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Service Beyond Measure Justice Gerald VandeWalle is the longest-serving Chief Justice of any state Supreme Court in the nation. Now, at age 86, he has stepped down as Chief – but continues to serve the Court.

By Leanna Ihry, '02

Photos by Sam Melquist

For North Dakota Supreme Court Justice Jerry VandeWalle, ’55, ’58, HON ’15, the Capitol in Bismarck is home away from home. After all, it is where he has spent most his time for the last six decades. First, in the North Dakota Attorney General’s office; later, as a justice on the North Dakota Supreme Court; and, eventually, from 1993 on as Chief Justice on the Court. Justice VandeWalle stepped down as Chief in December, but continues to serve on the Court at the wise age of 86.

Knowing each nook and cranny of the capital building like the back of his hand, Justice VandeWalle leads us on a tour down the long and spacious sunlit hallways. He smiles and says, “hello” to almost everyone he meets ─ knowing most by their first names. He is intentional and genuine with his actions and words, displaying a true and thoughtful interest in others. He leads us up a staircase to the second floor of the building where we enter a beautiful historical courtroom. This, he explains, is where the Supreme Court convened years ago. He’s a bit nostalgic as he looks around the room filled with reminders of hearings and decisions passed. It’s the courtroom where he first began to serve behind the bench in 1978.

As we sit down to visit about his days as a young boy growing up in Noonan, North Dakota, his time at the University of North Dakota School of Law and his significant career of service to the state, it’s evident that the milestones in Justice VandeWalle’s life are abundant.

His life of humble beginnings, honesty, dedication and honor go far beyond his title.

Humble beginnings

Becoming a lawyer wasn’t an aspiration for young Jerry. In fact, he explains that he was most content with his nose buried in one of his mother’s books. The youngest of two boys, his father was a dairy farmer. “Those cows sent me to school in more ways than one,” he remarked.

The college he chose was UND ─ not for any reason ─ other than he wanted to attend a large school and two of his high school classmates from his class of 10 were also attending. Upon enrolling at UND, Jerry chose to major in accounting, and that is when he eventually felt the “spark” to attend law school. “I took a business law class from Louie Kulas during my third year of college and it just clicked. Good professors can make all the difference in the world,” he said.

“Taking an issue and reading and reviewing and resolving ─ law school was a snap compared to accounting,” he smiled.

Justice VandeWalle graduated first in his UND Law class of 1958, and after admission to the bar that July, he joined the North Dakota Attorney General’s office ─ officially beginning his long and prolific career of service. “My education at the UND School of Law really provided me with the solid education I needed to jumpstart my career. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for UND,” he said.

Honesty

Upon sitting down to visit with Justice VandeWalle, it’s evident that he cares about people. “Would you like a cup of coffee?” he asks. “Tell me about yourself.”

He has a demeanor that puts one at ease ─ perhaps not a typical stereotype for a judge, but, Justice VandeWalle’s accomplishments are anything but typical.

Since becoming a fixture at the North Dakota State Capitol in 1958, Justice VandeWalle’s career of public service has remained unmatched; rising from Special Assistant to the Attorney General to First Assistant Attorney General to the beginning of his judicial career in 1978.

Applying for the Supreme Court wasn’t a decision he took lightly, as he really enjoyed his role in the AG’s office. But some gentle nudging from a few friends motivated him to throw his name in the hat. “There was an opening [for a Supreme Court Justice] and I wasn’t sure if I was going to apply, but at the time I was a master bridge player and four of us would travel around together. They pushed me and threatened me [laughter] so I went home and applied. And, here we are 42 years later,” he explained.

Justice VandeWalle was elected as Chief Justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court in 1993 and re-elected for five subsequent terms, making him the longest-serving Chief Justice in the nation before handing over the gavel to fellow UND School of Law alumnus Jon Jensen, ’93, on December 31, 2019. VandeWalle explains that his longevity proved to be an asset time and time again. “You start on these projects and there is big hoopla and then one is forgotten. But, you see, that doesn’t work well with me. That’s the advantage of having a long-term chief justice. I was able to see a lot of projects and issues to their fruition.”

When asked why he believes he was successful as a chief justice for 27 years, his answer is simple. “If I have done one thing in my life to be successful it’s been being smart enough to surround myself with good people.”

Dedication and honor

Though VandeWalle has stepped down as Chief Justice, he has no plans of leaving the North Dakota Supreme Court. “I am not retiring, though I am more than old enough to retire,” he laughed.

“I have four years and 11 months on my term. It’s day by day. I promised myself when I can no longer do it, I will leave. It’s been an honor and a privilege to serve the state and I’m surprised at the gratitude I’ve received when I should be thanking the people for allowing me to do it,” VandeWalle said.

In February, Justice VandeWalle was honored for his years of service to both the University of North Dakota as well as the state and nation at a special ceremony at the Heritage Center in Bismarck. Hundreds of people including VandeWalle’s colleagues, friends and family came to say thank you to the distinguished judge.

UND School of Law Dean Michael McGinniss spoke of Justice VandeWalle’s unwavering support of UND Law. “I cannot begin to adequately recount the many ways in which he has generously contributed his time and talents to the law school. Each year, I have witnessed his devotion to spending time with our students through classroom visits and other presentations …. He has also been an extraordinary advocate for the School of Law and its pivotal importance for our state as a critical resource for educating its future lawyers and judges.”

In a heartfelt special announcement, Dean McGinniss continued, “And it is my pleasure to announce, in gratitude for all that he has done in service to the State of North Dakota and its law school, the University of North Dakota will rename that beautiful courtroom [large, traditional-style courtroom on the third floor of the School of Law] to honor Justice VandeWalle. It is a recognition that is most fitting, and so greatly deserved.”

An emotional and humbled Justice VandeWalle wiped tears from his eyes as the crowd rose to their feet in applause.

A second award was presented to VandeWalle by UND Interim President Joshua Wynne, who thanked the Justice for his service to the state, the University and his love for his alma mater by presenting him with UND President’s Medal; the highest honor the University can confer.

Last but not least, UND Alumni Association and Foundation Chief Executive Office DeAnna Carlson Zink, ’86, surprised the Honorable VandeWalle with the Spirit Award from the UND Alumni Association & Foundation. “We have a name for those whose vision, tenacity and service has made this University the exceptional institution that it is today. We call them UND heroes, and we are honored this evening to add your name to the list of Spirit Award recipients and recognize you for being a UND hero,” Zink stated.

VandeWalle reflected on the evening and stated, “That was really a highlight of my career and my life. I had no clue I was getting those awards.”

At the Distinguished Alumni Social event held in his honor, Justice Jerry VandeWalle, ’55, ’58, HON ’15, speaks to guests Feb. 4 at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck.

In addition to the noted accolades, Justice VandeWalle also received The Sioux Award from the UND Alumni Association & Foundation in 1992; the North Dakota State Bar Association’s Distinguished Service Award in 1998; and in 2015 he was the 42nd recipient of the North Dakota Theodore Roosevelt Roughrider Award; University of North Dakota Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters and, in 2016, University of Mary degree of Doctor of Leadership.

Reflecting back on his life and years of service, Justice VandeWalle says, “When I was appointed to the Court my first concern was that I would do something that would reduce respect for the Court and the rule of law. While that concern remains, even today, I have come to realize that a defensive posture alone will not and cannot maintain respect for our system of justice. I hope that the small steps we have taken have had a positive impact on our citizens’ respect for our justice system and the rule of law. While I would not want alone to be remembered for my tenure on the bench, it is a privilege and an honor to serve North Dakota for these many years. I am grateful for the opportunity to do so.”

Photos from the Distinguished Alumni Event held in Judge VandeWalle's honor. Photos by Milo Smith