It may be the dream of a number of youngsters to one day compete in strenuous athletic events, such as the hurdles, long jump and pole vault. However, for a man in his 70s, 80s and 90s to have these same ambitions, I believe it must be very rare.

Ralph Maxwell, after a lengthy career of 45 years as a lawyer, county attorney, district state’s attorney and judge, set his sights on competing against the world’s best senior athletes. After setting “numerous world records” in the hurdles, pole vault, pentathlon and decathlon, he was named the USA Track and Field Masters Athlete of the Year in 2010 at the age of 90.

Ralph “Buzzy” Bernard Borden Maxwell was born Nov. 26, 1919, on the Spirit Lake Tribe Reservation to William and Mary (Borden) Maxwell. William was employed by the U.S. Indian Service as an agency farmer, helping Native Americans become better farmers.

In 1927, he was transferred to the Sherman Institute, a vocational school for Native Americans in Riverside, Calif. The next year, he was sent to Tuba City, Ariz., on the Western Navajo Reservation. In both of these relocations, William’s family moved with him.

In 1928, William was transferred to the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in northern North Dakota to be the “land clerk,” where he would be in charge of “membership and related databases such as enrollment, land ownership, and voter’s lists.” Ralph attended grade school at the Turtle Mountain Consolidated Indian Day School in Belcourt and went to high school in Rolla, where he graduated in 1937.

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Ralph Maxwell. Special to The Forum
Ralph Maxwell. Special to The Forum

Following graduation, Ralph Maxwell enrolled at the University of North Dakota, majoring in commerce. He took part in many college activities, but did not letter in any sport. Maxwell was elected president of the senior class, and he graduated in the spring of 1941. In the fall, he entered law school at UND and was elected president of the freshmen law students.

When the U.S. entered World War II, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Maxwell dropped out of college and enlisted in the Army. After completing his military service in late 1945, Maxwell returned to law school at UND and shared a room with a fellow law student, George Duis, from Fargo, who was also a World War II veteran.

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Duis was a good friend of Morgan Ford, a prominent attorney in Casselton who was also the nephew of U.S. Sen. William Langer. Langer convinced Maxwell to become active in the Nonpartisan League (NPL) branch of the Republican Party.

Maxwell graduated from law school in the spring of 1947, and while waiting to take his bar exam, he worked as the manager of radio station KNOX in Grand Forks. After passing the bar exam, Maxwell returned to Belcourt and set up his law office.

Also arriving in Belcourt at about the same time was Martha Elizabeth “Liz” Fargusson, a young nurse who was assigned to the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. Following a short courtship, Liz and Maxwell were married on Feb. 14, 1948. Later that year, Maxwell ran for the office of Rolette County State’s Attorney and was elected. The newlyweds then moved to Rolla, the county seat of Rolette County.

In 1950, Maxwell threw his hat into the ring to run for NPL chairman of the Young Republicans, but he later withdrew. Then, Wallace Warner, the North Dakota Attorney General, announced that he would not be running for reelection, and some of Maxwell’s NPL supporters tried to convince him to run for attorney general. However, he believed he needed more legal experience, so he ran for reelection as attorney for Rolette County and won.

In October 1953, Maxwell moved his family to Fargo when he was appointed assistant to Powless Lanier, the district attorney for the state of North Dakota. On Jan. 31, 1954, Lanier resigned to run for Congress and, on Feb. 1, Maxwell was appointed as his replacement.

This must have come as a welcome relief for Langer, Maxwell’s political mentor. Twenty years earlier, when Langer was governor, Lanier initially convicted him “of soliciting and collecting money for political purposes from federal employees and of conspiring to obstruct the orderly operation of an act of Congress,” and Langer was forced to resign as governor.

Maxwell appeared to be a perfect fit for the job of North Dakota District Attorney because not only was he an excellent lawyer, but “much of the work of a U.S. attorney is devoted to Indian affairs,” and he had spent six years as an attorney on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation.

According to Agnes Geelan’s book, "Dakota Maverick," Langer formed a Fargo “brain trust” that consisted of Maxwell, Morgan Ford, George Duis and Herschel Lashkowitz. I found it ironic that Herschel was included because the person who assisted Lanier the most during his investigation of Langer was Harry Lashkowitz, Herschel’s father.

Three months after his appointment as district attorney, Maxwell found himself in charge of a historic case in which a Fort Yates man was accused of taking the life of another human being. It was “the first murder case to be tried in a federal court in North Dakota since 1933,” and all eyes were focused on how the “youthful looking” prosecutor would handle the case. According to an article in the Bismarck Tribune, most of the people who witnessed the trial were not disappointed.

John L. Owen, a staff writer for the Bismarck Tribune and later the sports editor for the Seattle Post Intelligencer, wrote that Maxwell “quickly impressed onlookers with his unemotional, competent handling of the case.” Maxwell’s assistant, William B. Mills, told Owen that Maxwell “is not easily disturbed. He is seldom excited, even at the high point of a trial. He has an extremely keen mind, and he is always factual and possesses a great sense of fairness.”

Mills added that Maxwell “is concerned with the facts and presents these facts to the jury. His fairness at all times has been remarked upon by more than one opposing attorney.”

Maxwell maintained his reputation as a fair and very competent district attorney during his four years in the position, but eventually, he grew tired of only prosecuting cases. He retired in 1958 and established his own legal office in West Fargo. Maxwell also formed a partnership with his old friend, George Duis, to handle cases involving consumer credit.

We will conclude the story of Ralph Maxwell next week.

Correction: Last week, I erroneously wrote that Jud Heathcote was the basketball coach at the University of Michigan. He was the coach at Michigan State.

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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.

Curt Eriksmoen, Did You Know That? columnist
Curt Eriksmoen, Did You Know That? columnist