By GARY DEMUTH, Salina Journal
SALINA, Kan. — When Connie Achterberg started practicing law more than 60 years ago, there were very few female attorneys.
While attending the University of Kansas in the early 1950s, Achterberg often would pass a group of underclassmen sitting on the stoop of the campus law school building.
As female students would walk by, the boys would wolf whistle and make suggestive comments. When young Achterberg walked toward the building, however, they kept their mouths shut and greeted her with respect.
“They let me go through without exhibiting such behavior,” she said. “I didn’t feel put-upon by the boys there. They treated me well.”
The respect was well-earned. At that time, Achterberg was only one of three women enrolled in her class at the University of Kansas School of Law. This was during a period when most women became homemakers instead of professionals, and the law profession was primarily a boy’s club.
Yet Achterberg was able to turn her devotion to the law into a career spanning more than 60 years, first as an attorney for the Kansas Highway Commission and since 1959 in private practice in Salina.
When Achterberg first moved to Salina to open a law office, there were no other female attorneys. Now, she said, Salina has at least 20. Achterberg’s own law firm, Achterberg, Angell & Craft, has three: herself, Samantha Angell and Catherine Craft.
“Having an all-female law firm makes me very happy,” Achterberg said.
At age 85, Achterberg no longer has to work, but she continues to come to the office nearly every day and some Saturdays, where she helps clients with estate planning, probate matters and business, tax and real estate laws.
“I still work a full day,” she said. “I like doing this, and I don’t know what else I would do with my days. You can only sit home and read so much.”
Achterberg believes she provides a valuable service for clients during an often stressful and emotional time of their lives.
“By the nature of the work I do, I do a lot of work with older people,” she said. “By this time, I’ve worked with multiple generations. They can trust me, or they wouldn’t be here.”
During her long career, Achterberg has won numerous awards for her contributions to the legal profession. She was the first recipient of the Kansas Bar Association’s Professionalism Award and received its Distinguished Service Award. She also was the first woman to receive the Distinguished Alumna Award from the University of Kansas School of Law.
Achterberg was born in Grand Island, Nebraska, and grew up on a farm near Lincoln, Kansas. She developed an early interest in the law from her father, who farmed and worked for Northern Natural Gas, where he wrote contracts and purchased land for pipelines.
“That perked my interest in the law, but I hadn’t really settled on it,” Achterberg said. “There weren’t many female lawyers around at that time.”
Achterberg graduated from Northwestern University in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. In 1953, she earned a law degree at KU.
After graduation, Achterberg was hired as an attorney by the Kansas Highway Commission. During the formative years of the Interstate highway system championed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Achterberg spent four years traveling throughout the state trying cases on behalf of the commission.
Although Achterberg said she loved that job, after four years she wanted to settle in one place and open a general practice.
“I settled in Salina because it was close to home, and the highway commission told me if I came here, they would send some local cases for me to work on,” Achterberg said.
Achterberg opened her first law office in Salina just across the street from her present office at 110 S. Seventh. She rented an upstairs space from Salinan Bob Frederick, who owned an abstract company downstairs.
For the first few years of her practice, securing new clients was not easy, especially for a female attorney. When Achterberg joined the American Association of University Women, she said it helped jump-start her career.
“Many of these women were from western Kansas, and a number of them wanted to go to a woman lawyer,” Achterberg said. “They helped me a lot in those days. People usually went to male lawyers, so it would have been hard to get started otherwise.”
Achterberg tried court-appointed criminal cases but didn’t like that area of the law. Her specialty became estate law, where she helped children with their parents’ estates and “did a few tax returns when tax season was around.”
“I felt it was a useful service, and I liked to do it,” she said.
Achterberg said she got along well with the male lawyers in town — in fact, she ended up marrying one: C.L. Clark, of the law firm Clark, Mize & Linville, in 1972. Clark died in 2004. The couple had no children.
After about 20 years on her own, Achterberg partnered professionally with another local attorney, Pat Neustrom, to found the firm Achterberg & Neustrom.
Neustrom said he and Achterberg were partners for 28 years and still own the building together. Neustrom now has his own firm, Neustrom & Associates.
Neustrom said Achterberg is a true pioneer for women attorneys in the state.
“She is a good lawyer, with high character,” Neustrom said. “She creates relationships with her clients and takes care of them. There’s about 2,000 people she sends Christmas cards to that she remembers.”
During her long career, Achterberg was Saline County counselor from 1973 to 1988 and was appointed to the Board of Governors for the Kansas University Law Society from 1994 to 1997. She is a member of the Saline/Ottawa County Bar Association, Kansas Bar Association and Kansas Bar Foundation. From 1992 to 1994, she served on the Kansas Supreme Court Nominating Committee.
Achterberg’s office has been in three different locations in the same South Seventh building, the last at the far north end of the building.
“There’s no place else we can go except the parking lot,” she said.
Angell was hired by Achterberg in early 2000, soon after Angell graduated from Washburn University in Topeka. When Angell became a full partner in early 2005, the firm’s name was changed to Achterberg & Angell. Craft was added as a partner in 2014.
“I had known a little bit about Connie through a retired Kansas Supreme Court justice, Harold Herd, who was a professor at Washburn,” Angell said. “He told me I couldn’t find a better mentor than Connie.”
Angell said Achterberg has been a role model for her and other female — and male — attorneys through the years.
“In the 15 years I’ve worked with her, I’ve never heard her say a disparaging thing about anyone,” Angell said. “Whether it’s a client, a judge or another attorney, she never takes anything personally.”
Angell said she admires Achterberg for being the lone female attorney in Salina until attorney Karen Black moved to town a few years after Achterberg.
“She paved the way for the rest of us, but not in a way that was loud or obnoxious,” Angell said. “She came here, did her job and mentored other female attorneys. She made it easier for all of us.”
While Achterberg realizes she’s been practicing law for more than 60 years, she doesn’t feel any need to retire.
“It seems almost like yesterday that I started,” she said. “I’m called a female pioneer in law in the state, but I didn’t think of myself as that at the time. I was just doing a job.”
This story was distributed by the Associated Press Member Exchange.