When Senior U.S. Eighth Circuit Court Judge
Gerald W. Heaney gave the commencement address at the 2001 UMD ceremonies,
he looked back to his graduation from the University of Minnesota
Law School in 1941. He noted how much the United States has changed
since then, and from his biography, it is clear that he is one of
the people who helped make those changes.
A decorated World War II veteran, Heaney has been a Duluth area
resident since 1945. He has served as a member of the University
of Minnesota Board of Regents; he drafted the law to create the
Duluth Port Authority; and he helped secure funds for many programs
and buildings at UMD. In 1966, Heaney was appointed by President
Lyndon Johnson to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
Heaney took senior status in 1988 and he continues to maintain 80
percent of a full caseload.
At commencement, Heaney talked about World War II and school desegregation
as two powerful occurrences that shaped U.S. history. Heaney played
a leading role in both events.
As Heaney spoke from the podium, he was framed by a faded American
flag hanging behind the stage. Before he launched into his formal
speech, he said a few words about that flag, which has been in his
possession since 1945.
On D-Day, Heaney was in the first wave of military men to land on
Omaha Beach, one of the many beaches that the allies invaded in
Normandy. The historians tell us that Omaha Beach was one of the
most heavily guarded of the beaches. Heaneys ship landed off
target in high tide and in the middle of a dreadful storm.
The Germans were waiting and by the time Heaney made it back to
the boat after many hours of battle, more than half of his unit
had been killed. The allies victory at Omaha Beach came at
the cost of thousands of lives.
Later, when the war was over and Heaneys division of Army
Rangers was invited to march in a parade in Plsen
just outside of Prague, they didnt have a flag. Heaney drove
a tank through Prague and finally located two Czech seamstresses
who said they could sew one. They used available fabric and finished
it in less than 24 hours, in time for the Americans to carry it
in the parade. Every year, Heaney has hung that flag at his house
on Memorial Day and once it was caught in a rain shower. When he
took it down, the colors had blended. Heaney told his family, It
seems right in a way, that the red stripes bled as they did . .
. a symbolic homage to the lives lost on that beach in Normandy.
Heany said that the flag still has power. It is real, it was
hand sewn by two women who lived under the Nazis. They were as poor
as church mice yet they wouldnt take any money for it. It
was a labor of love.
Heaneys life experiences can also be seen as a labor of love.
From negotiating the first teachers contract to give equal
pay to women, to negotiating health and welfare plans for uninsured
workers, Heaney has worked hard to create a more equitable society.
He talked about these issues and the changes they brought to America
at UMDs commencement.
He said, In 1964, the Congress, under the leadership of Minnesotas
Senator Humphrey, passed the Civil Rights Act, an act that for the
first time prohibited discrimination based on race in broad areas
of human conduct. The acknowledgement of the dignity and promise
of all humans is the most important change that has occurred in
my lifetime more important than the artificial heart, the
computer, the internet and space exploration.
Heaney himself played an instrumental role in prohibiting discrimination.
He wrote and helped write the decisions to desegregate schools in
Little Rock, Kansas City, St. Louis and Omaha.
Here is some background information on St. Louis, one of Heaneys
cases. It is a good example because it shows how strong action was
needed to reverse a damaging tide.
Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state. Until the end
of the Civil War it was against the law to teach black children
to read or write. After the Civil War, Missouri law required separate
schools for black and white children and in 1896 the Supreme Court
upheld the separate-but-equal doctrine. The problem was that separate
wasnt equal and in the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education
decision in 1954, the Supreme Court reversed itself, calling for
racial integration of public schools.
Although St. Louis passed a resolution saying black students and
white students could attend the same schools, de facto segregation
still existed because of housing patterns. When housing is segregated,
so too are the schools. Heaney said, A segregated education
inherently violates the constitution, and in St. Louis, black
students especially suffered as public schools declined in a core
city with a disproportionately high African-American population.
Heaneys Eighth Circuit court acted on the St. Louis desegregation
case in 1983 when they upheld most of the provisions of a voluntary
five-year school desegregation plan for both the city and the county.
The action by Heaneys court allowed 13,000 black students
from the city to choose a suburban school. It also brought another
10,000 of the 42,000 St. Louis students together in integrated magnet
Heaney said, The progress we have made in human and civil
rights are more important than any of the other developments I have
seen. In St. Louis, his endeavors transformed an entire city.
Heaney was reluctant to give advice to the graduates, but he did
express his hope that, as they face a world that is constantly shifting,
they will have the courage to embrace those changes that will
benefit all humanity and reject those that tend to divide our nation
by class, race, gender or sexual orientation.
When Heaney was awarded the honorary Doctor of Laws Degree for Public
Service, the universitys highest award, he said, On
behalf of the thousands of students who have been given the chance
for a university education, I accept this degree.
For his unyielding compassion, fairness and sense of justice, UMD
recognizes that Heaney richly deserves the Universitys highest