Our Neighbors (Part 1)...Retiring judge had a 'hometown advantage'
A great man once said, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
For retiring Carlton County Judge Dale Wolf, serving in the justice system — here in this state, in this district, and in particular, Carlton County — has been “a true privilege and honor.”
When Judge Wolf walks away from his desk for the last time this Friday, he takes with him 36 years of dedicated service, judicial experience and the hearts and respect of many.
In his years on the bench, Wolf had the enviable experience of being a “hometown boy” who served in the same community where he was born and grew up. And while in many cases the people he tried were too often painfully familiar, along with the justice he doled out came his own unique form wit and wisdom.
Throughout his lifetime, Wolf has remained true to his roots. He grew up on a dairy farm in Wrenshall, moved back there after law school, built a house in part of the family woods and continues to own all of his family’s original farmland today.
“Growing up in rural Wrenshall was a wonderful life,” Wolf reflected. “Dairy farming required hard work — haying and doing daily chores — but after chores and on rainy days we had time to join my cousins fishing for trout. It was fun getting the rest of the farm boys in the neighborhood together after evening chores for baseball, played out in the cow pasture. We only got one ball per year so we always had to cooperate on lining up to find it if it got lost!”
Wolf was also very dedicated to his family and all the things they stood for.
“I had two wonderful parents, both hardworking and trying to eke out a living off the land,” he reminisced. “I had one sibling, my terrific brother, Roger, who was three years older than me. We had planned for years to travel together after I retired, but sadly Roger passed away two years ago. In memory of Roger I chose his birthday, April 11, as my retirement date.”
In Wolf’s eyes, there was no stigma attached to being a part of a working class family. In fact, he had nothing but respect for it.
“We were actually poor but didn’t suffer from it at all or give it much thought, because all of the others around us were in the same boat,” he admitted. “We had limited clothing but knew our folks were doing their best. The four of us all worked as a team. We ate most of our meals together as a family … an important event many families need today. We knew why our bikes were not new ones, but we had unlimited love, an abundance of great food on the farm, and a great gang of friends, along with honest work out in sunshine and clean air.”
In addition his parents, Wolf found mentors in hard-working neighbors such as the Laubach family.
“Back in those days, parents looked out for all the children in the neighborhood, and they all looked out for each other,” he explained. “If we got out of line playing someplace else, we had lots of ‘proxy mothers’ who set all of us straight!”
He also credits many of his school teachers and coaches, Reverend Ahrens and a special Cub Scout den mother, Mrs. Ruth Ezell, for guiding him along the way.
“In Boy Scouts, there were Coral Phelps and Earl Rennquist, who help me and lots of us turn out to be better citizens,” he added. “Kenny Holmes and ‘Kissy’ Veilleux were also wonderful role models, as was our mayor, Hugh Line.”
Wolf attended Wrenshall School and attested to loving every single aspect of it.
“Each subject was a challenge, and in a small school such as Wrenshall you knew everyone and you got lots of personal attention from very invested teachers,” he said. “Evening chores on the farm kept me from most sports, until my junior year when my brother went into the service and dad sold the cows.”
Wolf admits to being “a bit of a ham” even back then, so he loved being in all of the class plays. In high school he and classmate Gale Phelps decided to become entrepreneurs, forming “Promotions Unlimited,” hiring bands and putting on teen dances at the local armories.
“We hired off-duty Cloquet police officers as the bouncers and learned a lot about business,” he admitted. “We worked with WEBC radio for advertising and actually made money putting on the dances. It was a great way to meet girls and get to meet people the radio station was bringing to the Duluth Arena, such as Herman Hermits. I was terribly sick with infected wisdom teeth as a senior and got a get well card from David Crosby, Jim McGuinn and the rest of The Byrds!!! I was proud of that card and kept it for years, but found out one year that my mother ‘straightened out’ my room when I was off in law school. It and my baseball cards were gone!”
Many things about those growing up years contributed to the person that Wolf has become today.
“When I started first grade I saw some fourth-graders one morning chase down and start kicking a mentally challenged student,” he related. “It was before school so there were no adult monitors present. I ran over to pull the one away but the fourth-graders were so much stronger than I was at the time that I was pretty ineffective. I was sickened by what they did and never understood the ‘why.’ But I was also frustrated at myself that I couldn’t do anything. Since then I have tried to figure out why people act in certain ways. I have always been for the underdog — and I guess that explains why I follow the Vikings!” Wolf added with his characteristic dry humor. “I decided to try to be friends with everyone, no matter who they were or where they came from.”
When Wolf graduated from Wrenshall High School in 1966, he never dreamed he would go into law or become a judge. But due to his mother’s insistence from the time he was very young, one thing he did know was that he was going to college — “no ifs, ands or buts!” he said with a laugh.
“I needed money to go to college, so I got work with a contractor for a month before the job was finished,” he said. “Then I went to Litton Industries in Duluth for another month and finally got hired on as a vacation replacement at the paper mill. In my first three months out of high school I had joined three different unions. I soon discovered that often those who labor the hardest get paid the least.”
He said he knew he needed to finish college no matter what, and those three union jobs made him enough money to enroll at the University of Minnesota Duluth that fall. As fate would have it, of the many fellow freshmen there with him were future Attorney General Mike Hatch, as well as Keith Carlson, John Warp and many other future attorneys.
“I entered UMD wanting to continue to promote bands, run a nightclub and restaurant and get a business degree with a minor in communications so I could also be a part-time DJ, promoting my own dances and club,” he admitted. “By my sophomore year I had discovered philosophy and decided that I was going to get a PhD and teach at the college level. In my senior year I finished out some electives in Constitutional Law and then they cut back all of the fellowships to the graduate schools I had chosen to attend to get my PhD.”
At that point his fellow students talked him into taking the Law School Admission Test just as an option, and he can still recall his senior advisor at UMD telling him that one year at law school would be a good holding pattern for him, because whether he went into teaching, business or the armed services, “…having a year of law school on your resume won’t hurt you, Dale.”
So as he headed off for law school, he was not concerned about being able to graduate because he only intended on being there one year, “just to pad my resume,” he explained.
“Instead, I fell in love with the law, law school, and the whole experience with other professionals,” he said.
He needed to work his way through law school and so he got a job as a law clerk with an excellent law firm in Anoka, Babcock, Locher, Neilson & Mannella.
Wolf graduated from William Mitchell Law School in 1974 and was fortunate to receive a very handsome offer from the law firm in Anoka.
“However, my heart was always back up here in this home area,” he said. “My aunt told me about this wonderful, colorful attorney she met named Floyd Rudy and that he was considering hiring a partner. I came up for an interview and my wife and I knew immediately that he and his wife were the people we wanted to be associated with.”
Wolf said that the local law firm grew at an unbelievable rate, with Del Prevost joining them the following year, followed by Dennis Seitz. Within two years they had seven attorneys with offices in Cloquet and Duluth.
Wolf can still remember his first time in the courtroom.
“I vividly recall Floyd running out the door of the office and then stopping and thrusting a file in my hand,” recounted Wolf. “He told me, ‘I have a big meeting in Duluth and we need to prove up this default divorce over in Carlton.’ Before I could ask any questions, his car sped away and I headed over to our courthouse with much trepidation. Judge Don Anderson was on the bench that day and as he looked out over the audience and glanced at his calendar, he saw this new young kid sitting there trying to find a client (I had never met the lady). After dealing with the three matters that were listed before my case on the court docket, he suddenly announced, ‘It’s time we take a short morning recess.’ He left abruptly and within a few minutes the bailiff came over to me and said my presence was requested in chambers. Now I was really nervous, not knowing if I had already done something terribly wrong. Instead the judge graciously offered me a cup of coffee and proceeded to say, ‘I don’t know how they do things down in the Twin Cities, Dale, but up here when you prove up a divorce we like to do [such and such] in this manner.” He laid the whole thing out and when I went out I had an air of confidence and breezed through the hearing. As we stood up to leave, Judge Anderson said, ‘Mrs. Smith, you certainly have a fine, competent lawyer with you today.’
“I never forgot that, and as a judge I have always tried to help new attorneys get through things smoothly,” he summed up. “I never hesitate to praise in public … and scold in private (if needed).”
A few years down the road, Court Administrator Bruce Ahlgren invited Wolf to lunch one day and told him the chief judge was going to appoint a full-time judicial officer to the bench in Carlton. Ahlgren said he got along well with the chief judge and offered to put in a good word for Wolf. A week later, Wolf got a call setting up a meeting with the chief judge, and later he was notified he had been selected for the appointment.
“Being chosen was bittersweet,” he admitted, “because it meant leaving a thriving law firm after only four years and also leaving my great partners at the firm.”
(Editor’s Note: Next week, in Part Two, Judge Dale Wolf will reflect on how his experience as a judge changed his perspective on the justice system — and on life.)