Bill Shaneyfelt’s desk is immaculate.
It’s a reflection of an office put in order; law books and references finely shelved, a few prints and a clock hung on the wall, two chairs for visitors, and a clean desk bathed in pleasant light coming through the two windows of the corner office in the older home housing the Shaneyfelt and Bohnenkemper Law Offices on Clay Street.
The desk’s apparent unbusyness reflects its owner’s years of experience. The acquired wisdom of more than 40 years of advising his clients and guiding them through major and minor decisions.
“I have found that having an orderly desk allows me to stay focused,” he explained. “Not to mention avoiding the lost time searching for things.”
Bill is retiring after practicing municipal law for the past 41 years. He’s served the Towns of Ferdinand and Cannelton as well as the Jasper Public and Dubois County Contractual Library boards for many of those years.
In retrospect, this work, this life and this location seem fateful for Bill. The further back he goes in his personal history, the more things fall in line to bring him to this place in his life.
His parents were working class folks in Huntington and Bill’s mother demanded her children go to college. “That was nonnegotiable,” Bill said.
With a working class paycheck though, college was limited. However, Bill’s father was a veteran and had received a slight disability rating that afforded his children a discounted rate at the four state colleges in Indiana at the time.
“We did not have the resources to go to a private school,” Bill explained.
Looking at the four options, Bill felt he would be lost at Indiana University; he didn’t want to go to Purdue because he thought that it was only good for students wanting to be engineers and farmers; Ball State was off the list since it was too close to home and he thought his parents would visit every weekend.
Then he had a chance to visit Indiana State through a contest with the American Legion, Boys State. “There was only one student from my class that could go to Boy’s State from my school because of how small we were,” he said.
He was chosen and during the visit, Bill immediately thought this was the place for him. “It was a great size and it was affordable,” he explained.
He headed off to Indiana State and while it was no problem for many of his classmates to get rides home to Southern Indiana, Bill could barely find a ride back north to Huntington. He also didn’t know many of the towns in Southern Indiana.
“I’d never heard of Jasper,” Bill said.
While he was in high school in Huntington, there was a meat packing plant that put out an annual wall calendar that had every high school in the state listed on it. “My brothers and I would be reading the names on there,” Bill said. “We’d be laughing. Loo-guh-tee, what kind of name is that? Oolitic, where is that?”
Jasper had a reputation among his classmates at Indiana State though. Whenever the name came up, there would be this collective groan in the room, according to Bill. “I thought it must be a town full of (jerks),” he laughed. “I just kinda wanted to visit based on their reactions.”
The Jasper intensity, pride and work ethic sometimes don’t play well with those outside the area. Little did he know at the time but these many years later, he’s grown to appreciate and love it.
While at Indiana State, he met Linda Lueken, a Ferdinand native who became his wife. She was attending Indiana State working on a degree in teaching specializing in mathematics.
Bill started to really appreciate the area when he and Linda got married in Ferdinand in 1975. That summer, they stayed in Dubois County and Bill worked with Joe Verkamp’s law practice.
They headed off to Detroit where Bill was completing law school at the Detroit College of Law — now the Michigan State University School of Law — and in his final year, Bill received an invitation to join Verkamp’s practice.
Norb Schneider (Phil Schneider’s dad) had passed away and Verkamp needed someone to replace him.
Linda was against moving back home. “She was like, ‘I lived there my whole life, I don’t want to go back,’” Bill explained.
But they moved back in 1977.
“It had a good vibe when I interned down here; loved the beauty and loved the people,” Bill said.
For Bill, that move has been one of the best decisions of his life. Linda even agrees these days.
Although he had the offer for the position, Bill was concerned about the difficulty of passing the Indiana Bar after attending law school out of state. “I enacted an agreement with him (Verkamp) that I could fail the exam once and still have another crack at it,” he laughed. “Fortunately, I didn’t have to take him up on it.”
His first client was the Dubois County Prosecutor’s Office Child Support Division, an area he still manages for the county. One that he will continue to operate as well because Linda thinks he’ll need the activity to stay sharp. It’s a somewhat focused position that requires he file and enforce child support orders.
In 1979, Bill became the Town of Ferdinand’s attorney when Verkamp was elected Dubois County Circuit Court Judge. Bill was expected to fill the position since Bill Lett and Phil Schneider were already handling Huntingburg’s attorney needs.
So he took the town on and there he stayed until the end of 2018 when he announced his retirement.
“If you will, being offered the Ferdinand job and the child support job established my law career,” Bill said. “But I was just an associate in the practice and if I was told to do it, I did it.”
With the appointment to Ferdinand, Bill began specializing in municipal law which at times can mean dealing with multiple areas of law including human resources, municipal ordinances, state law and bond issues. All areas in which Bill became well versed over the years.
At times, being the municipal attorney also puts in you in the limelight. “When you handle something for the public, the result is out there for the whole public to see,” Bill said.
And sometimes, when you are in the public eye, you become the focus of the story. “Sometimes I open my mouth without thinking first,” Bill said. “The older I’ve gotten the easier it happens but even in my early years it sometimes happened.”
Opening his mouth without thinking earned Bill a nickname in the Ferdinand News satire column B. Spreader early in his career.
The meetings at the time apparently had little that resembled a set agenda and the council members would discuss matters as items popped up. Sometimes, this led to meetings going for hours into the evening.
At one such late meeting, Town Board President Bob Schuler, who was on the board from 1976 to 1984, arbitrarily told the attending media to put something out to the public about flushing rags down the toilet.
“I responded, ‘Bob, how big of
For a few years after that, Bill became known as the “Young, Dumb Attorney Billy Rags” in the B. Spreader column. Those columns are reprinted regularly so the nickname may return at times.
For Bill, municipal law means giving legal advice not commenting on public policy. A benefit of municipal law is that problems arise on a cyclical scale. Bill estimates at least every five years he’ll hear an issue that has been recycled time and time again. Usually, unless there’s been a change in
“A great instance of this that comes up periodically is the difference between a public nuisance and a private nuisance,” he explained.
Private nuisances aren’t regulated and the town won’t help an offended neighbor with their legal defense. Public nuisances are regulated by ordinance.
His continuity as the council’s counsel carries that wisdom through elections as new people become town leaders. This tends to bring up other legal issues that have to be addressed as newly elected officials become acquainted with their new public positions.
“A big one is Indiana Open Door Law,” Bill explained. “I’ll get asked about whether they (council) can have a private meeting about something and I’ll have to explain no they can’t.”
Through the years, Bill’s position as the town’s attorney hasn’t been guaranteed. With new members being elected into office come new ideas and maybe even some misconceptions about Bill’s service.
“At first some people might come in thinking Bill Shaneyfelt’s an arrogant guy but I think they all eventually realize that I have the client’s (municipality’s) best interest in mind,” he explained. “They realize I have their back. I am advising them in their best interest.”
After advising so many councils and boards for so many years on top of his private practice, Bill finally feels it’s time to settle down a bit. He doesn’t necessarily look forward to coming into the office each day and for him, this means it’s time to hand over the reins.
With the free time, Bill and Linda plan on heading to Phlugerville — a city near Austin, Texas (another interesting name) — where their daughter Kara lives with her husband Dinh Danh and their son Oliver. Bill also plans on diving into more books; he’s got an affinity for histories.
“I feel truly blessed,” Bill said. “I feel like all the critical decision in my life have worked out well. I’ve been steered the right way. I’ve been blessed with the wife I have; blessed with my daughter and grandchild; and been blessed with working around here. All the important things have gone my way.”