A revered, longtime Lincoln attorney who followed his father into a career in the law and an eventual judgeship, and who briefly served as Lancaster County sheriff, died early Monday.

Sam Van Pelt, 81, had been ill for the past couple of months, diagnosed with congestive heart failure, and had been in the hospital before he moved to hospice three days before his death, his son, Carter Van Pelt, said Wednesday.

"The legal community is very saddened by the loss of Sam Van Pelt. He was a well respected, knowledgeable judge, and we appreciate his many years of service," Chief Justice Michael Heavican said.

In a Facebook post earlier this week, attorney John Stevens Berry Sr. remembered Van Pelt, who was a private attorney, state insurance commissioner, Lancaster County district judge from 1972 to 1983 and Lancaster County Sheriff in 1994.

Perhaps Van Pelt's most famous role in the courtroom came in 1990 when he was appointed special prosecutor for the grand jury that investigated child sex abuse allegations that surfaced after the Franklin Credit Union failed.

"Farewell, old friend," Berry wrote. "With your passing last night the world becomes a little less interesting, a lot less fun."

He said he did jury trials before Sam Van Pelt, a state judge, and his father, Robert Van Pelt, a federal judge for more than 30 years, and he had great respect for them both. 

Trials are serious business, Berry said, but in Sam Van Pelt's courtroom there always was room for a bit of levity, the occasional joke or bit of fun to restore collegiality.

"I always liked Sam's sense of humor. Everybody did," he said, adding that he had an excellent mind and was one of the wittiest people he's known.

Berry said to Sam, life was fun, and it was supposed to be fun.

"I don't think Sam had a mean bone in his body," he said.

When Van Pelt was sheriff in 1994, he liked to ride in the car and wear his badge, but he didn't carry a gun. That just wasn't Sam's style, Berry said.

Lancaster County Sheriff Terry Wagner said Van Pelt agreed to step in as sheriff for eight months that year when Tom Casady left to be Lincoln's chief of police and his replacement resigned a day into the job.

When Wagner was elected that fall, Van Pelt swore him in. Over the years, they stayed in touch.

"He was just a great guy, great mentor," he said. "I'm sorry to hear of his passing."

Bob Sawdon, a longtime friend and colleague, said Van Pelt was just a quality individual and one of the most respected and well-liked guys.

"There's just so darn much that he's done," he said.

After Sawdon's dad, a police detective on the Charles Starkweather case, retired, Van Pelt interviewed him to archive his story.

Carter Van Pelt said his father collected oral histories and was a lifelong Nebraskan and an enthusiast for the state and for regional and local history. 

He called his father's ability to draw out people's stories "exceptional and endearing."

His circle of friends and acquaintances were important to him, Carter Van Pelt said, but his dad's farm near Holland was his life passion. He planted thousands of trees there and enjoyed the country life.

"And I know that gave him a great sense of peace," his son said.

Bill Wieland, a former Lincoln attorney who now lives in Castle Pines, Colorado, said Sam Van Pelt had been his friend since the '60s, when they were in the Army Reserve together and in the '70s when they went goose hunting together.

But, as a judge, he didn't lean things Wieland's way, just because they were friends.

"He dealt with the cases fairly without regard to who the lawyers were and based his decisions on the law and the evidence," Wieland said.

He was just a great guy, Wieland said. "And he will be missed."

A memorial service is planned at 11 a.m. Monday at First Plymouth Church at 2000 D St.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or lpilger@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSpilger.


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