No one knew everything about John Borman, a self-described “country lawyer” from Winona whose life encompassed so many facets that not even his family and closest friends could track them all.
Borman died April 7 from complications related to a traumatic brain injury sustained in May 2013, when a gust of wind blew him off a ladder as he inspected his beloved 29-foot sailboat in a Lake Pepin dry dock. He was 73.
Leaving nothing to chance, the always-prepared personal injury lawyer wrote his own obituary. Here are the bones of it: Born March 21, 1946, in Little Falls, Minn., the eldest of nine children. Raised on a dairy farm. Attended a one-room school until age 12, when the family moved to north Minneapolis. Graduated from St. Bridget School and DeLaSalle High School, class of 1964.
Borman enlisted in the Marine Corps and flew 126 missions during two tours in Vietnam as a helicopter gunner and armorer. He graduated from the University of Minnesota, worked as a community organizer, then enrolled at Notre Dame Law School, graduating in 1979. He got a clerkship with District Judge Glenn Kelley in Winona, where he got the bug to be a country lawyer. Even so, Borman joined Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, a prestigious Minneapolis law firm, where he rose to partner. After 16 years, he returned to Winona to live out his dreams.
By all accounts, Borman dreamed big.
He became known as an outstanding legal strategist, said Dan O’Leary, a Sunfish Lake attorney and colleague. “Although he certainly won many more cases than he lost, he was not afraid to lose and often took on a case with slim odds of winning because someone had a story that needed to be told,” O’Leary said.
Borman, a longtime human rights advocate, traveled to Tunisia, Israel and the Palestinian territories, and published reports about his findings. After a stroke led to his early retirement in 2000, he focused on truth and reconciliation projects in Peru, Liberia and at home through the Winona Dakota Unity Alliance. “He was looked at as a peacemaker by Native Americans,” said Judy Fehn, a sister who looked after him after his brain injury.
Trudell Guerue, an American Indian lawyer, judge and Vietnam veteran who befriended Borman in law school, sang in Lakota at his funeral.
Working through the Ohio-based DOVE Fund, Borman also helped veterans resolve their feelings about war. He helped raise money to build schools in Vietnam, including the first school for the blind there.
Borman traveled widely, making fast friends everywhere. O’Leary recalled sailing by the Greek island Scorpios, owned by the late billionaire Aristotle Onassis, when Borman suddenly jumped ship and swam ashore. He was quickly surrounded by security guards, but they soon were laughing and patting him on the back, O’Leary said. He said Borman told the guards he just wanted to say he had been a guest on the island.
While Borman doted on his friends, he dearly loved Mac Arthur Nelson II, a foster child he and his first wife took in at age 12. Nelson, also a former Marine, said he and his dad were extremely close — yet even he didn’t know everything about him.
“No one person could keep tabs on him,” Nelson said.
Asked what he admired most about his dad, Nelson said: “Just knowing that he cared so much about his fellow man. … If I can do that, then I will feel I was carrying on his legacy.”
Borman spent his final years living at the MainStreet Lodge assisted-living facility in Minneapolis, where he died.
Services have been held.