Women 360: Thinking beyond the bench, Judge Gretchen Thilmony promotes positive change, in and outside of the courtroom
Becker County’s first female District Court Judge, Gretchen Thilmony, strives to use her position for positive change, providing the help, support and resources that people need to get back on track. "I strive to … be the person who can give encouragement and support to those who need it – really need it," said Thilmony.
Editor's Note: The following originally appeared as the cover story of the Detroit Lakes Tribune's Women 360 magazine, which was included as a free insert in the Dec. 12, 2021 issue of the Tribune. Read the magazine in its entirety HERE online, or for a print copy of the magazine, pick up a copy of the Dec. 12 Tribune on newsstands now.
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Gretchen Thilmony has smashed through not just one, but two local glass ceilings – first, by becoming the first female Becker County Attorney, in 2014, and then, two years later, the first female Becker County District Court Judge.
This year, Mothers Against Drunk Driving selected her as the Minnesota Judge of the Year for her work with a specialty court dedicated to DUIs.
Detroit Lakes started its own MADD panel in 2019, allowing those charged with DUI, or Driving Under the Influence, to complete their attendance requirement here in town rather than having to travel to Moorhead.
Thilmony has been deeply involved in the panel, working regularly with DUI cases in addition to other specialty divisions like drug court and veterans’ treatment court, as well as criminal court. She has attended many MADD panels, first to understand and become familiar with them and what’s presented, and later at the request of a specialty court participant who was going to be presenting and asked her to attend.
“That really meant a lot to me, that she wanted me to be there,” Thilmony says.
Since then, she’s attended at least three local MADD panels in support of specialty court participants, and is committed to going whenever asked.
There is a down-to-earth quality about Thilmony, despite her groundbreaking success as an attorney and judge; a genuine Midwestern warmth and an intrinsic appreciation for people that shines through in her personality.
“Gretchen’s heartfelt compassion, advocacy and leadership for those in need is inspiring,” says Tiffiny Walz, who has known Thilmony for several years. “She is kind, intellectual and thoughtful, and these characteristics make her a real asset to our community… Gretchen is a cheerleader for anyone who wants to make change in their lives, and will be there at the finish line to watch you cross. She is a wonderful human being and friend.”
A Detroit Lakes native and graduate of the University of North Dakota (she has a bachelor's degree in English and also attended the UND School of Law), Thilmony is married to her high school sweetheart, Trevor, and is a mom to two kids: Hayden, who’s 19 and a UND freshman, and Lauren, 16, a junior at Detroit Lakes High School. She says her family is the thing she holds most dear to her heart, transcending her rise to being a judge at the age of 44, young for the achievement.
When it came time for Thilmony to define her career path, she recalls, she decided to pursue law after first debating how to best use her English degree. It was after she got accepted into law school that she realized she wanted to be a trial lawyer. The courtroom was calling to her, she says.
Once she earned her law degree, Thilmony returned to Detroit Lakes to intern for the Sinclair Law Firm, specializing in private and public real estate law.
In 2002, the Becker County Attorney’s Office became a full-time office, meaning the lawyers couldn’t do both public and private practice. Thilmony had to choose a path. She chose to become a full-time Assistant Becker County Attorney. Joe Evans, who was the Becker County Attorney at the time, hired her.
Years later, in 2014, it was Evans she took over for, when she became Becker County Attorney herself.
“It meant so much to me to follow in Joe’s footsteps,” she remarks.
Two years later, in July of 2016, she was appointed Seventh Judicial District Court Judge by Governor Mark Dayton; in 2018, she was elected to the position.
She is a member of the Becker County Bar Association, the White Earth/Becker County/Clearwater County and Mahnomen County Public Safety Committee, the Anishinabe Sexual Assault Response Team, and is a Public Safety in Indian Country Partner with the U.S. Department of Justice.
She says it is her passion for law and for service that empower her to do the work she does each day – work that she loves.
“You know that phrase, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected’? I try to live up to that,” she says. “While I worked hard for everything I have and haven’t been ‘given’ things in the sense of entitlements, I have been given a lot in my life, and I strive to really use my experience and what I’ve learned about human nature in my career to be the person who can give encouragement and support to those who need it – really need it.”
Many times, she says, those are people who are in the court system. Whether they’ve been charged with a crime or are a parent whose children have been taken away from them, they need help, support and resources to get back on track to become law-abiding citizens and good, safe parents.
“Not perfect parents, not perfect people; no one is either of those things,” she says, adding, “Sometimes, to get those words of encouragement from a person in authority can mean a lot. To many criminal defendants, I say, ‘Your bad decision doesn’t define you.’”
This is a woman who thinks beyond the bench.
“You have to take a step back and see how a person got to where they are right now,” she says.
A 10-year member of the Lakes Crisis & Resource Center’s Board of Directors, and a former president of the board, Thilmony has heard the tragic stories of countless people in need, both in and out of the courtroom – people who are intertwined with “the system” in multiple ways. Her work at the crisis center has honed her sense of compassion, which she believes helps her do her job to the best of her ability.
“I love when I see people who have appeared before me in court, in the grocery store or Walmart, and I look at them because I recognize them, and I say, ‘Hello’ as we pass. Many seem shocked. I can tell they know who I am,” she says, adding, “It’s because I do want them to know I see them as people and I’m not any better than they are; I’m just a person who happens to be a judge. And the majority of people I sentence in court are our community members; they aren’t people traveling through from elsewhere. They live among us and have grown up among us. Everyone deserves a second chance.”
“As (Thilmony) has demonstrated through her dedicated work over the years, she cares deeply about our community,” says Walz. “She works with and supports local organizations and nonprofits to address community needs and is a willing speaker about issues impacting our community. She possesses a network of resources to make a significant difference in the lives of our community members. Putting these resources to use is a commitment Gretchen has shown time and time again.”
But of course Thilmony’s life isn’t all about work. She loves to go fishing, and takes an annual trip to Lake of the Woods with six of her friends; the group has made the trip for 17 years. She reads extensively and is a member of the Stephen King Book Club, which she’s been a part of since high school. She’s also a member of the local VFW Ladies Auxiliary and Kiwanis club. She is still close friends with many of her classmates from Detroit Lakes High School, and her family lives in town or nearby.
As a parent, Thilmony is dedicated to teaching her kids to always stick up for someone who can’t stick up for themselves.
“Always try and speak for someone who may not have a voice,” she advises. “It’s so important. I learned that from my dad.”
Thilmony is committed to helping others and to public service, noting that she is always interested in hearing the backstory behind every person or situation, and in not jumping to conclusions. This, she believes, is what makes her a good judge.
“I absolutely love what I do, and I know we hear this often, but it’s really true that if you follow your heart and do work that maps to who you are, it doesn’t seem like a job,” she says. “You can enjoy life and have fun, plus work hard and make a difference. When you give back and never take for granted what you have, it all falls into place.”
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