DULUTH - We've learned of the death Tuesday morning of Judge Gerald Heaney, a truly great American and an important friend to the Duluth labor movement.
The son of a Goodhue, MN butcher and farmer, Heaney became a decorated World War II veteran, one of the first ashore at Normandy, a Duluth labor attorney for 20 years, and had a stellar 40-year career as a judge on the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. His friend Walter Mondale said of Heaney, “He should have been a Supreme Court justice.”
Heaney quietly, but forcefully, directed Democratic politics in Minnesota for decades, beginning with the founding of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party with his friends Hubert Humphrey and Orville Freeman.
He crafted the union contracts that established the first self-funded health and welfare packages in Minnesota. He also wrote the first contract that gave female Duluth school teachers equal pay to their male counterparts. He was awarded a life membership in the Duluth AFL-CIO Central Labor Body, the only one ever given, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, for his efforts. He attended every Labor Day Picnic in Duluth from 1948 through 2009. The finest room in the Duluth Labor Temple is the Judge Heaney Chambers. Until just very recently, he hosted a Friday noon lunch at Porter’s Restaurant that always had labor leaders as its largest contingent.
During his career on the bench Judge Heaney was instrumental in making sure public education served everyone, and that women were given equal opportunities in all their endeavors. Those issues are hallmarks of the labor movement. Among his 3,000 opinions from the bench were those that desegregated schools in Little Rock, Kansas City, St. Louis and Omaha. When those rulings were ignored by some school districts, he made sure they were enforced. Even in his dissenting opinions he laid the groundwork for improving the lives and opportunities for every American citizen.
His love for education continued when he came to Duluth. He was the guiding force behind creating a campus of the University of Minnesota in Duluth. Every year he worked on the Board of Regents and the legislature to make sure UMD was given every opportunity to serve its students better than it had done the year before. There is a Gerald and Eleanor Heaney Scholarship at UMD.
He said the 20 years he worked as a labor lawyer in Duluth were “one of the great experiences of my life.” That’s something coming from a man who served under General George Patton during and after World War II in Europe and from a man who was nominated to the federal bench by Sen. Eugene McCarthy and appointed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966. He would chuckle in saying his hearing for the bench lasted ten minutes because McCarthy, Humphrey and Mondale were in the room and Freeman was Secretary of Agriculture.
The federal building in Duluth is the Gerald W. Heaney Federal Building & U.S. Courthouse & Customhouse. From his offices there he taught some 70 law clerks about justice in America.
Judge Gerald Heaney is survived by his wife of 65 years Eleanor, son, Bill, legislative director for the IBEW State Council, and daughter, Carolyn.
A visitation will be held Monday, June 28 from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. with a Rosary Service beginning at 4:45 p.m. A funeral mass will be at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, June 29 with burial to follow. Both events are at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, 2801 East 4th Street, Duluth, MN. Eleanor Heaney's address is Lakeshore Assisted Living, 4000 London Road, #310, Duluth, MN 55804. Larry Sillanpa is the editor of the Duluth Labor World Newspaper