Mark Ashford, a longtime Douglas County District Court Judge and County Court Judge, died of a sudden stroke at his desk last week. He was 66 years old and talking
about retiring, though his elected term ran through 2022. One of the reasons for considering retirement was that his dream of establishing a Veterans Treatment Court had borne fruit and the first four graduates were celebrated in June.
Most obituaries offer all the pertinent personal details about someone’s life, along with accomplishments
and comments by friends and family. This will do that. But this time it’s personal.
This reporter spent a lot of time talking to Judge Ashford in the past few years, as he worked tirelessly
to establish a Veterans Treatment Court. Every time we talked, his enthusiasm was apparent.
He was already serving as presiding judge of the Douglas County Young Adult Court.
He was a man who put his heart and soul into his work and his home life as well. He was on the bench for 30 years. He was always kind – ask any of the participants in Young Adult Drug Court or the brand new Veterans Treatment Court. “He was tough but fair” in his dealings with them, demanding excellence,
then rewarding it as well. His chuckle revealed a well-honed sense of humor.
After he earned his Juris Doctorate from Creighton University School of Law, he worked as a prosecutor in the Douglas County Attorney’s Office. His close friend Juvenile Court Judge Chris Kelly remembered those days.
“Mark and I go way, way back. We met as young prosecutors under Pinky Knowles’ regime. Eventually, we worked together on criminal prosecutions.”
They became fast friends. “He was in my wedding. I chose him to swear me in when I took the bench.” They ate lunch together as often as possible.
Ashford’s bailiff, Lisa Arrowsmith, said he sought out friends every day to eat with. “He loved those lunches. In the 25 years I worked for him, he ate at his desk maybe 10 times. And hated it.”
The day he died, he had what was by all accounts a great lunch with some members of the Juvenile Court.
“I had lunch with him Wednesday. It was filled with lots of laughter. As usual, he was both interested and interesting,” Kelly said. He paused. “It’s a terrible loss.”
Arrowsmith recalled some of his other tells. He twisted paperclips until they were unrecognizable. He hated computer passwords and e-mail in general. “When someone asked him if he got their e-mail, his earlobes would start to turn red.”
Sitting in the now quiet office, she said, “We worked together very well.”
While the loss to family and friends is obvious, the loss to the bench is also deeply felt.
Fair. Cheerful. Genuine. Determined to “get it right.” Words heard over and over again, even, in one case, by a two-time defendant.
“He was one of the most caring and thorough of our judges on the bench. He was driven to get it right and to do the right thing,” Kelly said. “He was so compassionate,
but he was firm too. He was such a kind man. He was kind to the lawyers who practiced in front of him. If they did something that embarrassed them, he would bail them out.
“He was the whole package. Kind, fair, firm, caring. It’s a tricky thing to put that all together, but he did it.
“He was just wonderful.”
Another of his good friends and frequent lunch companions was Douglas County District Court Judge J. Russell Derr.
“He was good company. That’s how I’ll remember him.
“He was one of those judges who was obviously very good at criminal law, but he was very adept at civil practice too. He was good at both. And he was most proud of the Veterans Court.
“He had excellent courtroom demeanor. He was the consummate professional, incapable
“He could be stern, but I always found him to be fair. If you can say that about a judge after his career is over, that’s pretty high compliment,” Derr said.
District Court Judge Thomas Otepka also pointed out, “Mark had so much experience
on the County and District Court bench, his decisions were seldom successfully challenged. He was always a team player on our bench.”
Nebraska’s Chief Justice Mike Heavican paid tribute to him: “Judge Ashford was one of Nebraska’s longest serving judges. He was appointed to the County Court Bench in 1988 and to the District Court Bench in 2000.
“We appreciate his service on both the County and District Court Benches, his work with the Young Adult Treatment Court, and his pioneering efforts to establish the Douglas County Veterans Treatment Court.
“He will be sorely missed.”
Writing this, it was impossible not to think about Mark’s wife, Deb Ashford, and their family. One quotation seems particularly apt: “There are few things more unfair in life than having your future stolen from you.”
As Kelly said, “First and foremost, he was a family man. He was dedicated to his wife and sons. He had great pride in his boys.”
Ashford left behind his wife; sons Steven Ashford and Sam Ashford; stepsons Keith Kristopher and Kent Klanderud; brothers former U.S. Rep. Brad Ashford and Carl Ashford; and six grandchildren.
The funeral was held Tuesday. Memorials to the Douglas County Veterans Treatment Court Foundation are suggested.