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Judge Gerald W. Heaney ('41) Leaves Legacy of Respect

JUNE 28, 2010—Former federal Judge Gerald W. Heaney ('41) died June 22 at age 92 in Duluth, Minn., after a long career of judicial leadership, community activism, and the heartfelt mentorship of dozens of law clerks.

Heaney was named to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966. He served as a judge for 20 years and as a senior judge for another 20 years, retiring from the court in 2006.

Born in 1918 in the southeastern Minnesota farming community of Goodhue, Heaney often credited his work ethic and determination to his parents, who raised their seven children during the Depression.

Heaney graduated from the Law School in 1941, but his dreams of a labor law practice were interrupted by World War II. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 and was awarded the Silver Star for his heroism in the D-Day campaign in Normandy and the Bronze Star for his courage in battles during the surge into Germany.

After the war, he married, relocated to Duluth, and began a 20-year practice as a labor lawyer. A savvy political strategist, Heaney helped shape Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and formed friendships with many political up-and-comers, including future Minnesota Governor Orville Freeman ('40) and future U.S. presidential candidates Eugene McCarthy, Hubert H. Humphrey, and Walter F. Mondale ('56).

Mondale remembers his lifetime friend as a determined advocate for social justice and fairness, both on the bench and in his private life. "And that's not '4th of July' rhetoric. That's the real man he was."

"He was a Democrat from an early age, and he worked a lot on the political campaigns," Mondale recalls. "He devoutly supported the idea of bringing justice to the working people and giving them a chance to achieve in life."

Heaney also was a strong believer in providing educational opportunities to those in need, and was proud to serve on the University's Board of Regents, Mondale adds. "He often talked about what the Law School meant to him."

Heaney's ultimate legacy may be the lessons he taught by example, especially by taking a stand for justice against the popular viewpoint of the time.

Professor Myron Orfield, Executive Director of the Institute on Race & Poverty, clerked for Judge Heaney in 1987-88 and recalls his reputation for championing equality during the racial turmoil of the 1960s. For example, Orfield says, during the 1964 Democratic Convention, Heaney relinquished his own delegate credentials so black delegates from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party could stand on the convention floor and be heard.

Heaney's longtime championship of school desegregation began with his 1967 ruling encouraging the integration of the Altheimer, Ark., schools. "He was one of the heroic federal judges who braved fierce opposition to integrate the schools of the United States, improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans, who had before that time been cut off from educational and economic opportunity," Orfield says. "He was a hero for the disadvantaged."

In 1989, a group of Heaney's former law clerks, along with other friends and colleagues, created the Gerald and Eleanor Heaney Law School Scholarship fund in celebration of his leadership.

Heaney's impact from the bench formed the keystones of future progress in social justice for minorities, genders, educational opportunities, and equity in the workplace across the country, Mondale says.

"In the last 45 years, there has been a profound change in the fairness and openness of American life," he says. "There's a huge range of things that we now take for granted in our society that were not true before Gerry got involved. He didn't do it alone, but he was involved in all of it."

Heaney "made a big difference around the country," but his accomplishments were "never about him or his power," Mondale notes. "He was a Minnesotan through and through."

Heaney is survived by his wife of 64 years, Eleanor; a son, William; and a daughter, Carol McPherson-Heaney.

Portrait of Judge Heaney

Judge Gerald W. Heaney, U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals