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Forty Years Strong

Louis Diesel, left, Whitney Cunningham, center, and Fritz Aspey stand outside the Aspey, Watkins and Diesel Law offices Wednesday. Diesel and Aspey are two of the three founding partners of the firm and Cunningham is also a partner in the firm, which celebrated its 40th anniversary July 10th.

In the last 40 years, Aspey, Watkins & Diesel has grown from a three-man law firm tucked into the basement of the Masonic Temple in downtown Flagstaff to one of the largest law firms in northern Arizona.

The firm, most commonly known by its initials, AWD, was started by three classmates in 1975.

“We all went to school together,” said Louis Diesel. “Fritz (Aspey) had the genius to start the law firm.”

The three had just graduated from law school and were looking to step out on their own. They quit their jobs at other law firms and moved back to Flagstaff to start their own firm.

“But the bank wouldn’t loan us money because we had quit our jobs,” Diesel said. “We had to borrow based on our wives’ salaries because they were the only ones who had jobs, according to the bank.”

The three were able to get enough money to open three tiny offices in the basement of the Masonic Temple in downtown Flagstaff, right across the street from the Coconino County Courthouse.

“If you went down there now you’d still see the three offices with the 99-cent paneling on the wall,” Diesel said.

One of their first clients was Coconino County. The trio locked in a contract with the county to handle every single public defense case for $40,000 per year. The first year they had 400 cases. It wasn’t long before they were able to move into a larger downtown office.

“We settled on Aspey, Watkins & Diesel because we wanted to be listed first in the phone book. We got a lot of calls asking if we fixed trucks,” Aspey said. “We just kept doing what we’ve always done and built the business case by case.”

Back then, Diesel said, downtown Flagstaff was not the place to be. It was a rough, rundown area where few respectable people went.

“In '70s and '80s, you didn’t let the sun set on you while you were downtown,” he said. “We thought that was wrong.”

In 1989, the firm bought their current offices on North San Francisco Street from Steve VanLandingham.

“It was Lou’s idea to acquire the building,” Aspey said. “It was a vacant warehouse.”

The building was built in 1915 as the original Babbitt Ford garage. Babbitt was one of the first Flagstaff families to own a car dealership in town. The garage sold cars on the first floor, repaired them on the second floor and had storage on the third. The firm found remnants of the freight elevator used to bring the cars to the second floor when they renovated the building in the 1980s.

The purchase of the building was a bit of a leap of faith, Aspey said. They didn’t have any tenants signed up when they purchased the large building, but it wasn’t long before the federal courts came knocking looking for a new home. The federal magistrate's court now takes up the lower half of the building.

“It was Lou’s vision to renovate the building and bring it back to what it had looked like at the turn of the century,” Aspey said.

“It was actually part of our agreement with Van Landingham,” Diesel said. “I like to think that we jump-started the renovation of downtown.”

The firm was involved in the first improvement district to revitalize the downtown area, he said. That improvement district was able to install new brick sidewalks and create curb cuts to slow traffic in the downtown area. It also created Heritage Square.

AWD is also part of the new Flagstaff Downtown Business Improvement District that was formed last year. That district hopes to attract more events to the downtown area and tackle problems such as litter and parking.

The firm also helped pay for the original administrative offices in NAU’s Walkup Skydome, said Whitney Cunningham, who took the place of Harold Watkins when he retired. The school had enough funding to build the dome and the stadium but didn’t have enough to finish the offices.

“That relationship continues to this day,” he said.

A sense of community and belonging to Flagstaff has always been a big part of the firm’s mission, Diesel said.

As the community has grown, so has the firm, which now offers legal assistance in personal injury, bankruptcy, family law, civil law, business law, real estate, estate planning and immigration matters. It also still offers criminal defense services.

The firm is known for two major cases involving Flagstaff Unified School District.

The first was in 1995, when the parents of Leupp Public School sued the district for not adequately funding or maintaining the school. The lawsuit was settled in 1998 and required the district to  upgrade the school and look at the possibility of building a high school near Leupp.

The other lawsuit involving FUSD was a rollover bus crash on the first day of school in 1996. Two of the 30 students riding the bus that day had severe injuries -- one had head injuries and another became a quadriplegic before his death in 2006.

The school district settled the lawsuit out of court for $28 million, but only had $10 million in insurance. A sizable share also went to AWD, and the district had to go to voters for a bond to pay the remaining $18 million.

The money went to help support the children who were injured in the accident, Cunningham said.

“That’s the point of a law firm. We’re here to help people who can’t or don’t know how to help themselves,” he said.

The reporter can be reached at sadams@azdailysun.com or (928)556-2253.

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Education/Business Reporter

Suzanne writes about education and business. She covers the local school district, charter schools and Northern Arizona University. She also writes the Sunday business features.

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