The Magazine of the University of Minnesota Duluth
Volume 18• Number 2 • Summer 2001

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Weight of Wisdom

Commencement speaker
Judge Gerald Heaney receives honorary degree from UMD.

“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.”

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. Heaney’s 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 Heaney’s division of Army Rangers was invited to march in a parade in Plsen just outside of Prague, they didn’t 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 wouldn’t take any money for it. It was a labor of love.”

Heaney’s 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 UMD’s commencement.

He said, “In 1964, the Congress, under the leadership of Minnesota’s 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 Heaney’s 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 wasn’t 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.

Heaney’s 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 Heaney’s 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 schools.

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 university’s 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 University’s highest tribute.


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