“An Extraordinary Public Leader and Human Being”: Law School Mourns the Passing of Warren Spannaus (’63)

November 29, 2017

Warren Spannaus (’63), a former three-term Minnesota attorney general and candidate for governor, died suddenly on Monday in St. Louis Park, Minn. He was 86.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale (’56), who was both a mentor and colleague of Spannaus, told Minnesota Public Radio, “This guy deserves a very significant place in Minnesota history and the history of legal rights and justice. He was an extraordinary public leader and human being, and I would hope that Minnesotans would agree with me on that.”

“Warren Spannaus was one of the preeminent lawyer-leaders of his generation, advocating for the people of Minnesota no matter the cost,” said Dean Garry W. Jenkins. “He remained deeply engaged with the Law School, both as Minnesota attorney general and as a partner at Dorsey & Whitney. The Law School has lost one of its most distinguished alumni and closest friends.”

Born in 1930, Spannaus grew up on Rice Street in St. Paul. He served in the Navy before enrolling at the University and then the Law School. In 1963, Mondale, who was then the state’s attorney general, hired Spannaus as a staff attorney. Asked by the St. Paul Pioneer Press why he would choose a freshly minted J.D. for such a role, Mondale said, “He was honest, intelligent, kind, funny, tireless—all the things you want.” Spannaus would later serve on Mondale’s U.S. Senate staff before running for the office of attorney general himself in 1970. He held the office for three 4-year terms. In 1982, Spannaus ran for governor as the DFL’s endorsed candidate but lost in the primary to Rudy Perpich, who would go on to win the general election. Political observers put much of the blame for Spannaus’s loss on his advocacy for stronger restrictions on handgun ownership, which the state legislature had adopted in 1975. Following his third term as attorney general, Spannaus joined the Minneapolis law firm of Dorsey & Whitney, where he and Mondale eventually became colleagues.

Professor Alexandra Klass, who was a partner at Dorsey & Whitney before joining the Law School faculty, said she was honored to be Spannaus’s law partner, and to work in the same department with him for 10 years. “He was warm, engaging, and a wonderful mentor. His unwavering commitment to public service was an example for all the attorneys at the firm. After I joined the faculty here, it was always such a pleasure to see him regularly at Law School events. He was so proud of the Law School and was a great supporter of its mission.”

Spannaus is survived by his wife, Marjorie, three children, and seven grandchildren. His memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Monday, Dec. 4, at Lake Harriet United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, with visitation from 3-7 p.m. Dec. 3 at Washburn-McReavy Funeral Chapel in Edina, Minn.

To read more about Warren Spannaus’s life and distinguished career, see the coverage by Minnesota Public Radio, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Warren Spannaus (’63)
Warren Spannaus (’63)

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