Tom and Jim Bice: Fort Dodge brothers believe in ‘paying it forward’

Whether wearing the black robe of a judge, the uniform of a corrections officer or the striped shirt of a sports official, Tom and Jim Bice believe in and practice the term: “Paying it forward.”

The two Fort Dodge brothers, in their work careers and their avocation in officiating high school sports events, have tried to make the world a better place. And along the way, they are more than brothers: they’re close friends.

Their path to work in public service came after successful careers in the commercial sector.

Tom Bice worked as an attorney with the Johnson Law Firm for 36 years before his appointment in 2008 by then-Gov. Chet Culver as a district court judge. He moved to senior judge status in April 2019 when he turned 72 (the mandatory age for judicial retirement) and continues on the bench with a reduced caseload.

“I was a partner during my years with the Johnson firm,” he said. “I loved the work and loved those people, but I had the attitude that it was time to give back and I saw the judiciary as providing that opportunity. I am very thankful I made the change.”

Jim Bice first worked with the Mead Corp., then First Federal Savings and Loan and then in property casualty insurance before he joined the staff of the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility in 2000. He retired Jan. 27 after 22 years of service.

“I enjoyed banking and insurance work and believe I did well in it,” he said, “but work at the prison was a chance to maybe change some lives. I was blessed that it came when it did. I liked it. I hope we changed at least a few lives.”

Was there a correlation with their jobs as a judge and correctional officer?

“We have saved some souls,” Tom said. “I’ve had a lot of people in criminal court who are in tough circumstances and they’re in trouble. We have had cases where people come out and they become good citizens. Those are the ones we care about. We want people to become good citizens, good family members, good parents.”

Jim said, “Through my years at the correctional facility, I would have an inmate ask me, ‘Isn’t your brother the judge…hey, he was my judge.’ I would ask, how’d he treat you, how was it? Every one of them said he was fair.

“When I get guys at the prison who completed their sentence and they’re picked up by relatives and leaving, I shake his hand and say, ‘Hey Smitty, I never want to see you here again.'”

Sports was a big part of the brothers’ lives from the time they started in Little League baseball as kids (Tom played for the Moose Midgets, Jim for Martin Flag). They both competed in sports at FDSH and later became high school football and basketball officials. Tom has retired from officiating, but Jim – who had been known by inmates at the correctional facility as “Ref” – continues to work as an official for football and for boys and girls basketball. He’s officiated since 1991 – nearly half of his life.

He and fellow official Marlo Branderhorst began officiating girls games back in the days of 6-on-6 competition and estimates that the two have officiated at least 2,500 basketball games, including post-season. Jim has also teamed with Randy Lohmeier.

“Tom and I have often said that if you can survive a number of years being a sports official, you can do a lot of jobs,” Jim said. “It takes people skills, patience, understanding and willingness to listen, and you’ve got to be a good communicator. My favorite comeback when someone in the stands complains about a call: ‘You need to come out here and try this sometime.'”

The Bices teamed for 25 years with a football officiating crew that included Terry Carson, Terry Paulson, Marlo Branderhorst, Mark Johnson and Mike Parry. They worked primarily in the Central Iowa Metro League and officiated about 700 games over that period.

“Tom and Jim Bice are Fort Dodge personified,” said Eric Pratt, sports editor of The Messenger. “Their passion for making our community a better place through decades of professional and personal loyalty is something I have always admired and tried to emulate now that we are raising a family of our own here.

“From years of work with the Webster County I-Club group through supporting athletics and activities as officials, the Bice name had always been synonymous with involvement and action. They are a critical reason why Fort Dodge continues to stand as a central Iowa pillar; their commitment has made it a stronger, safer place to live.”

Pratt said Tom’s son Andrew was his best friend growing up and that “Tom was like a second father to me.”

The Bice brothers and their sisters, Jane and Sally, are third-generation Fort Dodgers. Their grandfather, John Bice, was assistant principal at Fort Dodge Senior High and assistant football coach under head coach Fred N. Cooper. In one of life’s ironies, Fort Dodge attorney Neven Mulholland is the grandson of Cooper (the N stands for Neven in Cooper’s name) and Tom Bice and Neven worked together at the Johnson Law Firm, where Neven still practices.

Jane lives in Naples, Fla., with her husband, Rich Borchers, and Sally lives with her daughter in West Des Moines. Sally’s husband Bill Oster died in 2020. Like their brothers, Jane and Sally are Iowa graduates.

Their father, John, and Walter “Woody” Woodman started Woodman Electric just after World War II and were partners in the business for 34 years. John served with the Army Air Corps during the war. At FDSH, one of his teammates was Ed Bock, who went on to play at Iowa State. Their mother Juanita (Shearer) was an Iowa graduate who taught high school English in Fort Dodge while raising family. John Bice died in 1994 at the age of 78 and Juanita Bice died in 2004 at the age of 88.

The Bice home, across 10th Avenue North from Dodger Stadium, was a popular place to hang out for friends of the four Bice kids during their growing-up years.

“I was the older brother and friends like Tommy Goodman and Billy Goodman, Fred Moeller and Mark Watt would be over all the time,” Tom said. “Jimmy was always the little brother. We loved having him around. We grew closer as we got back to Fort Dodge and had our families.”

Bill Goodman, who lives in Minneapolis and played professional baseball before becoming a business executive, said his life was enrichened by the Bice family and other Fort Dodge families.

“The Bice family, without any expectation of reward, showed a lonely kid the grace and honor of friendship,” he said. “Some of these moments included offering meals and housing on snowy Iowa winter days when getting from the high school to home was difficult; displaying confidences in my abilities by supporting my dreams with words of kindness; solid friendships.

“The successes of Tom and Jim are no surprise to me in any fashion. The humanity, love of people and support of the Fort Dodge community is a foundation of the Bice family’s DNA. A DNA created by a family founded by their mother and father. The enrichment given to me has allowed another generation of Goodmans to support their communities as a corporate executive, an attorney, a nurse and MLB staff member with the Tampa Bay Rays baseball club.

For the Bice’s moments of value, me and my family will forever be in their debt.”

The Bice home continued to be a hangout for Jim’s closer friends and classmates after Tom went off to college – among them, Scott Harty, Dick Williams, Dave Morrow, Kirk Fieseler, Scott Anderson and Randy Kiliper.

Tom and his wife Martha met at the University of Iowa (where she is also a graduate) and were married June 27, 1970. Tom earned his law degree at Drake University and Martha taught at Butler School for a time after they moved to Fort Dodge in 1972, They have two children, Laura and Andrew. Laura lives in Chicago with her husband Michael Paul and their two children, Michael Jr. and Juliette. Laura is an attorney who works for the U.S. Department of Education and Michael is a Chicago police officer. Andrew lives in West Des Moines with his wife Jodie and their children, Stella and Nylah. He works for an insurance holding company.

Jim’s wife, Donna, works for the City of Fort Dodge as purchasing department coordinator. They have two sons, Johnny, in his first year of dental school at Iowa, and Nick, a sophomore in pre-med at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. Both starred in football at FDSH. Johnny played quarterback at Macalester and Nick is a tight end.

“Truly, most officials have very supportive, strong spouses behind them,” Jim said of his wife Donna and Tom’s wife Martha.

With Tom, 74, working a reduced caseload and Jim, 68, retired (although he said he may work part-time at the facility in the future), the brothers have more time to pursue their other interests – among them, fishing, golfing and attending auto races.

“There’s hardly a fishing outing that I don’t whip him,” Jim said. “Not a time we don’t have a contest. Those fish we caught seem to grow a lot longer with time. We take both sons with us sometimes – you can’t beat it, great times! I think our kids learn more out on a boat with us than in any classroom. My dad always called it ‘street sense.’ My father and mom had a lot of street sense.”

Tom agreed: “Street sense served us both well in our jobs. We understand people, are fair and firm, and try to be consistent with our dealings with people.”


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today