Bemidji native and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Russell A. Anderson has died.

Anderson was appointed to the state's high court as a representative for rural Minnesota, a role colleagues say he quickly expanded with his brilliant, quiet leadership. He died at home Tuesday at 78 from brain cancer. His family was by his side, including his wife, Kristin, who said he had been diagnosed with glioblastoma in November 2017.

On Thursday, former Gov. Arne Carlson said that in 1998 he needed a Supreme Court appointee who was "the best voice we could get for rural Minnesota — and we got the best voice for all of Minnesota."

The former governor, a Republican who championed merit-based, nonpartisan judicial selection, said he made no better judicial appointment than Anderson, who had the "intellect, empathy and integrity" for the job.

Before Anderson came to St. Paul, his legal leadership and work ethic was highly regarded in northwest Minnesota. He worked in private practice in Bemidji and as Beltrami County attorney before joining the Ninth Judicial District Court bench, where he also served as chief judge until his appointment to the high court as an associate justice.

'Gentle giant'

He was a graduate of St. Olaf College in Northfield, and went on to earn his law degree from the University of Minnesota and a Master of Laws from George Washington University. He was a member of the Judge Advocate General Corps of the U.S. Navy in Washington, D.C.

Anderson joined the high court led by then-Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz. In an interview, she called him a "gentle giant" in the state judiciary and her "go-to person" in leading an administrative overhaul of the system that created the state Judicial Council.

"He had iron in him," Blatz said, adding, "He took his work very seriously, but never himself."

Both Blatz and Carlson maintained friendships with Anderson and Kristin, his wife of 53 years, long after he left the court.

"I just enjoyed him," Blatz said, recalling their many car rides to Bemidji for court appearances. Anderson drove while she rode in the back seat reading legal papers, calling out crossword clues and eating Dairy Queen takeout.

Both Blatz and Carlson described Anderson as a level-headed straight-shooter and a gifted listener who sought to understand others and treated everyone equally.

"He never held his intelligence over you," Carlson said. "He gave you a sense of confidence so you could fully participate."

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty elevated Anderson to chief when Blatz retired in 2006. Anderson retired from the bench two years later.

After Anderson left the bench, he taught evidence at the University of Minnesota's law school. Former student Chris Schmitter, now chief of staff to Gov. Tim Walz, said Anderson was a humble, approachable instructor who wove messages of integrity and common sense into the coursework. "Every lesson we had was filled with stories from his years of practice as a lawyer and a judge," Schmitter said.

The current chief justice, Lorie Gildea, who succeeded Anderson as an associate justice, issued a statement Thursday praising him. "He was a humble leader, a close mentor to me, and an inspiration to many who now carry his lessons of respect and humanity forward in their careers," she said.

Gildea said Anderson would be remembered for his "compassion, dedication and commitment to ensure that every Minnesotan has equal access to justice." He led efforts to combat domestic violence, promote problem-solving courts that focus on rehabilitation, and enhance public access to court information, she said.

A trio of Andersons

In his high court tenure, he was never the only Anderson on the court. Justice Paul H. Anderson was appointed by Carlson in 1994 and retired in 2013. Pawlenty appointed Justice G. Barry Anderson, who remains on the court, in 2004, creating a trio of Andersons on the high court.

Anderson was preceded in death by his parents, Albert and Sally Anderson, as well as his brother, Wayne.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his children, Rebecca Schmitz of Eden Prairie, John Anderson of Chicago and Sarah Harriss of Bloomington, Ind.; two granddaughters and two step-grandsons.

Schmitz said her father was always positive and instilled in his children a sense of public service. She recalled a Thanksgiving Day trip to the grocery store when the woman ahead of them didn't have enough to pay for her purchases, including diapers. Schmitz, then 8, said her father handed a $20 bill to the shopper, telling her she had dropped it.

Outside the store, Schmitz said she asked him about the story he made up. "Sometimes you just have to do the right thing," she said he told her.

A service of celebration will be livestreamed at 11 a.m. Sept. 24 from Bethlehem Lutheran Church, 4100 Lyndale Av. S., Minneapolis. Visitation is from 5-7 p.m. Wednesday at Gill Brothers Minneapolis Chapel, 5801 Lyndale Av. S.

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747

Twitter: @rochelleolson