Don’t judge Dennis Wanebo by his black robe—or his pierced ear

By Kerry Parry

Picture a person in a black robe presiding over a courtroom. Wise, knowledgeable, discerning are a few adjectives that may come to mind. Now imagine a guy who plays in a rock ’n’ roll band. You might come up with a different description. Boulder’s Honorable Dennis Wanebo bucks the notion that we are our job titles. He indeed embraces all that you would expect from a judge: smart and passionate about the law. But there is more to Judge Wanebo—something at which his funky glasses and pierced ear might hint.
For one, he’s an incredibly talented singer/songwriter/musician. You can find the guitar player and singer gigging on occasion with his former band, Martian Acres, or playing solo at a bar. You might find him performing at the occasional private party.

Boulder’s Honorable Dennis Wanebo (photos courtesy Dennis Wanebo)

He started, like many kids with musical talent, dreaming about playing in a rock ’n’ roll band. He was smart enough to know that college, especially during the Vietnam era, was a priority. But Wanebo’s young heart was far more interested in music than the drudgery of academia, and his grades soon reflected that. Within three days of Regis University reporting his less-than-stellar academic performance, he received a letter from the government asking him to report for a physical.

“As soon as I got kicked out, LBJ had a job for me,” he says. After passing the physical, Wanebo knew it would be a matter of weeks before he would be drafted, so he joined the Navy. Despite flunking out of college, Wanebo was sharp and tested well. He was placed in a highly secretive program that sent him to Bermuda to track nuclear submarines.

There, ironically, he ended up playing in what Wanebo says was the best rock ’n’ roll band on the island.

Four years in the Navy sobered Wanebo. As for his music? He put away that part of his life and got down to the business of education, career and family. After studying journalism, Wanebo pursued a law degree at CU where he became the editor-in-chief of the CU Law Review. Ultimately, he used his literary skill set to paint a picture for juries where facts are important, but an effective narrative is required for persuasion.

Married with a family, Wanebo steadily built his career becoming chief district attorney and later starting a private practice. But his well-crafted life became derailed when a freak accident changed everything and nearly cost him his life. A racquetball injury landed him in the hospital requiring surgery. There he contracted a mysterious autoimmune disease which attacked his myelin—the insulating coating around the nerve endings. As his doctors struggled to find a diagnosis and treatment, Wanebo began losing his ability to use his hands and his feet. The big risk was that the disease could strike his lungs. In desperation or a giant leap of faith, he ended his treatment with his doctors and pursued a cure through Eastern remedies. A concoction of herbs and crushed bits of black snake were part of a cure that miraculously worked for Wanebo, and he slowly began to regain his health.

During this time of illness and recovery, Wanebo met Bob Story who would become a friend and writing partner. Their work earned the pair airtime on local radio stations such as KBCO as well as accolades from the John Lennon International Songwriter’s award and a nationwide OurStage songwriting competition.

While his music career soared, Wanebo never gave up his love of the judicial system, even as his wife, also a judge, encouraged him to pursue music full-time. Today, he sits on the bench in both Boulder and Westminster, while also teaching Anatomy of a Murder Trial at the Academy for Lifelong Learning, while balancing his love of music. There’s no living in the shadow of his careers, instead he embraces overlapping means of storytelling they offer—despite the apparent dichotomy.