When John Weyrens first became a judge in Meeker County in the 1970s, he adopted a simple credo: If he ever stopped agonizing over sending someone to prison, it would be time to hang up his robes.

Weyrens was the kind of independent-minded jurist who believed in second chances, rehabilitation and redemption for offenders whose cases he handled, according to his wife of 52 years, Kate Kugler.

“Kind of a mixture of the letter of the law and that most people can make mistakes, but aren’t too bad,” she said of his outlook. “In a way, he was kind of unusual, because he struggled with that.”

That sense of empathy never dulled, even after years on the bench, she said.

The retired Eighth District chief judge, who went by “Jack,” died May 8 at his home in Oak Park Heights. He was 83.

Those who passed through his courtroom over the years praised Weyrens’ humility, sense of compassion and fairness.

He used to grant furloughs to nonviolent prisoners at Christmastime so they could spend the holiday with their families, his wife recalled. “We joked about him emptying the county jail during the Christmas season,” Kugler said.

And instead of the traditional black, he wore a gray robe while hearing cases, because he felt it reflected his view that the world is rarely black and white.

At a memorial service last week, friends, relatives and former colleagues honored that legacy, remembering Weyrens as a deep thinker who would come home after sentencings and wrestle with his decisions, turning the facts of the case over and over in his head. His gray robe was draped next to a guest book at the service, with dozens of signatures from fellow judges and former law clerks.

Weyrens was a dedicated father who always found time to spend with their three children, his wife said.

He was born in St. Cloud and grew up during the depths of the Depression with his parents and seven siblings. He attended Itasca Junior College and St. John’s University before earning a law degree from William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. He and his wife married a few years later, after he served a three-year stint in the Army, stationed in Cold War Germany.

He would go on to practice law in tiny Dawson, Minn., before being elected a County Court judge in 1972, back when counties had separate courts for felony and misdemeanor cases. A decade later, he was appointed District Court judge and eventually became chief judge of the 8th Judicial District, briefly serving as chairman of the state Conference of Chief Judges. He retired in 2000.

He also was an avid student of history, taking particular pleasure in reading about presidential politics and Russian history.

He was a devoted traveler and regularly went to the East Coast with his wife to visit their kids or on camping trips out West. The couple once took a river cruise to St. Petersburg, Russia, and enjoyed traveling outside the country.

But the courtroom was never far from his mind.

Attorney Brad Frago was just out of law school when he started clerking for Weyrens in 1992, who then was working out of the Meeker County courthouse in Litchfield.

“He could talk easily with anybody, from any background,” said Frago, who runs a family law firm in Northfield with his wife, Michelle, who also worked under Weyrens.

“He wasn’t a stuffy judge in some ivory tower.”

Weyrens is survived by his wife, Kate; a sister, Barbara Sura; a brother, James; children MaryKate, John and David; and numerous grandchildren, nieces and nephews.