Judge finds solid foundation
in small towns, area farms
Wednesday, October 03, 2012 5:02 AM
When profiling federal judge Donovan Frank prior to the presentation of his award on Kingsland's Wall of Honor that recognizes distinguished graduates of the local school system, our reporter could have focused on all the accomplishments and awards the Spring Valley native has attained. Instead, she highlighted slices of life from his childhood, ranging from helping his father in the main street appliance store, working on area farms, riding on a milk route and spending time with a developmentally disabled friend of the family.
The U.S. district judge, who has had many stories written about him over the years, voiced his approval of our newspaper profile - even singling out that he was glad we had the personal interactions instead of the list of achievements that would have cluttered up the profile - during a brief exchange Friday following the induction ceremony.
That is more of a reflection on his character than anything about our newspaper.
After all, not many people who have distinguished themselves in their profession would take time to point out that they were a C+ student in high school, something Frank noted during his acceptance speech Friday evening. The 1969 graduate of Spring Valley High School isn't ashamed of his average academic record or the fact that he was a challenge to his teachers because all those things are who he is and what make him what he is today.
Of course, he did improve on those grades when he furthered his education, getting undergraduate and law degrees with magna cum laude honors. And his expertise in law was noticed just eight years after he began his legal career, he was appointed in 1985 to the state district court bench and served as chief judge of Minnesota's Sixth Judicial District on the Iron Range from 1991 to 1996. Then he was sworn in as a U.S. district judge in 1998 after being recommended by President Bill Clinton and confirmed by Congress.
Still, he says he learned a lot from people like milk hauler Lyle Clark, farmer Clayton Frank and appliance serviceman Russell Hancock.
"I didn't realize I was being given guidance all those years," he said about his time growing up in rural southeastern Minnesota.
None of those people who helped shape him had fancy initials behind their names, but they did understand good values and a good work ethic, something that he said provided him a good foundation. It wasn't until he left the area that he learned not everyone shared that same work ethic.
Although his average academic record may have led some people to figure he wouldn't go far, he did get encouragement from his family, certain teachers and a local pastor to pursue his dreams.
"People didn't give up on me," he said.
That compassion is ingrained in him today. He said he learned on the streets of Spring Valley and on the farms in the area how to treat people - that you shouldn't judge people by their social background, whether or not they have a 4.0 grade point average or if they look different.
Perhaps the person who taught him the greatest lesson is Dutch, his father's cousin, who had a developmental disability. He was included as another member of the family, attending church with the others and helping out at the store his father owned.
"I didn't realize it at the time, but this was really a message saying that they have the same hopes and dreams that we do," Judge Frank was quoted as saying in a judicial profile.
That same profile noted that as a prosecutor, state court judge and federal judge, he strived to make the justice system fair for all individuals coming before the court. In particular, though, he has always had a concern for people with disabilities, which he would like to see added to the traditional notions of diversity. He said he believes that people with disabilities are the "forgotten minority."
Many people can easily be forgotten these days by people in power, but Frank takes time to remember all people in his daily life. Even in the lofty position he has attained, he has been reported to have taken special efforts to help people such as those who clean the federal courthouse and is admired by people from all walks of life.
Friday, as he spoke before a crowd of local residents, he stressed that he couldn't have gotten to where he is now without the foundations he received in the local schools and communities.
"I haven't forgotten my roots and where I come from," he said.
He wasn't familiar with the award before he received it, but he mused that he figures part of the responsibility of earning it is that he "set an example," then adding perhaps that should be the expectations of all of us.
That's a good point. After all, just as Frank didn't realize he was being given guidance all these years, likely the people who guided him never realized that they were providing a solid foundation for him.
The young people who may find themselves in your presence today may not look or act like they are destined for greatness, but there is no better example you can give them than by supporting their hopes and dreams. Some day, they may end up thanking you in a very public way.