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Obituary of Gerald W. Heaney: Judge in St. Louis school desegregation case, war hero

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 23, 2010 - Gerald Heaney, a retired federal appeals court judge, died Tuesday (June 22) in Duluth, Minn. He was 92. Judge Heaney spent more than two decades working to see that black children in St. Louis received a better education through the cross-district school desegregation program.

In a 2007 laughter-sprinkled interview with Minneapolis Public Radio (MPR), Judge Heaney talked about the St. Louis case that would have a profound effect on the course of education here and helped shape desegregation cases nationwide. 

It began with Liddell v. Board of Education of St. Louis and Minnie Liddell who, Judge Heaney said, was "fed up" with having her son bused across town to attend a segregated school.

"She got a lot of other black women and they got a lawyer and started this action in federal court," said Judge Heaney, who then sat on the U.S. Court of Appeals, 8th Circuit. "The initial (desegregation) decision was appealed to our court and we said it was inadequate."

The appeals court's remedy was the $1.5 billion Voluntary Inter-district Transfer Program. From 1981 through 1999, Susan Uchitelle was director of the Voluntary Inter-District Coordinating Council, which coordinated the transfer of thousands of black children to mostly white suburban schools and white children to St. Louis City magnet schools. She remembered her "egalitarian, humanitarian" colleague.

"He was just a man of incredible integrity and an incredibly perceptive judge, especially on civil rights," Uchitelle said. "He cared about the St. Louis school system and was extremely interested in the students, wanting them to have the opportunity for a quality education. He put his life into that case."

The effect of the program Judge Heaney told MPR, was that it gave black and white children an opportunity to go to integrated schools. And therein lay the controversy.

"Most of the kids viewed it that way," Judge Heaney said. "Some of the teachers didn't and not very many of the parents."

Judge Heaney was untroubled by the controversial nature of the plan, noting in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the anti-busing movement was "premised on faulty reasoning and inconclusive facts," pointing out that busing had long been used to maintain segregation in many parts of the country, with less than 7 percent bused for desegregation.

The St. Louis plan had built-in incentives that made it work. It required that the full cost of educating transfer students be paid by the state of Missouri and required the state to pick up all transportation costs.

"It was meaningless to say that they (black students) had the right if they didn't have any way to get to school," Judge Heaney said.

The plan was not perfect, but it was, he said, "The thing to do."

It withstood challenges to various elements from the state of Missouri with the U.S. Supreme Court upholding the plan seven times. But despite its success, Judge Heaney felt that the settlement could have been better and continued the effort in a book he co-authored with Uchitelle in 2004.

"Unending Struggle: The Long Road to an Equal Education in St. Louis" was dedicated to Minnie Liddell and the thousands of students who became a part of the desegregation program.

The book chronicled the intricacies of the case that resulted in the largest school choice program in the country, and gave voice to the people who were affected by the debate, including teachers, administrators, public officials and, of course, the students.

Judge Heaney also wrote or co-wrote opinions that desegregated schools in Kansas City, Omaha, Neb. and Little Rock, Ark.

During his tenure, Judge Heaney heard more than 3,000 cases.

From Small Town, to World Stage

Gerald William Heaney, one of seven children, was born Jan. 29, 1918, in Goodhue, a farming community in southeastern Minnesota. As long as he could remember, he had wanted to be a lawyer; and he became politically active at the age of 10, nailing campaign flyers on telephone poles in Goodhue for Al Smith, a New York Progressive. In 1948, he dove into politics, backing Hubert Humphrey, then mayor of Minneapolis, in his successful bid for U.S. senator from Minnesota.

"He was the most articulate man I ever knew, and he said all the things I believed," Judge Heaney told MPR.

Judge Heaney graduated from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor of science in Law in 1939 and received his law degree from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1941. He enlisted in the Marines prior to graduating from law school but was rejected because of color blindness. After completing law school, he worked briefly as an attorney for the Minnesota State Securities Commission. In 1942, he again volunteered for military service, this time with the Army.

Michael Gans, Clerk of the U.S. Court of Appeals, 8th Circuit, called Judge Heaney "a true war hero." He was one of the hundreds of members of the Second Ranger Battalion who landed in the first wave on Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day 1944.

"He didn't talk about this horrific experience much, but it was something right out of 'Saving Private Ryan'," said Gans, who worked closely with Judge Heaney from 1983 until his retirement in 2006.

Judge Heaney later called himself "very, very lucky," noting that 60 percent of the men who went ashore with him, including his best friend, died on D-Day.

He fought across Europe, earning Silver and Bronze Stars for his service.

After Germany surrendered, he was able to use some of his law school training to help rewrite the Free State of Bavaria's labor laws. But with the war over, Judge Heaney was eager to come home. His request was rejected twice, until he appealed directly to Gen. George S. Patton.

When Gen. Patton learned that he had led Rangers on D-Day and fought in other major battles, Patton said he could go home. Judge Heaney quoted Gen. Patton as saying, "Give him anything he wants."

One of the things he wanted most was to marry Eleanor Schmitt, whom he met while in college. And that was among the first things he did when he returned home in 1946. They were married for 64 years and had two children, Carol and William.

Fairness, Compassion, Service

The family lived in Duluth, the only big town in Minnesota that did not have a lawyer working with the American Federation of Labor. Judge Heaney, who was working with the firm of Lewis, Hammer, Heaney, Weyl and Halverson, saw his opportunity to begin his life's work of helping others. Around this time, he again became politically active, working with Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor ("DFL") Party.

In 1966, Eugene McCarthy, the senior senator from Minnesota, recommended Judge Heaney for the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, and he was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

In addition to the St. Louis case, during his time on the court, Judge Heaney took a lead role in several high profile cases, all with a markedly civil rights bent. The St. Louis Beacon recalled two such cases in a story last fall.

Judge Heaney weighed in on the case of the city of Black Jack, which incorporated in north St. Louis County as a city to thwart an integrated, subsidized housing project in 1972. The newly incorporated city promptly passed an ordinance barring new construction. Judge Heaney ruled that Black Jack's claims that the apartments would cause more traffic or crowded schools were not sufficient to prevent building.

Another case involved the St. Louis Fire Department, which refused to integrate; in 1978, the city had only one black fire captain among 180 slots. The appeals court, with Judge Heaney writing the strongly worded opinion, insisted on immediate changes.

"We cannot ask those black firefighters who have been the victims of discrimination to wait forever for the vindication of their rights," Heaney wrote. He instructed the city to immediately offer promotions to 12 black firefighters who were qualified for the positions.

He was an outspoken opponent of the death penalty, saying it lacked a deterrent effect and was inherently unfair. He was also a champion of women's rights, hiring the Eighth Circuit's first woman law clerk, Rebecca Knittle, in 1970. He also hired the court's first African-American law clerk, Henry L. Jones Jr., who later became a U.S. magistrate judge in Little Rock.

Judge Heaney, along with his wife Eleanor, raised money for scholarships for students attending the University of Minnesota-Duluth. After retiring from the bench in 2006, he again returned to his first love - politics - volunteering at the local DFL Party campaign offices. In 2007, he served as co-chair of Don Ness's successful campaign for mayor of Duluth.

The federal courthouse and customhouse in Duluth, and the residence hall at the University of Minnesota-Duluth are named in Judge Heaney's honor. In 2001, he received an honorary doctor of laws degree for public service from the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

In an interview with MPR following his retirement, Judge Heaney summed up his life modestly and succinctly:

"In my life experiences of growing up in a small town, with a kind father (his mother died when he was young), serving in the army, representing the labor movement, being involved in politics, being heavily involved in the community ... so finally when you get a hard case, a tough case that people can reasonably disagree on, it comes down to really what you think is best for our country in the long run."

Mr. Heaney was preceded in death by his parents, William J., the owner of a butcher shop, and Johanna R. Heaney.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Heaney is survived by his son William Heaney and daughter, Carol McPherson-Heaney; a sister, Elizabeth Majerus; six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Services are being handled by Dougherty Funeral Home, 600 East 2nd Street, Duluth, Minn. 55805-2099, 218-727-3555, www.doughertyfuneralduluth.com

Visitation will be from 5-7 p.m. Monday (June 28) at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary, 2800 East Fourth Street, in Duluth. The funeral will be at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at the same location.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.