Roger Nierengarten wore a prestigious black robe as a Minnesota Court of Appeals judge for five years, but at times, he felt uncomfortable in it.
He relished the work of deciding cases — that fed into his lifelong yearning for justice — but he was never one for pomp and circumstance and despised “black robe disease,” a legal-community term for judicial arrogance.
Nierengarten, friends and relatives said, kept a lifelong humble attitude despite big accomplishments, including earning medals as a World War II parachute jumper, getting assigned to the prestigious West Point, earning a law degree, winning a county attorney election and getting appointed to the state Court of Appeals.
Nierengarten died in December. He was 88.
Growing up in Winthrop and Chaska, Nierengarten enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943 and found himself parachuting into combat in the Philippines. He and his colleagues were preparing to parachute into Japan, a task they viewed as almost certain death, but got reprieve when the atomic bomb was dropped, family members said. Instead, at age 19, he helped usher Gen. Douglas MacArthur into Japan. The military then gave him $50 and told him to make his way back across the world to a West Point prep school.
He completed part of his trip on a cargo plane with POWs, his daughter said. Soon, though, he decided a life in the military wasn’t for him, and he returned to Minnesota for college at St. John’s University and then Wisconsin’s Marquette Law School. He was awarded the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Presidential Unit Citation.
He married Dolores Lehman, a former student at the College of St. Benedict, and later opened his own law office in St. Cloud in 1956. He served as Stearns County attorney in the 1960s, and worked as a special assistant attorney general for the state. He retired from private practice in 2010 but continued to serve as an arbitrator even during his days in hospice.
A devout Catholic and strong Democrat, Nierengarten believed in searching for alternatives to war and became active in Pax Christi, an international peace organization. He was a tenor with the Minnesota Center Chorale.
“He was a person who accepted what happened in life, not complained,” his wife said. “He felt that when things happen, you accept them, you endure them and you have hope.”
In his professional life, Nierengarten felt most comfortable at trial, said friend Dick Pemberton, an attorney in Fergus Falls.
“He liked to go in there and trade blows with a worthy opponent, and he believed that justice was reached best by the opposition of competent forces, and then let the jury figure out who’s right and who’s wrong,” Pemberton said.
Nierengarten loved helping people and enjoyed going out to clients’ houses to talk to them, friends and relatives said. “He was always trying to represent and help people who he felt were given a raw deal,” his wife said.
Daughter Mary Beth Nierengarten said her father had an insatiable curiosity and wide-ranging interests, from art to politics to science, and he loved to debate. He parented each of his four daughters according to their different personalities and made each one feel loved, she said. He was “always very aware of how other people were doing and so he was very concerned, for our welfare,” she said. “Up until the very end, that was his strongest sentiment. I’d say he was concerned for us more than anything.”
His enduring wit and sense of humor put everyone at ease, they said. Mary Beth recalled how, just weeks before he died, her father had a conversation with a friend from law school over speaker phone. At the end, barely able to speak, he signed off almost whispering to his friend, “I look forward to when we meet in heaven.” Then he paused and added with a smile, “despite the way you’ve lived.”
Nierengarten is survived by his wife and daughters, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Services have been held.