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Seventh District Judge Ireland Robertson remembered for caring heart in and out of the courtroom

Hon. Sally Ireland Robertson died Sunday, Aug. 14, surrounded by family. She was 74 years old.

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The Honorable Judge Sally Ireland Robertson didn't care to be called "Judge" outside the courtroom. She was a friend to many and a devoted worker for the people of this region.
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WADENA — The Honorable Judge Sally Ireland Robertson was a hard working trail breaker as the first woman to practice law in Wadena County and one of the first female judges in the Seventh Judicial District with chambers in Wadena, Long Prairie and Detroit Lakes.
Friends say she worked tirelessly for the people of her district, took time to be involved in her community, loved her family with all she had, and among the hectic demands of her life, she truly cared for people.
Sally was the kind of soul that even called up an old friend and colleague, Wadena attorney Jeffrey Pederson on his birthday every year to sing him happy birthday.
“That was just reflective of her,” Pederson said. She had a full plate, yet made time to make someone smile.

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The Robertson family gathered during Sally's retirement party. They include, from left, Monica and Colin Robertson, Caitlin Robertson and daughter Juniper Ramsey, and Sally and Jamie Robertson.
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That went on for years. When he didn’t get the call this May, he knew that she was not well.
Ireland Robertson was diagnosed in 2020 and suffering from ALS, aka, Lou Gehrig's Disease and FTD, frontotemporal disorders (FTD), just two years after retiring from her judgeship after 22 years of service.
Friends, family and acquaintances of her are feeling the loss of a kind, caring and tenacious leader as she passed away from complications of the neurodegenerative diseases on Sunday, Aug. 14, surrounded by family. She was 74 years old.
Friends, co-workers and family are grateful for the time they had with Ireland Robertson.
She leaves behind two children Colin and Caitlin, both graduates of Wadena-Deer Creek school, in 1995 and 1998 respectively. Her daughter Caitlin, of Northfield, Minn., shared that she was very grateful for the love of her mother and the things she taught her about life.

“I wish I had had more time with her, but I’m thankful for all that she did for me and her community,” Caitlin said. “I know she inspired a love of literature that led to me being a songwriter. I do think she influenced me to see the good in people.

“I’ll take that with me,” Caitlin continued. “She is such a loving person. She wanted family to be strong. I do think she taught me to be strong.”

Following her death, comments came pouring in about how people all the way back to her high school years remembered her as someone who cared about others and always shared her kind smile.

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She cared deeply about her grandchildren Juniper Ramsey (daughter of Caitlin) and Tate, Auden and Lucy (children of Colin and Monica, or Reno, Nev.).

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The Robertson family met up in late July at a favorite spot on Lake Blanche. The group includes Lucy (7), left, Tate (15), Sally (74), Colin (45), Jamie (75), Caitlin (42), Juniper (9), Monica, Colin's wife, (46) and Auden (11).
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“Judge Robertson recognized that her work was not about cases and paperwork but rather, involved people and the most important affairs of their life; she understood and undertook the enormity of that responsibility in every case she worked on and she did so with great care, dignity and respect,” said Wadena County Attorney and former law clerk for Ireland Robertson, Kyra Ladd. “For anyone who had the privilege to work with Judge Robertson, you understand when I say she modeled and expected that we would do the best job we possibly could.”

She was known to be very well read and she used her articulate skills to guide people to peaceful resolution, accountability and responsibility.

“Judge Robertson worked as a tireless advocate for resources needed in the community and the judicial system in Wadena County,” Ladd continued. “When Judge Robertson retired from the bench in 2018, Wadena County lost all of the attributes Judge Robertson brought to the bench, we lost advocacy for Wadena County and her absence has been most noticeably missed since her retirement.”

Wadena County Sheriff Mike Carr Jr., remembers Ireland Robertson as a great attorney, a fair judge and someone who got to know and understand the people of this area very well.

“She was fair but firm,” Carr recalls.

Ireland Robertson served as judge for the majority of his tenure as sheriff and in that time he recalls that she was the one to implement Court Coordination. What this did was bring together all the parties involved in the legal system including the court, sheriff’s office, prosecution and defense, probation, human services and parts in between.

“She always wanted to know the effect her decision had on everybody,” Carr said.

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It was a process that brought great communication and even more respect for the thoughtful judge. She wasn’t just well respected, she also showed great respect to those around her.

Retired attorney Luther Nervig said that Robertson largely focused on family law while there.

“She loved the study of law and spent many hours discussing various aspects of law with retired Judge Charles Kennedy, who was a member of the law firm,” Nervig said. “Sally was an intelligent and tenacious lawyer who worked tirelessly for her clients. Sally loved being a member of the Wadena community and was involved in a great number of activities in Wadena.”

Sally's stories
Judge Sally Ireland Robertson was surrounded by friends, family, colleagues and admirers Thursday as she said farewell to 22 years of service as a Seventh District Judge.

Pederson worked with Ireland Robertson for three years at the Kennedy Nervig Law Office in Wadena and got to know her kind and caring side.

“She was just a good person. Very kind,” Pederson said. “She really cared about people.”

The relationship Robertson formed with Pederson stayed with them long after he moved on and for a time was an attorney that sat on the opposing side from her in court. Then it continued when Robertson was selected to serve as Seventh Judicial District Judge in 1996. He recalls times he would be feeling a bit down after a case didn’t quite go his way and she would whisper for him to approach the bench. She would have to inquire about his family and see how everyone was faring.

“She cared about how their outcomes would affect their lives,” Pederson said of the defendants. “When she got appointed to the bench, I knew she was going to try to do what was fair.”

In criminal cases, she was known for her “Sally talks,” often trying to warn the sentenced that if she ever saw them in court again …. She really wanted offenders to turn their lives around and believed in second chances.

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“She wanted to give people the opportunity to turn their lives around,” Pederson said.

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Seventh District Judge Sally Ireland Robertson just before entering retirement after serving 22 years on the bench. Robertson was appointed a judicial officer in 1996 by Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson.
Pioneer Journal file photo

Following retirement, Ireland Robertson dove head first into the issue that she knew needed attention from her 22 years as a judge – mental health. She took part in a series of mental health meetings because she had seen the effect it was having on people and families.

“She was very passionate about that, she had a front row seat to the issues in Wadena County,” Carr added. “She got to see first hand the effect that mental health had on people.”

Unfortunately her work in mental health was cut short due to her illness.

Her husband of 51 years, Jamie, said she remained ambitious and interested in the next big adventure until she collapsed on Thursday, Aug. 11, and was airlifted to St. Cloud where she ultimately passed away on Sunday, Aug. 14.

“She never stopped wanting to travel,” Jamie said. The two had plans of some grand adventures yet to come. They’d already traveled extensively together, both lovers of culture and gaining new experiences. They were thrill seekers from the start, having only known each other about four months before marrying.

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Jamie and Sally Robertson were married 51 years.
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Jamie said his wife heard some horror stories in her life but always believed there was good in people and she wanted them to turn their lives around.

“Overall there were tough things to see, but she felt good about the effect a judge could have,” he said.

Ireland Robertson grew up in Hamilton, Ohio, a city of about 55,000 near Cincinnati. She earned a master’s degree in English before going on to law school at University of New Mexico, where she graduated in 1979. Her first job was an attorney for legal services on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where she lived as well as worked.

Her husband, Jamie, ran an adult education program on the reservation.

“It was about four years after Wounded Knee, and it turned out to be really interesting,” she said in a previous interview with the Detroit Lakes Tribune. She had never lived in a rural area before, but liked it so much she lived in a rural area ever since.

She worked in Pine Ridge for two years before moving to the Wadena area in 1981, where she joined the law firm of Kennedy and Nervig. She and her husband landed on Wadena because Jamie wanted to live on a farm – Sally was agreeable. As it turned out the farm and her garden became a great place to escape from the stressors of work.

“She loved it out here,” husband Jamie said of their home, lovingly called Wildrose Farm. “She loved the rural life.”

She worked at Kennedy Nervig for 15 years, before being appointed to the bench in 1996 by Gov. Arne Carlson.

Serving the rural areas, Robertson was a jack-of-all-trades judge. She shared in a previous interview about the joys and sadness of her work, particularly the difficulties in dealing with child custody cases.

“It makes you very grateful for your own parents … it makes you realize that, ‘there but for the grace of God, go I.’ This job has made me grateful.”

Known in her retirement as a serious bird watcher, she would trudge through snow drifts daily to keep her birds happy.

While her loss is mourned by many, the family shared that they take comfort in knowing she is no longer suffering.

Those who knew Ireland Robertson know that there is a great hole left without her presence in the community.

“We lost so much in 2018 when Judge Robertson retired from the bench but that pales in comparison to what our community forever lost when she passed away,” Ladd shared. “Judge Robertson’s reach – both near and far – to all those that knew her, worked with her or appeared before her in a court law, will forever be better because of Judge Sally Ireland Robertson’s influence, mentoring, and wisdom that she generously gave during her lifetime - her legacy will last forever.”

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Judge Sally Ireland Robertson
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According to her obituary , a celebration of Sally’s life will take place Saturday, Sept. 17 at the Maslowski Wellness Center, 17 Fifth St, SW, in Wadena, with light food and music from 4-8 p.m. and a special time for remembrances and stories at 5 p.m. The family suggests memorial contributions be made to the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, ℅ Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, 500 Lafayette Rd., St. Paul, MN 55155 or the ALS Association of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, 1919 University Ave. W., Ste 175, St. Paul, MN 55104.

Michael Johnson is the news editor for Agweek. He lives in the city of Verndale, Minn., but is bent on making it as country as he can until he returns once more to the farm living he enjoys. Also living the dream are his two children and wife.
You can reach Michael at mjohnson@agweek.com or 218-640-2312.
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