Sporting his customary colorful bow tie and occasionally tapping a tablet computer, Justice Alan Page was passing his final few seconds on the bench of the Minnesota Supreme Court when the attorney wrapping up arguments asked if the seven black-robed judges had any last questions.
“I guess I have one,” Page said quietly that June morning, almost murmuring. The question was simple, easily answered, and it seemed to bring to a characteristically humble close the 22-year judicial career of a man whose remarkable life arc has carried him from working-class childhood in Ohio, to four Super Bowls with the Minnesota Vikings and the Pro Football Hall of Fame, to the top of the legal profession in his adopted state.
Reserved to a fault and largely indifferent to accolades, Page — who will reach the court’s mandatory retirement age of 70 on Aug. 7 — nearly escaped the courtroom that day without having to sit through public acknowledgment of his pending departure. Then Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea spoke up.
“Before we recess, I just want to note for the record that it’s Justice Page’s last day on the bench,” said Gildea, prompting a smile and nod from Page. “It has been an honor to serve the people of Minnesota in the courtroom with you. We are adjourned.”
Brief and unsentimental, Gildea’s send-off was in keeping with the formality and dignity of the state’s highest court. For Page, it was still a bit much.
“I told her later that, had I known it was coming, I would have been out of there before she had the opportunity,” he told the Star Tribune a few days later. “When you’re 15 or 16, all that recognition is nice. Fifty years later, enough is enough.”
Supreme Court justice. Gridiron legend. Longtime benefactor to students of color. Children’s book author. Serious collector of art and artifacts of the African-American experience. Dedicated runner. Maple syrup maker. Automobile lover. Snazzy dresser. Sousaphone player. Husband, father and grandfather. As the sun sets on Page’s active career in the law, Minnesota will see one of its most unique public figures retreat firmly into private life.
The Supreme Court itself will lose an important source of institutional memory. Page is the seventh-longest serving justice in the court’s 157-year history, and currently the most senior by more than a decade. Going quiet is a legal voice that scholars and former colleagues alike said has grown increasingly bold in dissent in recent years, at a time when the court’s majority rulings have more frequently hewed to the kind of constitutional “originalism” that Page views as naive to the real-world implications of judicial decisions.
“Justice can be very harsh in the absence of humanity,” said former Justice Paul Anderson, who retired from the court when he hit 70 in 2013. “The law is supposed to make common sense. When you’re talking about Alan, there’s a common sense and a common humanity that maybe won’t be as evident on the court.”
For Minnesotans of a certain age, Page’s court years will always be a sequel of sorts to his historic 11-season run with the Vikings.
As part of the notorious “Purple People Eaters” defensive line, Page helped lead the team to the 1970, ’74, ’75 and ’77 Super Bowls. They never won, but many longtime fans still call him the best athlete to ever don a Vikings jersey.
“He was very quick, he was strong and he was intelligent,” said former Vikings coach Bud Grant, who like Page joined the team in 1967. “He played every down, and if you took him out to give him a rest he’d get mad. ‘I’m not tired, I’m not tired,’ he’d say.”
In 1971 Page was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, the first defenseman to earn that distinction.
“To the extent I had some success, it was my ability to stay focused, and in every play do what I could to get to the ball. Not worry about the last play,” Page said.
By all accounts intensely competitive in the moment, off the field Page had a complicated relationship with football. After the 1977 Super Bowl loss, he told a reporter: “How on earth can otherwise sensible people get so involved in a football game? You could measure the lasting impact on the lives of the people who played in it and those who watch it at just about zero.”
Forty years later, Page professes the same disinterest. He rarely watches games.
“I’ve never been much of a football fan,” said Page, calling the game violent and noisy.
The law was Page’s second career. But he dreamed of being a lawyer before he ever picked up a football in a serious way.
Growing up in Ohio’s Rust Belt, in Canton, Page — the youngest of four — saw older relatives spend decades in steel mills. He watched lawyer shows like “Perry Mason” and pictured a different life.
“You’d hear stories about lawyers being wealthy and driving big fancy cars, playing golf every Wednesday afternoon,” Page said.
In the pre-Civil Rights era, Canton was “segregated not necessarily by law but in fact,” Page said. His mother, Georgiana, who died unexpectedly when Page was 13, was a locker room attendant; father, Howard, ran a nightclub and repaired jukeboxes. In high school, Page followed his older brother onto the football team and showed an immediate aptitude.
A scholarship to Notre Dame followed, a 1966 national college football championship ensued, and soon the Vikings came calling.
During his second season, Page enrolled at law school at William Mitchell College of Law but dropped out after three weeks. In 1975 he tried again, at the University of Minnesota.
“When Alan made up his mind to do something, he did it,” said fellow Vikings defensive end Jim Marshall.
Page passed the Minnesota bar in 1978, weeks before he was cut by the Vikings. In 1981, after three years with the Chicago Bears, Page retired from the NFL. He and his wife, Diane, moved their family back to Minneapolis, and Page built a legal career — first in private practice, then as an assistant state attorney general.
Getting on the court
Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the year Page graduated from high school. A quarter-century later, he was mulling a campaign for the state Supreme Court in a state that had never elected a black person to statewide office or seen one seated on the high court.
Page expressed interest to two governors but failed to secure a judicial appointment. In order to run for the Supreme Court, he successfully sued former Gov. Arne Carlson, who tried to void the 1992 Supreme Court election by extending the term of a sitting justice about two years from retirement.
Many in the state’s legal and political establishment were openly skeptical of Page’s high court ambitions.
“I was having to defend him as a well-rounded lawyer and legal mind,” said Minneapolis attorney Thomas Kayser, who represented Page in the suit against Carlson. “I said, forget about football.”
Even some black activists who were actively pushing for more black judges in Minnesota had reservations.
Ronald Edwards, who then led the Minneapolis Urban League, remembers why. “It was a problem for some that he had married a white woman,” Edwards said.
Married once before, Page married Diane Sims in 1973. Both tried to ignore the criticism, although Diane — a Minnesota native — said she took heat from some in her own family.
Despite the rocky path to the ballot, in November 1992 Minnesota voters overwhelming elected Page to the Supreme Court.
Voice of dissent
Resentment initially lingered among several fellow justices over his aggressive approach to getting on the court, Page recalls.
But in the years since, he’s become a beloved figure. Current and past justices, former law clerks and legal scholars call him a champion of social justice and racial equity, a promoter of diversity in the courts, and an advocate of clearly written opinions.
“Justice Page always believed non-lawyers should understand what the law means,” said China Boak Terrell, who clerked for him in 2001 and 2002.
In recent years, four Republican appointees often aligned on one side of the issues, with Page and two DFL appointees in dissent.
“The court has grown more attentive to the letter of the statute, and said we’re not going to go beyond that unless the Legislature tells us we can,” said Peter Knapp, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law.
Page has resisted. In 2013, he dissented to a majority decision that a Monticello woman’s driver’s license was properly revoked for driving while intoxicated as she tried to escape her abusive husband.
“Today the court, in essence, concludes that losing the privilege to drive is a small price to pay for saving your life,” Page wrote.
What comes next
Still tall and strapping, if a bit stooped, the white-bearded Page says he bears little physical toll from his playing years, other than an oddly angled left pinky (the subject of a 2013 children’s book, “Alan and his Perfectly Pointy Impossibly Perpendicular Pinky,” that he co-wrote with daughter Kamie).
Every day for decades, Alan and Diane Page have jogged around Lake of the Isles, near their Kenwood home. Page wears a fanny pack full of dog treats for passing pooches.
Retirement means more time to exercise, more time with his four grandchildren, more visits to the family’s northern Minnesota cabin, and plans to take a sausage-making class to complement the maple syrup enterprise. He plans to write more children’s books.
Page plans a more active role in running the Page Education Foundation, which has distributed more than 6,000 college scholarships to Minnesota students of color since 1988. Page said he’s had discussions with the University of Minnesota about an unspecified role at the Law School, but seems more genuinely excited at the possibility of teaching much younger students.
“One concept that he’s been talking about a lot, is a seminar for third-grade African-American males, teaching them how to write,” Diane said. “That could become a model for something much bigger nationally if it worked.”
While his decades in public life have coincided with strides in racial justice, Page steps down at a time of renewed attention to progress yet to be made: the Black Lives Matter movement, controversy over the Confederate Flag and police brutality.
“You can say we’ve made progress, but some of it is progress on the surface,” Page said. “We have, in our effort to present ourselves as a colorblind society, in some respects turned a blind eye to racial bias. Making it harder to detect is not the same as making it go away. It really hasn’t.”
Were it not for the mandatory retirement age, Page admits he’d probably stay on the court longer. But he said having the decision made for him was probably a blessing.
“Those are the rules, and I understood that when I walked in the door,” Page said. “I played by them, and I expected others to play by them, so it would be highly hypocritical had I wanted to change them.”