Gunnar Nordbye tried associates of the infamous gangster John Dillinger. He dined with royals from his native Norway, and from his Minneapolis courtroom he ruled on the ownership of newly discovered writings from Capt. William Clark’s historic expedition.
But in the 40 years since his death, a fading black-and-white photo was all that remained inside the state’s courthouses to remember one of the longest serving federal judges in Minnesota history.
Nordbye’s likeness returned this month to a perch looking over a Minneapolis courtroom when his became the first of four portraits commissioned by the court to commemorate judges who have long since passed.
The project, paid for with nonappropriated funds, has demanded some detective work to track down relatives and others who can help revive pieces of local judicial lore that are threatening to recede from public view.
“It’s keeping this judge alive,” said Cyd Wicker, the Minneapolis portrait artist working on the project.
Wicker has painted many of the federal judicial portraits on display in Minnesota, a practice that only began in the 1990s and almost exclusively for living judges who assumed senior status. Working around a judge’s schedule and within their standards for their portraits — a large black robe is a must and prominently displayed American flags are common — can pose a challenge for any artist.
With the portrait of Nordbye, and the three judges to follow, Wicker must work to bring to life a judge no longer here.
Last fall, Judge John Tunheim asked for the artist’s help on part of his latest task to preserve the court’s history. A pair of books — including a history of Minnesota’s federal courthouses — are also in the works.
“It really is all about honoring the services of judges who had long and distinguished careers in our court and making sure that the public today — particularly lawyers — don’t forget about what they contributed to the development of the law in Minnesota,” Tunheim said.
When Nordbye’s relatives first saw the finished portrait, unveiled at a July 9 ceremony in Minneapolis, they instantly noticed the small Norwegian flag that honored his homeland and the “twinkle” in his eyes that advertised a humorous streak beneath his otherwise stately appearance.
“I see so much idealism in this,” said granddaughter Susan Nordbye, who added that the portrait caused her to think of her own family’s history in the context of today’s fierce immigration debates. “The imagery we impart to that idea of a judge, [Wicker] did a really great job bringing the human aspect to that.”
Eighth Circuit aquavit toasts
By then the court’s most senior judge, Nordbye actually received the original batch of picture portraits prepared for Minnesota’s federal judges at a 1965 ceremony in Minneapolis.
“There is no better way to keep their memory green, or to inspire those who follow them, than by having in our courtrooms the likenesses of judges who have played such an important part in the judicial history of this state,” Nordbye said, according to a transcript from the event.
But light exposure, and the passage of time, has betrayed the images’ mortality. Unlike other courts, such as the Minnesota Supreme Court’s policy of putting each chief justice on a portrait, the federal bench here only recently began telling its judges’ stories through oil and canvas.
“You can get a greater sense of the judge from the painted portrait — it’s more dynamic,” said Thomas Boyd, a Minneapolis attorney who leads the district court’s historical society.
Boyd said the portraits also offer a chance to add touches showcasing items of importance to the judges, like the Norwegian flag noting Nordbye’s birthplace and his family’s journey to western Minnesota when he was a young boy. Years later, when he was on the court, Nordbye administered the oath of citizenship to his own mother.
Senior Judge Donald Alsop, the last living judge who served with Nordbye, kept his late colleague’s robe in his chambers for 40 years before presenting it to Nordbye’s family this month. When the time came to help unveil Nordbye’s portrait, Alsop reached for a story of his own to describe the judge’s legacy.
In a scene that he said he still struggles to explain, Alsop joined a pajama-clad crush of federal judges from Minnesota to Arkansas as they crowded around a hotel pool to hoist shots of aquavit at dawn during an annual judicial conference in the mid-1970s. As Alsop explained, the gathering of judges from across the Eighth Circuit were there to follow Nordbye’s lead in reciting St. Olaf’s rallying cry to his troops before an ancient Norwegian battle.
“He could have walked us across the Mississippi,” Alsop said of Nordbye.
Wicker wants her portraits to conjure stories like Alsop’s when viewers look up and wonder who is staring back at them. On a recent morning, the bones from her work on Nordbye’s portrait still laid scattered about her northeast Minneapolis studio. Three 9- by 12-inch color sketches and a folder full of photos offered up by Nordbye’s family shared space with an in-progress portrait of Senior Judge Donovan Frank due to be unveiled in November.
Wicker, who also teaches at the adjoining Atelier Studio Program of Fine Art, likes to meet with portrait subjects at least a half-dozen times and usually asks that they visit her studio for two to three sittings. But with the posthumous portraits, Wicker worked closely with Nordbye’s two granddaughters and court staff to produce a work that struck a balance between the judge’s buttoned-down exterior and his famously playful side.
The granddaughters, both still living in Minnesota, described how Nordbye loved to sit with a pipe and whiskey in his garden and relished holiday toasts that ended with him honoring his beloved wife. One of the meetings with Wicker led to a late change to the portrait: In a nod to a photo of Nordbye hosting Norwegian royalty in 1939, the artist agreed to paint his left forearm pensively suspended and gripping a pair of eyeglasses.
“I always remember him being very proud and grateful,” Andrea Bassett, another of Nordbye’s granddaughters, said after seeing the finished work. “Proud of what he had accomplished, but very grateful for the opportunity he had been given.”
Tunheim said a relative of the next posthumous portrait subject — Judge Philip Neville — will soon travel to Minnesota to consult on the project. Judges Dennis Donovan, the last federal judge who worked full-time out of Duluth, and Robert Cook Bell will also be painted at later dates. Court staff are still trying to track down descendants of the latter.
For now, each time Tunheim enters the chief judge’s Minneapolis courtroom, he can see the predecessor whose seat he now occupies. Nordbye’s own journey to the court — a recess appointment amid a tense political battle — was one of great financial risk to the judge, who gave up a safe Hennepin County judgeship during the Great Depression to accept the nomination.
But veteran court-watchers like Boyd and successors like Alsop and Tunheim now credit Nordbye’s successful appointment as a turning point in shaping the district’s reputation of harboring nonpartisan, independent jurists.
“It helps me understand where our law has come from,” Tunheim said. “Where our processes come from.”