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A life in law: Hedeen marks six decades of distinguished law career

Bill Hedeen sits in the law library at the offices of Hedeen, Hughes & Wetering on Oxford Street in Worthington.

WORTHINGTON -- Ageless and intelligent are two of the first words people mention when asked about local attorney Bill Hedeen, but his unparalleled work ethic, loyalty and commanding presence aren't far behind.

"Bill is the world's most perfect gentleman in all he does and says," affirmed Larry Hughes, Hedeen's colleague since 1965. "It doesn't surprise me that Bill has practiced law for 60 years because he loves it."

Sixty years of active practice -- and counting. June 30, 1949, was the date Hedeen was admitted to the Minnesota State Bar, and that milestone was marked with a small celebration this past week in Worthington.

"I was looking for a position in a county seat town in rural Minnesota and was directed to see a fellow by the name of Arnold Brecht, who offered me a job," detailed Hedeen. "We worked long and hard until he died in 1980."

Hedeen, however, was just warming up; only in the past few years has he begun spending a portion of each winter in Florida.

A historical partnership

Brecht, who served as Nobles County Attorney during the difficult years encompassing the Depression and Prohibition, started the firm in 1923, and shortly after Hedeen joined him in 1949, they formed a partnership known as Brecht and Hedeen. Hughes came on board in 1965, while Bill Wetering was added to the firm in 1987.

Today, Hedeen still spends at least part of most weekdays at the Oxford Street offices of Hedeen, Hughes and Wetering, though he says he will officially be "of counsel" to the law firm as of July 1.

"I never expected at the outset that I'd still be practicing 60 years later -- that just came about," expressed Hedeen, indicating he's had "quite a few" of the same clients for the entire 60 years.

In the early days of his practice, Hedeen said he and Brecht "did a little of everything," including litigation, real estate, probate and trust law.

"Every so often we'd be appointed by the court to represent a criminal defendant," threw in Hedeen, "but a lot has changed, obviously, over the 60 years."

Hedeen handled most of the firm's litigation for a few decades, "but that's now work for younger lawyers," he opined. In more recent years, Hedeen grew fonder of the probate and trust field because "it's less stressful, and you get great satisfaction out of helping people in those areas, with relationships frequently continuing for some generations."

Although Hedeen was in his mid-60s when Wetering began working with him, Wetering asserts that his senior partner is as valuable to the practice today as he was in the 1980s.

"To me, his abilities and presence are the same as they were 20 years ago," observed Wetering. "It's been delightful to have Bill as a mentor and employer and partner."

Modest beginnings

Hedeen was born on the Iron Range and lived there until his father, a newspaperman in Eveleth, died suddenly of an illness when Hedeen was only 7. His mother made a new life for him and his 2-year-old sister at his grandmother's home in Winthrop.

During his high school years, Hedeen began considering a legal career, and a local Congregational minister, the Rev. Wheeler, encouraged him to attend Carleton College in Northfield.

Aided by "a lot of financial help from the college," Hedeen was a history major at Carleton, despite beginning classes on the very day in September 1939 that Hitler invaded Poland. With World War II as a constant backdrop, Hedeen nevertheless cemented lifelong relationships and remembers vividly lessons taught to him by professors.

Upon graduating in 1943, Hedeen spent about four months in Washington, D.C., with the National Institute of Public Affairs before beginning three years of Army service (including a year in the Pacific), followed by 10 years as a reserve officer in the counter-intelligence corps.

"I was on Okinawa when the bomb was dropped," Hedeen wryly recalled.

After graduating from the University of Minnesota Law School and being admitted to the bar on June 30, 1949, Hedeen came to work in Worthington and hasn't stopped yet.

Civic leader, family man

Besides readying him for a 60-plus-year legal career, Hedeen's time in law school was important in that it led him to his wife of nearly 59 years, Katherine.

A Bryn Mawr College graduate and native of Sioux City, Iowa, Katherine was earning her master's in psychology at the university and, like Hedeen, served as a dormitory counselor.

"They had meetings telling us how we should handle kids, and that's how it all started," summed Hedeen.

Katherine remembers the courtship in somewhat greater detail.

"A friend of mine Bill had been dating moved back to D.C., and then he called and asked me to go to 'Annie, Get Your Gun,'" related Katherine. "The night we became engaged, we saw 'Brigadoon' at the Lyceum in Minneapolis."

The couple's love of theater has been a bond throughout their marriage, and the pair has seen dozens of plays everywhere from Okoboji, Iowa, to New York to Florida to London.

The Hedeens' two daughters -- Margaret and Janet -- followed their parents' lead in acquiring solid educations. Margaret, too, graduated from Carleton and has an MBA from the University of Minnesota, while Janet -- an Augustana College alumna --earned a master's degree and, recently, a Ph.D. in education from the University of Minnesota. They have three grandchildren who are still in the process of completing their education.

While maintaining a busy legal practice, Hedeen was an able community leader, serving over time as president of the Noon Kiwanis Club (and lieutenant governor for Kiwanis' southwest region), president of the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce and president of the Worthington Area YMCA, among other commitments.

"I have always watched with great interest the progress of the Y and how it serves our community," commented Hedeen, who believes the new YMCA now under construction will be "a wonderful improvement" for Worthington.

"The new YMCA will add a dimension to the city and this area that most communities of this size just can't provide," observed Hedeen, who happened to be YMCA president at the time the pool in the existing 11th Street facility was added.

"I have to confess I've never been in the pool," admitted Hedeen, who has happily left the swimming to his wife.

Hedeen has a long-standing association with the Adrian State Bank, having been elected a director in 1959 and continuing today as a director emeritus.

In addition, Hedeen served two terms on the Minnesota State Bar Association's Board of Governors, and for six years was a Minnesota delegate to the American Bar Association House of Delegates. He was one of the first members of the Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board ("the group that disciplines the bad actors," Hedeen explained) and, in the 1980s, was elected by his peers as a life fellow of the American Bar Foundation.

"His example of leadership in the community, pro bono work and involvement on volunteer boards is hard to match," declared Wetering.

Hedeen and Katherine, also a decades-long civic volunteer, jointly received the Chamber's Community Service Award in 1991.

Peer approval

Two other stalwarts of the Worthington legal community, attorney Harris Darling and Fifth Judicial District Court Judge Jeffrey Flynn, confirm Hedeen's professional stature.

"If Bill Hedeen tells you something, you can carve it in granite," affirmed Flynn. "His reputation is impeccable. He's been practicing law as long as I've been alive, and there's never been a day when he wasn't there, able and willing to meet his responsibilities."

Darling, whose late partner, Ray Mork, was a contemporary of Hedeen's first partner, Brecht, notes that both Mork and Brecht practiced law for over 50 years.

"You do see remarkable longevity in the legal profession -- certainly here in Worthington," offered Darling. "It's always a challenge to practice law, but it keeps you thinking and very alert mentally.

"Bill is a most gracious person to deal with, from my perspective, and an accomplished attorney who is always well prepared. I have a high regard for Bill and his approach to the practice."

At home and abroad

Despite logging countless hours on the job over 60 years, Hedeen has made time for plenty of international travel with Katherine.

"I've been to over 75 different countries," related Hedeen.

A passionate reader -- of mostly non-fiction, though he admits to enjoying John Grisham's largely legal-based yarns -- Hedeen is also a football and basketball fan, an occasional golfer and an expert card player.

Evelyn Anderson, his long-time legal secretary, shared this: "He has the memory of an elephant, which contributes to his success as a lawyer, and you wouldn't want to play against him in Trivial Pursuit, but he's a real gentleman to everyone and a joy to work for.

"We'll miss him greatly if he ever does retire."