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OUR VIEW: Remembering Judge Yetka

Cloquet lost one of its finest this week when Judge Lawrence R. Yetka died at age 93. A Cloquet native who went on to become a state Supreme Court Justice and, yes, make history, he was easy to talk to, whether you were President Jack Kennedy, a small-town journalist or someone at the gym.

A lot of people in town knew him, but how many knew all that he packed into those 90-plus years of living?

A 2007 Pine Journal story, written when Yetka was named one of the top "100 Most Influential Minnesota Lawyers of All Time," outlined many of his career highlights.

While working as attorney for Seaway Port Authority of Duluth, he successfully helped defend taxpayers in a 1958 lawsuit against construction of the Duluth Marine Terminal. He also served as attorney for the Lake Superior-Cloquet waterline project from 1963-66, which was constructed at a total cost of more than $8.3 million with federal grant funds of more than $4.1 million.

"Through that project alone, I learned the art of diplomacy," he told Pine Journal Editor Lisa Baumann.

He was a state legislator, serving in the Minnesota House of Representatives from 1951-61, and served as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, helping reorganize the state judicial system.

Committees he served on include the Great Lakes Commission, Mississippi Parkway Commission and National Advisory committee on Civil Rights. President Lyndon Johnson appointed Yetka to that committee in 1965.

Gov. Wendell Anderson appointed Yetka to the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1973. He was re-elected in 1974, 1980 and 1986.

Minnesota Law & Politics magazine describes Yetka as "a 20-year state Supreme Court justice who helped transform the courts and made landmark decisions supporting civil rights and the environment."

The same 2007 magazine article quotes a former story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune saying, "Yetka was once called a 'Humphrey with the volume down.'"

"I think he would have made a great governor," said Cloquet historian Joe Peterson.

Even after he retired, Yetka continued his legal work, sitting on the bench each Friday at Carlton County Sixth District Court handling hearings on forfeitures, conciliations and other "junk," as he called it.

He wanted to keep his mind sharp, and relieve the other judges of some of their caseloads.

"I served five terms in the legislature and six years as head of the judiciary," Yetka related on his 90th birthday celebration at the courthouse. "I have had experience at every level of the courts in Minnesota. But I never enjoyed my work quite so much as I did during the 10 years after I returned to Cloquet. Cloquet is my home and my lifetime."

He also served on the Pine Journal advisory board for a time, and was a wonderful resource and constructive critic.

There are so many lessons people could learn from him.

Stay active. Read newspapers. Take time to have fun. Talk to people. Listen. Don't put on airs.

Debate, but don't hate.

It's a lesson that politicians, and regular people, should take to heart.

"When I was active (in government), I was a Democrat and we would fight like hell on the floor, but we'd be able to all go out to dinner afterward," he said. "We never held personal grudges. We didn't play the game of hate. It doesn't work."

Well said. Rest in peace, Judge Yetka.

~ Jana Peterson