Triple honors

UND Alum and N.D. Supreme Court Justice Gerald VandeWalle receives President’s Medal, other honors

Justice Gerald VandeWalle greets well-wishers at the recent Distinguished Alumni Social event that was held in his honor at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck. Justice VandeWalle was the longest serving state Supreme Court chief justice in the country when he handed over the gavel at the end of 2019. He earned two degrees from UND (1955, 1958) and was awarded an honorary degree from his alma mater in 2015. Photo by Milo Smith, UND Alumni Association & Foundation.

Things often happen in threes.

For North Dakota Supreme Court Justice Jerry VandeWalle, who earned business and law degrees from UND in 1955 and 1958, the adage proved true on Tuesday evening.

He was surprised with three honors from the University of North Dakota and the UND Alumni Association & Foundation.

Justice VandeWalle has served the people of North Dakota with his legal knowledge and skills as the Chief Justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court for 27 years and was the longest-running chief justice in the country until handing over his gavel on Dec. 31 to fellow UND alumnus Jon Jensen. A Distinguished Alumni Social was held in his honor earlier this week where nearly 200 people gathered to celebrate and pay tribute to VandeWalle.

UND School of Law Dean Michael McGinniss spoke of Justice VandeWalle’s unwavering support of UND Law.

“I cannot begin to adequately recount the many ways in which he has generously contributed his time and talents to the law school,” McGinniss said. “Each and every year, I have witnessed his devotion to spending time with our students through classroom visits and other presentations. … He has also been an extraordinary advocate for the School of Law and its pivotal importance for our state as a critical resource for educating its future lawyers and judges.”

In a heartfelt special announcement, Dean McGinniss continued, “And it is my pleasure to announce, in gratitude for all that he has done in service to the State of North Dakota and its law school, the University of North Dakota will rename that beautiful courtroom (the large, traditional-style courtroom on the third floor of the School of Law) to honor Justice VandeWalle. It is a recognition that is most fitting, and so greatly deserved.”

An emotional and humbled Justice VandeWalle wiped tears from his eyes as the crowd rose to their feet in applause.

At the Distinguished Alumni Social event held in his honor, Justice Gerald VandeWalle speaks to the assembled guests in the Northern Lights Atrium at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck on Feb. 4. VandeWalle received the UND President’s Medal of Honor and UND Spirit Award, and had a courtroom at the UND School of Law named for him at the event. Photo by Milo Smith, UND Alumni Association & Foundation.

President’s Medal of Honor

The second award was presented by UND Interim President Joshua Wynne, who thanked the Justice for his service to the state and the University and his love for his alma mater.

“As a state and as a University, we have tried to demonstrate our thanks by honoring you with well-deserved awards and accolades. … Today, in addition to the announcement just made by Dean McGinniss, it is my great honor and privilege to award you — as someone who embodies the best of what the University of North Dakota hopes for from its students and graduates, to be a leader in action — we present to you the UND President’s Medal of Honor.

“The Medal of Honor is the highest honor the president of the University can confer,” Wynne said.

The four speakers from the Feb. 4 program pose with Justice VandeWalle. Pictured from left to right: UND School of Law Dean Michael McGinniss, UND Alumni Association & Foundation CEO DeAnna Carlson Zink, Justice Gerald VandeWalle, North Dakota Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, and UND President Joshua Wynne. Photo by Milo Smith, UND Alumni Association & Foundation.

Spirit Award

Last but not least, UND Alumni Association and Foundation Chief Executive Officer DeAnna Carlson Zink announced the third and final surprise for VandeWalle.

“We have a name for those whose vision, tenacity and service has made this University the exceptional institution that it is today,” Carlson Zink said. “We call them UND heroes, and we are honored this evening to add your name to the list of Spirit Award recipients and recognize you for being a UND hero.”

Zink explained that the Spirit Award was established in 1985 and has been presented to a very select group of deserving alumni and friends of UND who go above and beyond for the University.

Justice VandeWalle, who continues to serve as one of five justices on the state’s Supreme Court at the age of 86, concluded the evening by saying, “If I have done one thing in my life to be successful, it’s been being smart enough to surround myself with good people.”

He continued by sharing heartfelt thanks with many whom have been instrumental in his life, adding that family is by far the most important.

“I am not retiring, though I am more than old enough to retire,” he laughed.

“I have four years and 11 months on my term. It’s day by day. I promised myself when I can no longer do it, I will leave. It’s been an honor and a privilege to serve the state, and I’m surprised at the gratitude I’ve received when I should be thanking the people for allowing me to do it,” VandeWalle said.

Justice VandeWalle has also received The Sioux Award from the UND Alumni Association & Foundation; the North Dakota State Bar Association’s Distinguished Service Award; a University of North Dakota Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters, and a University of Mary degree of Doctor of Leadership. In 2015, he was the 42nd recipient of the North Dakota Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, the highest honor bestowed by the state of North Dakota. 

— Story by Leanna Ihry, Editor, UND Alumni Magazine