By Kelli Williams
City of Bartlesville
As the world celebrated the holidays and counted down the days to the end of a tumultuous year, many Bartlesville residents and City of Bartlesville staff were rocked by the death of one of their own: Municipal Judge Steve Conatser passed away at his home on Dec. 24. He was 72.
James Stephen Conatser, known by many as “Judge Conatser” and others simply as Steve, served as the City of Bartlesville’s municipal court judge from February 1981 until his death last month. It was a position he handled seamlessly, displaying wisdom, reason and integrity for 40-plus years.
“I don’t recall ever receiving a complaint about the municipal court process or Judge Conatser, who presided over the Court for so many years,” said Mayor Dale Copeland. “I admire and appreciate his service to the City and the citizens. He will be missed.”
Soft spoken and famously even-tempered, Conatser spent the majority of his time representing clients as a local attorney in his private practice, which he established in 1974. Fellow lawyers Alan Gentges, who serves as Bartlesville’s vice mayor and Ward 4 representative on the City Council, and City Attorney Jess Kane have been long-time admirers of Conatser’s exemplary legal career.
“Judge Conatser was a fine jurist and showed a balance of wisdom and justice,” said Gentges. “He was a gentleman lawyer who zealously represented his client while maintaining comity with the bar. He will be sorely missed in our city.”
“I had the privilege to know Steve both personally and professionally,” Kane said. “Growing up in Bartlesville he was a family friend, and, I am proud to say, he became a personal friend after I returned home to practice law. He was always the model for a senior member of the bar in his willingness to mentor young lawyers. As an opposing attorney, he was calm, knowledgeable and always willing to work towards compromise. He was a fine lawyer.”
But outside his private practice, Conatser could be found nearly every Tuesday and Thursday morning at City Hall, where he presided over the day’s Municipal Court proceedings. Consisting primarily of traffic violations and other misdemeanor offenses, he listened with interest and compassion to the stories of those who ended up in his Court and administered justice intended to help right the wrongs of the world — often teaching a lesson or two along the way.
“As a Judge, Steve was compassionate and fair,” Kane said. “I’m certain that I did not appreciate this when the Court’s justice was administered upon me as an imprudent 16-year-old driver, but I came to appreciate it after years of observing Steve on the bench.”
Kane said Conatser was ahead of his time in his leadership of the Court, implementing measures that ensured a seamless operation.
“The enforcement of fines and court costs has been a hot-button political issue in recent years. I remember reading an article recently which suggested a number of reforms, and I realized that Steve was already doing many of these things,” Kane said. “Mayor Copeland has reflected that he cannot recall ever receiving a complaint about Municipal Court. If you stop to consider the adversarial nature of the Court, this is truly an amazing observation. Judge Conatser will be sorely missed.”
City Manager Mike Bailey spent time in Conatser’s court as well, years before their working relationship and friendship began.
“Judge Conatser held the difficult position of municipal court judge for the City of Bartlesville since I was a teenager. Unfortunately for me, that’s where we first met nearly 30 years ago,” said Bailey. “After coming to work for the City, I came to know Steve as a judge, as an attorney, and as a friend. I am grateful for having had the time and opportunity to do that.”
By all accounts, compassion and fairness were hallmarks of Conatser’s Court, and he was respected equally by those who appeared before him as those who stood beside him.
“I worked with Judge Conatser for 25 years as a police officer and 11 years as his municipal court bailiff,” said retired Police Officer and Bailiff Larry Hampton. “I have known him to be a man of honor and integrity. In all those years I have never known him to lose his temper or be rude to anyone. He was the easiest-going man I’ve ever known. His knowledge of the law was never questioned. He treated everyone with compassion and respect, and the citizens that appeared before his court liked and respected him.”
“The Bartlesville Police Department is very sorry for the loss of Judge Conatser,” said Police Chief Tracy Roles. “Judge Conatser served the citizens of Bartlesville in a ultra-professional, fair and impartial manner for years. His calm demeanor and fair approach will be missed by many.”
“As a Bartlesville police officer working through the Bartlesville Municipal Court, I found Judge Steve Conatser to be a fair, honest and kind man,” said BPD Capt. Kevin Ickleberry. “He would listen to those who came before his court and work to help them through any problems they had. He was firm when needed and gentle and kind when needed, always being fair and giving many second chances to those who would frequent his Court. He also tried to help new teenage drivers out by making special plans with them, to help them and their parents remedy the issue without penalizing them more than needed.”
Conatser’s love of the law was matched, or even surpassed, possibly, by his passion for music. He played the drums throughout his life, in school and out, eventually putting in a nearly three-decade stint with local band, Distant Thunder.
Washington County musical history was made when, in 1992, Ickleberry, then a reserve police officer looking to raise some money for police equipment, heard the judge had played drums in high school and college.
“I asked him if he would be interested in joining the ‘Oklahoma Posse Band,’ which was a group we created to raise money to purchase camcorders for police vehicles,” Ickleberry said.
It was clearly a cause Conatser could get behind. The group, which consisted of several peace officers and civilians performing together to raise funds for the camcorders, first performed publicly in October 1993, raising more than $5,000 for the needed equipment.
With success under their belt, the core group decided to continue playing music together and eventually, The Distant Thunder Band was formed — the musical outlet that helped earn Steve “Sticks” Conatser a nickname few outside the music realm would know, and where he spent the next 27 years honing his craft.
“One of his favorite places to entertain was at the Hillcrest Country Club,” Ickleberry said. “During his time with the band we played venues from weddings to conventions, from Bartlesville to Oklahoma City and parts of Kansas. Inside, outside, anywhere we could, because we — and Steve, particularly — just enjoyed playing music.
“Steve loved being a drummer, and when we would practice, he would devote many hours to it. He started out with his five piece Ludwig drum set from his college days, but before long he had invested in a drum set that had so many pieces in it he had to buy a new trailer to transport ‘just the drum set.’ He would listen intently to music and work hard to try to make it sound like the original music. He earned the nickname of Steve ‘Sticks’ Conatser.
In the wake of his death, City staff who worked most closely with Conatser are quick to pay tribute to his long and successful career as the city’s judge and as a private attorney, but it is his friendship they say they’ll miss the most.
“He would come into my office and sit down just to talk, to ask how my day was going and catch up with me,” said Municipal Court Supervisor Tammy Hudgens. “He was a very private person — he never was one to go on about himself or what was going on in his life, but he was always interested in what other people were doing and what was important to them.”
For example, Hudgens recalls, he downloaded a “Countdown to Christmas” app and marked off the days with her, even though that “really wasn’t his thing.”
“I’m sure he couldn’t have cared less about that app,” Hudgens said. “He did it because he knew I liked it. That’s the kind of person he was: kind, considerate, and fair. He treated everyone equally and gave everyone the benefit of the doubt.”
“Steve was very patient and always a joy to be around,” said Ickleberry. “He cared about those of us who were his friends and would often times call to make sure we were okay. I know that as a friend, I have lost someone who truly cared about me and one that I could call if I needed anything. Steve’s compassion, and his kind and caring heart made a great impression, not only in my life but also the citizens of Bartlesville.”
“His presence will be missed in the courtroom, but I’ll miss his occasional drop-in, ‘just saying hi’ visits to my office most,” said Bailey. “Steve was a good attorney, a great judge and an even better person, and he will be missed by all of us.”
Services for Municipal Court Judge James Stephen Conatser have not yet been announced. Arrangements are under the direction of Arnold Moore & Neekamp Funeral Home in Bartlesville.
Photos used with permission, limited to City Beat/City of Bartlesville