Chief Justice VandeWalle humbly becomes 41st recipient of Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award
BISMARCK - Gerald VandeWalle, the farm boy from Noonan who rose to become the longest-serving chief justice of North Dakota's Supreme Court, humbly accepted the state's highest honor on Wednesday. VandeWalle was visibly moved after Gov. Jack Dalr...
BISMARCK – Gerald VandeWalle, the farm boy from Noonan who rose to become the longest-serving chief justice of North Dakota’s Supreme Court, humbly accepted the state’s highest honor on Wednesday.
VandeWalle was visibly moved after Gov. Jack Dalrymple declared him the 41st recipient of the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, saying, “My heart is full, my mind is racing.”
“It’s great. I still can’t believe it. I’m usually not at a loss for words, but I am now,” he said during a ceremony before the 64th Legislative Assembly, family members and colleagues gathered in the House chamber.
VandeWalle was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1978 and re-elected in November to his fourth 10-year term. He was elected chief justice in 1993 and is the longest-serving chief justice in state history, as well as the longest-serving sitting chief justice in the nation.
VandeWalle played an integral role in unifying the state court system, redefining judicial districts and increasing judgeships to accommodate growth, Dalrymple said, noting humility is one of the 81-year-old’s qualities.
“There is not a person in this chamber who isn’t convinced that our chief justice is deserving of his award, except for maybe Jerry himself,” he joked.
True to form, VandeWalle credited others for his accomplishments and recognized his family members in the balcony.
“It’s been my fortune through my whole life to be surrounded by loving and supportive people who really do make me look better than I am,” he said, listing off his parents, teachers, bosses and colleagues.
Born in 1933, VandeWalle was raised on his parents’ dairy farm in the Divide County city of Noonan in far northwestern North Dakota.
“He said the cows sent him to law school in more ways than one,” Justice Dale Sandstrom said. VandeWalle earned his law degree with honors from the University of North Dakota School of Law in 1958 and was admitted to the State Bar that same year. He worked as a special assistant attorney general and was appointed first assistant attorney general in 1975.
Officials unveiled the official portrait of VandeWalle that will hang next to past award winners in the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Hall of Fame in the Capitol. The painting depicts Lady Justice and the Noonan water tower, playing cards as a nod to VandeWalle’s status as a “life master” bridge player and a copy of the VandeWalle dairy farm’s milk bottle cap.
“I didn’t think I’d ever want to see that again,” he quipped.
Dalrymple named VandeWalle as the 41st recipient of the award on Dec. 11. Wednesday’s presentation followed VandeWalle’s State of the Judiciary Address.
South Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson, president-elect of the national Conference of Chief Justices, a post VandeWalle also has held in the past, said his friend of 30 years has been a strong and consistent voice for North Dakota.
“When he speaks at a national meeting … people listen to his wisdom,” he said.
Erica Moeser, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, echoed that sentiment, saying VandeWalle is widely respected beyond the state’s borders.
“He’s a legend, and a North Dakota legend, in his own time,” she said.