DL High School, A hatchery for legal eagles
It's likely that if Detroit Lakes graduate Jay Quam were to attend an all- school reunion, he'd impress a few people.
"I am now a district court judge in Hennepin County," said Quam, who is a 1980 Laker alum.
He'd maybe even be sitting at the very head of the cool kids table, if it weren't for Paul Benshoof, Peter Irvine, Erik Askegaard and Joe Evans -- the other four Detroit Lakes graduates who could easily steal at least some of his judicial thunder.
All five are not only making names for themselves, but also putting Detroit Lakes on the map for being a bit of a legal powerhouse.
"I don't think there's any high school that has more sitting judges than DLHS," said Quam.
Peter Irvine is the Chief Judge of the Minnesota Seventh District in Becker County (appointed in 2000), and a 1964 DL graduate.
Joe Evans is also a Minnesota Seventh District judge (appointed in 2007), who works down the hall from Irvine, and is a 1969 DL graduate.
Paul Benshoof is a Minnesota Ninth Judicial Judge for Beltrami County (appointed in 1997), and is a 1970 DL graduate.
Erik Askegaard is a Minnesota Ninth Judicial Judge for Crow Wing County (appointed in 2009), and is a 1978 DL graduate.
And Jay Quam is a Minnesota Fourth Judicial District Judge for Hennepin County (appointed in 2006), and is a 1980 DL graduate.
A conference for Minnesota judges recently brought all five of them together again, which could leave one wondering -- what do five, distinguished, well-respected judges talk about when sitting around chatting?
Memories of old Detroit Lakes.
All five judges knew each other growing up, either as acquaintances or close family friends.
The legal world in a small town is inevitably tight-knit, which means the five men's paths crossed way more than twice.
The names Quam, Benshoof and Irvine are synonymous with Detroit Lakes law, as Jay Quam's father, John, was one of the area's most well known attorneys, along with Paul Benshoof's uncle, Lowell, who not only ran a successful private firm in town, but was also the Becker County attorney. (Paul's brother, Ward, also became a lawyer.)
Meanwhile, law also ran deep in Peter Irvine's blood, as his grandfather, Henry Jenson, was a Detroit Lakes attorney, as well as his father, Robert Irvine, who served as the county attorney for years.
"It got old being Bob Irvine's son, I'll tell you that," laughed Irvine, "but he made it really easy to look up to him."
So easy, neighborhood kids also admired him. Little Joe Evans (now Judge Joe Evans) was a buddy of Irvine's younger brother, which meant he hung around the Irvine house now and then.
"And I always admired Peter's father," said Evans. "He always gave me encouragement along the way."
Irvine says that to him (a big senior at the time), both Joe and Paul were just little kids (sixth and seventh graders) running around.
Meanwhile, Erik Askegaard was not only watching his two older brothers-in-law become attorneys, but he was also getting to know a young Paul Benshoof, who was good friends with Askegaard's brother.
"When the Askegaards moved to DL in 1961, I was 10 years old and Erik was a snotty-nosed two-year-old....that's how long we've known each other," said Benshoof.
Later, during law school, Askegaard also clerked for Joe Evans, the assistant Becker County Attorney, who happened to also work for the law firm of Benshoof Hummel Sinclair & Pearson (Jack Pearson was another Detroit Lakes graduate who is now a retired judge), one of the two largest law firms in town.
Paul Benshoof also clerked for the firm that bore his last name.
Another large firm was Irvine, Ramstad, Quam & Briggs.
The five young men were all tied to those two law firms in one way or another, and they all seemed to be bred for legal greatness -- they just didn't know it.
What almost was
Not one of the five judges thought they'd end up in black robes.
In fact, they've all entertained other careers, some more seriously than others.
"I would've liked to have been a professional bike racer, an astronaut or an ambassador to Norway," Quam said, light-heartedly.
Askegaard says he would've liked to have been a high school teacher of some kind because he loved being a good student, as did Benshoof, whose love for English was passed down from his father, who owned the Becker County Record Newspaper at one time.
Judge Joe Evans could have been "Captain" Evans, had he made another choice.
"I'd like to have been a captain of an ocean-going vessel," said Evans, who might have still crossed paths with Peter Irvine, a certified scuba diver who once thought long and hard about buying a little scuba shop in Waikiki.
Enlisted in the Navy and stationed in Hawaii, Irvine had already been accepted into law school when he fell in love with the underwater world.
"But in my family there was an expectation that I would follow in my father's footsteps -- my brother went on to be a doctor and I was next in line," said Irvine, "so until I walked down that pier, I don't know that I had ever thought about doing anything else."
And although on tough days, Irvine says he still thinks about the much different life he almost had, he has no regrets.
None of them do.
They all uphold their own decisions to pursue law.
"It really is the greatest job," said Quam, "On my scale of 1 to 10, I give it a 13."
The ups and downs
Out of the 5,266,214 people who live in Minnesota, only 289 of them are district court judges.
It's a job few are cut out for, as the responsibility accompanying it is enormous.
"The decisions you make really affect people's lives, and you don't always make the right decisions -- have you to live with that," said Quam, "so there's always a little voice in your head that says 'don't screw this up.'"
With the weight of the world on their shoulders and a gavel in their hands, these judges take every ounce of experience they have as a lawyer and judge, every piece of law they have memorized and every gut feeling they can conjure up to do their best to hand out one decision after another, day in, day out.
"And sometimes those decisions have to be immediate, so there's a lot of pressure," said Benshoof, who says deciding whether or not to set bail for somebody in a criminal case can be stressful, "I don't know much about them, how it could affect them or the victim, so I have to rely on the attorneys and hope it turns out right."
Benshoof says sentencing can be tough as well, as judges have to try to predict whether prison time will do somebody good or whether it will simply make them a better criminal.
Askegaard agrees, but says because courts are so packed full of cases, he is often left wishing he had more time to put into each case.
"I'll come in one day and have parties arguing a dispute in a divorce, and after each lawyer argues for half an hour, they give you a stack of papers four inches thick, and they want a decision quick," said Askegaard, "but I'm already booked up in court every day for the next week -- so the workload can get heavy."
Quam, who works in a big city, has the luxury of sharing the workload with a number of other judges, and gets to zero in on certain cases, which for him is currently mental health and probate.
He says although he's expected to know every little in and out of that area, he's in awe of the "country judges" like Evans, Irvine, Benshoof and Askegaard who are forced to diversify their areas of expertise.
"Just looking at the law books, it's like a library," said Quam, "I have to only know part of it, but they have to know it all -- I don't know how they do it."
They say they do it as best they can, and while the judges say they're confident in their decision-making abilities, they are sometimes forced to make unpopular decisions.
"I've had people ask me, 'How do you sleep at night?' and the response is easy," said Irvine, "no problem at all."
Irvine says being a judge is easier on the conscience than being a lawyer because you're not forced to be an advocate for somebody who you don't believe in.
"When you're a hired gun for a client who, in your heart of hearts don't believe should win, that's difficult," said Irvine, "but when you're a judge, you get to do what you truly believe is the right thing. My only worry is that I don't embarrass my mother," he adds, laughing, "because she knows everyone in town."
Evans, who spent a total of 31 years in the Becker County Attorney's office before being appointed judge, says because he's judging in the city he's lived in most of his life, he'll occasionally have to remove himself from cases to avoid conflicts of interest.
He's very cognizant of the fact that he's pretty well known in the community, and cases don't always work out they way he hopes.
"You always have to be on guard when you deal with lots of different people in difficult and sometimes emotional situations," said Evans, "and some people that come into the court systems have backgrounds with violence in them."
"You have to deal with people who are angry at you for your decision," added Askegaard, "I've encountered people at Walmart or wherever that I've seen for crimes of violence, but you know, most of them are not bad people, they just make bad decisions."
Benshoof says a big chunk of those bad decisions are made because of drugs and alcohol.
"If it weren't for that, I'd only have to work one day out of the week," said Benshoof.
Some people say judges live isolated lives.
Their offices are typically tucked away, guarded from the public, and they're not allowed to attend charity functions, for the fear of appearing biased to certain organizations.
And in all honesty, they admit they get kissed up to on a regular basis.
"I think everybody knows that we get treated differently, and my wife reminds me of that," said Irvine, "but I don't feel any different than I ever have -- it's just a job, it's not who I am, and I hope that we don't ever act like it."
Askegaard says it's kind of funny how people in public often seem unsure of what to call him.
"They'll be like, 'Hi ... judge,' but if I'm not sitting in a courtroom wearing a black robe, I'd rather people just call me Erik," said Askegaard.
"My son is in second grade, and so he'll see people sucking up to me sometimes without really understanding what I do," said Quam, "but he will -- my 12-year-old daughter does now, so we'll talk about some of the tough decisions I've made, and she just wants everybody's lives to be good."
While the Detroit Lakes community can surly be proud of the unusually large number of judges it produces, the judges say it's the school everybody should be proud of.
"I thought my high school education was excellent there," said Askegaard, who credits two of his English teachers for sparking his interest in writing, "they were the two most important teachers in my life."
And although three of the judges are out "cranking out truth and justice" elsewhere, Detroit Lakes is never very far away.
"I love getting back to DL -- I still keep track of what's going on there," said Quam, "I'm very proud of being from DL -- very proud."