccentric. He was interesting and interested in everybody,” Richey said.

Uhrig played a myriad of instruments, mostly of the string variety, including the banjo, guitar, bass guitar, clarinet, trumpet, saxophone, fiddle, mandolin and bagpipes. Many community members, including Richey and McEachran, remember Uhrig playing the bagpipes for weddings or funerals.

The man who taught Uhrig the bagpipes said he had never seen anyone pick up the instrument so fast, McEachran said. Uhrig also once owned a local music store, played for his local church, wrote his own music and had a small, gold vintage microphone that sat on his desk in his judge’s chambers.

“He really had an affinity for music. It was just something that was in him. People with musical ability, you can see that in them,” McEachran said. “He just had such a repertoire. He once said ‘If I can pick it up, I can play it.’ He was an amazing guy with a great variety of interests.”

Ira Uhrig, wearing a white, '30s-style cowboy hat, boots, and with a pocket watch chain dangling from his vest, looks over a gun in the late Ira Yeager's collection of 471 antique guns that were auctioned off in 2003 after being displayed at Yeager's Sporting Goods, the family business. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

Off stage he was known as Ira Uhrig, but on stage he was known as Johnny Waco, said local family law attorney, longtime friend and bandmate Ron Hardesty.

Hardesty and Uhrig belonged to first a four-, then five-, then six-person band called the Lost Highway Band for more than a decade. The pair formed the group after Hardesty saw a 1974 Willie Nelson Fourth of July picnic poster in Uhrig's judge's chambers, and they realized their shared love of Texas music from the 1970s, Hardesty said.

Uhrig didn't want to mix his professional persona with his band persona, so he adopted the name Johnny Waco, Hardesty said. Uhrig gave Hardesty a stage name too — Rattlesnake Ron — due to the rattlesnake skin boots and belt he owned, even though Uhrig knew Hardesty hated snakes.

The band played music primarily dedicated to classic country from the 1950s through the 1970s with a Texas emphasis. They only had three rules: They would play whatever music Hardesty or Uhrig wanted to and that was it, they would never practice and they would never play on New Year's Eve. Hardesty said at almost every show, Uhrig would tell the band they were playing something new and they would have to follow along.

"The things I know about Ira, I've never met a more honest man, I've never met anybody with better wit. He was very intelligent, professional about his job, and he had a cynical and humorous outlook on life, which we shared. We never spoke of religion ... or politics because we knew we had differences, but everything in between, he was like a brother," Hardesty said. "He's played a lot of special parts in my life."

Hardesty said Uhrig had an extensive collection of instruments and memorabilia as well, including a replica of Willie Nelson's favorite guitar, and two guitars he bought from Waylon Jennings along with his vest, boots and hat. A few of these items he donated to the museum at the Broken Spoke, a famous honky-tonk bar in Austin, Texas.

Hardesty said Uhrig was generous, never complained and lived his life with a sense of fortitude.

"The thing about him was whenever I was with him he would make me feel like I was his best friend in the whole world, but I'll be he had 100 of them. He had a lot of very good friends. He's really going to be missed," Hardesty said. "He lived his life and what you saw was what you got from him. He didn't hide behind anything. He wore his western garb. He just lived his life as full as any man I've ever met. His honesty, friendliness, his intellect, his wit, those are the things I will remember."

After the news of his death Monday, many colleagues in the legal community as well as other Whatcom County residents shared their memories of Uhrig, as a musician and judge, on Facebook.

“Ira was a man of strong beliefs, and was gentle and respectful toward others, no matter who they were or what they might have done. He strongly believed in our system of justice and made sure it worked as it should. He was also very funny. I will miss him,” local attorney Doug Hyldahl wrote.

“The world is poorer for this loss. I’ve seen him play the pipes, saw him in court being fair to all, and he officiated the wedding for my daughter and son-in-law. So much talent in one man!,” wrote Barb Cummins.

“He served his community well and I have so much respect for how he lived his life. He will be missed,” wrote LeAnn Caseria.

Uhrig, a fifth generation Whatcom County resident, was also the grandson of Ira Yeager, who founded Yeager’s Sporting Goods in Bellingham in 1921.

“He loved life and found something to laugh about every day. We are going to miss him,” Richey said.

Funeral or memorial service information is not yet available.

Denver Pratt: 360-715-2236, @DenverPratt
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