This article was written by Rachel Alexander for the Salem Reporter and was first published on salemreporter.com.
Ken Sherman Jr. is the first to admit that the minutiae of Oregon’s wage garnishment laws don’t make for thrilling conversation.
But for Sherman, 74, making sure laws and rules do what they’re intended to do has been at the center of a decades-long legal career in Salem, whether he was drafting banking regulations or weighing in on policy for one of the many nonprofit boards he’s served on.
“Like a watchmaker fine-tuning an instrument so it keeps something closer to perfect time, it was just trying to make it better,” Sherman said of his legislative work as general counsel for the Oregon Bankers Association.
He retired at the end of 2020 from Sherman Sherman Johnnie & Hoyt, the Salem legal firm where he joined his father, Ken Sherman Sr., in 1974.
Colleagues and friends said Sherman played a pivotal role in shaping many Oregon laws and keeping organizations in Salem running, particularly the Salem Health Board of Trustees, which he’s served on for 30 years.
“He has an incisive mind, but it’s paired with a generous heart. The combination is exactly what you’d want,“ said Kathy Keene, board chair, who’s served for 26 years. She said his “dry wit” sparkles during meetings, and he shares expertise without making newer board members feel stupid for asking questions.
“Everyone respects him because they know he does his homework,” she said. The hospital boardroom bears his name, a recognition of the years both Sherman and his father served.
Sherman is self-effacing and insists he’s had little involvement in many of the projects his colleagues credit him with.
“I think we have one of the finest community hospitals, really in the country. None of that is due to me,” he said. “It’s the best volunteer job in the community, bar none.”
Sherman said he played a “very small role” in drafting the Oregon Bank Act, a landmark piece of legislation that still forms the basis of the state’s regulations for commercial banks.
“That was monumental,” longtime law partner Gina Johnnie said of the act. Sherman still advises her on cases by citing a specific regulation to look at, she said.
As a child in Salem, Sherman said he enjoyed arguing and discussing issues. He competed on debate teams in high school and college. Law seemed an obvious fit for a career.
“I didn’t see that I had any particularly obvious mechanical or other talents,” he said. “I always enjoyed discourse and trying to get to the bottom of issues and figuring out what made sense and what didn’t make sense.”
After graduating from Gonzaga School of Law in Spokane, Sherman returned to Salem to join his father. In 1977, he became counsel for the Bankers Association and soon after helped draft a law to keep customers’ bank records private. He discovered he loved the process.
“Most lawyers find their ultimate challenge is in courtrooms,” he said. “My ultimate challenge was trying to actually put down on paper words that would make rules and laws that we would have to live by.”
Ken Sherman Jr. sits for a portrait in his condo in Downtown Salem on Wednesday, March 24. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
Sherman soon joined the Rotary Club of Salem and began looking for other opportunities to become more involved in Salem life. He said his goal was “to make my world more three dimensional, to get out and learn about other things, not just sit in my office and write contracts and wills.”
Young lawyers at the time had “targets on their backs” for serving on boards, and he was “not very good at saying ‘no,’” he said. By the 1980s, he was involved in too many civic organizations, boards and commissions to count, including a stint as president of the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce.
“I thoroughly enjoyed it,” he said.
In 1989, Sherman was recognized with Salem’s First Citizen award for his civic contributions.
“A lot of times the practice of law in our country, it’s an adversarial situation,” said Tim Nissen, a fellow Rotary member and friend. “Ken’s approach to life is, I think, a much more collaborative one.”
Sherman’s contributions to the organizations he worked for went beyond law.
Johnnie joined the law firm in 1996, looking for a workplace where she could have a child and continue a law career in a field known for poor work-life balance.
Johnnie said Sherman was immediately supportive. She had her daughter a year later and said the girl grew up at the firm.
“I had a bassinet in my office for the first few years,” she said. “Ken has always been an advocate for that and I am so grateful.”
For years, Sherman hosted the annual Oregon Bankers Association Christmas party, cooking for the employees and playing carols on the piano for the group to sing along with.
“I always call him a Renaissance man because he is so multi-talented,” said Linda Navarro, the organization’s president and CEO.
In his retirement, Sherman has been socializing his cat, Maximilian, whom he adopted in August as a six-week old kitten. He swaps cat-rearing notes with Keene, who also has a quarantine adoptee. Sherman said Max has recently learned how to open doors in the downtown condo he shares with his wife, Betsy.
“He kind of runs the place,” he said.
Sherman said he’ll serve out his term on the hospital board before passing the baton to someone else. But he’s still looking for ways to stay active and hopes to study art and architecture.
“I think I’m going to spend part of my time just trying to recreate myself as a student. I think that’s one way you keep young,” he said.