No Lights, No Camera, Just Action, for Mile-High Alumna Fay Matsukage
There isn’t yet a movie about Fay Matsukage’s life. But if there were, the opening scene might feature an electric orange car easing down the I-25 corridor or a law student sneaking into the City and County Building to watch trials when she should have been in class. A more adventurous opening sequence might pan across the open skies, ultimately revealing Matsukage freefalling in a tandem skydive.
It would be an enthralling film. It’s also unlikely to materialize. The ever-humble Matsukage, JD’79, will tell you that she doesn’t like to self-promote. “I’m so used to flying under the radar,” she mused (no skydiving puns intended).
A Desire to Give Back
Matsukage moves through life with the quiet strength of a tested leader and the lightness of someone whose humor and generosity prevail over past hardship.
Those who have worked with Matsukage in her numerous roles, from chair of the Sturm College of Law’s Alumni Council to treasurer of the Colorado Asian Pacific American Bar Foundation, may not realize that she almost had to drop out of law school.
“The only reason I was able to finish law school is I got hired on as the dean’s assistant,” she recalled.
“My dad during my first year lost everything. I was about ready to pack up and go home. But then there was a posting for this job for the dean’s assistant, and the pay was a tuition waiver plus a living stipend. The living stipend was modest, but I am great at pinching pennies. So that’s what kept me in law school.”
That’s also the driving force behind Matsukage’s desire to give back to her alma mater. From serving on the Alumni Council to collaborating with student organizations and mentoring aspiring lawyers, Matsukage has given more to the law school than could ever have been expected.
With respect to being an alumna, “It’s something I didn’t realize for a while. You take it for granted.” But, when she started to reflect, it was the Denver Law community – of which she is now such an integral part – that supported Matsukage when she needed it most.
Seeing the World Through Someone Else’s Eyes
Matsukage’s impact extends far beyond the Sturm College of Law. She also invests her time and energy into the broader community – something that earned her induction into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. It’s also something that she has done since she was a law student.
“I remember doing a legal aid externship. I got to work with some amazing people while I was at DU. Just doing that, you start to realize there are a lot of people that aren’t even able to figure out how they’re feeding their family for the rest of the week. When you see the world through someone else’s eyes, it really opens it up.”
Experiences like this externship – and observing her own family’s struggles – have informed Matsukage’s philosophy on personal and professional success.
With respect to her own family, Matsukage recalled, “I went back home [to Hawaii] and had to sign my parents up for welfare because the hospital would not accept my dad as a patient unless he was a state Medicaid recipient. I saw my dad go from being an entrepreneur and doing things – he was a real estate developer, he was developing apartment buildings – to signing him up for welfare.”
Unsurprisingly, Matsukage’s current work at Doida Crow Legal supports entrepreneurs like her father in raising capital and crowd funding. Her work with organizations like Denver’s Asian Pacific Development Center supports immigrant and refugee communities. Their stories mirror those of the people Matsukage helped in her externship more than four decades ago.
In her first job out of law school, Matsukage made less than the head attorney’s secretary.
“I interviewed with some of the 17th Street firms. Back then, diversity was not a thing. So I did not get an offer from any 17th Street firm. I did not fit their idea of what an attorney looked like. And so I got hired with a small firm in Cherry Creek.” She made $16,000 a year.
Forty-three years later, Matsukage will soon receive the Colorado Bar Association’s highest award, the Award of Merit.
“Have you ever looked at the list of names of the prior recipients?” she asked. “These are all the people who are the giants of the legal profession in Colorado. And, you think, why is it me?”
There are a multitude of responses to Matsukage’s question. It is clear to anyone who has spent any time with Matsukage that she is deserving of this honor.
Perhaps the best way to summarize why her is Matsukage’s own definition of success: “I think success, for a lot of people, is being able to use the particular gifts or skillsets that you have and feel that you’re doing something useful with them.”
Matsukage’s gifts are endless, her talents many. Her joy is contagious, her sense of adventure boundless. And while her humility may forestall a movie about her life, Matsukage will forever be known as an orange car-driving, plane-jumping, Denver Law-loving titan of the legal profession.