The man who had just spent two decades deciding the state’s highest-profile cases went to the Carlton County Courthouse with a request. He wanted to ease the burden on local judges by volunteering his time to hear small claims cases a couple days a week.
“It was unusual for someone of his stature to ask to do conciliation court,” said Bruce Ahlgren, a former Cloquet mayor and retired Carlton County court administrator. “He was just a regular old guy. He just loved meeting people and being with people.”
Yetka, who spent more than 50 years in public service through various local and state political and legal roles, died Sunday, Nov. 12, in Cloquet. He was 93.
The only person from northeastern Minnesota to serve on the state Supreme Court in the past half-century, friends and colleagues said Yetka was a tireless advocate for the region throughout his life.
As an associate justice, Yetka was cited as a leader in the creation of an intermediate-level Court of Appeals and the construction of the Minnesota Judicial Center on the grounds of the State Capitol in St. Paul.
Prior to his tenure on the high court, Yetka long maintained a local law office, serving as Cloquet city attorney and representing numerous other municipalities and governmental bodies.
In his younger days, he also served in the Minnesota House of Representatives and was a major force in state DFL politics, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Congressman John Blatnik and future Vice Presidents Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale.
“He was a wonderful leader for most of his lifetime,” Mondale said Tuesday. “He helped the Cloquet area all the time.”
Yetka followed in the footsteps of his father, who had earlier served as Carlton County attorney and Cloquet city attorney.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota, he opened a law practice in Cloquet in 1949 and was elected the next year to the state Legislature at the age of 26.
After five terms in the House, Yetka went on to chair the 8th Congressional District DFL and served as the lead organizer for President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Duluth in September 1963.
He became involved in statewide and national elections — including as a floor supporter for Humphrey’s successful nomination at the famous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
One of his three sons, Frank Yetka, is a third-generation Cloquet city attorney. Reflecting on his father’s front-row seat to national politics, he recalled an occasion when Humphrey — as the sitting vice president — visited the area and stayed overnight at the family’s Cloquet home, taking time to play catch with the kids in the backyard.
“Seeing him and how happy he was, I gained the same interest,” Frank Yetka said of his father’s career in the law and government. “That can’t help but leave an impression.”
Mondale said Yetka was a friend of 50 years. They met in the early 1960s, when Mondale was serving as Minnesota attorney general. He recalled attending Labor Day parades in Cloquet and said it helped having a close ally in northeastern Minnesota.
“He knew what was going on,” Mondale said. “He’d take you around and introduce you to everyone. He made a big impact.”
Yetka’s career saw a major shift that forced him to step away from politics when he was appointed to the Supreme Court by Gov. Wendell Anderson in 1973.
Fred Friedman, the retired longtime chief public defender for northeastern Minnesota, argued cases before Yetka and said he was impressed by his work and the fact that he returned to hear cases in Carlton County after his retirement.
“He was a giant,” Friedman said. “He was a super smart, super friendly, very pro-labor, progressive guy.”
He also credited his work to establish the state Court of Appeals in 1983, easing a major burden on the caseload of the Supreme Court and allowing for a significant increase in the number of cases that receive appellate review.
“He pushed hard for it to happen,” Friedman said, “to make justice more accessible for all.”
Frank Yetka said his father wasn’t ready for retirement but was forced to step down to the court’s mandatory retirement age of 70.
He said his father turned down offers from Twin Cities law firms in favor of returning to his hometown. He continued to remain active through small claims cases and mediation work until about age 85, taking meticulous notes on each case and remaining sharp, Frank Yetka said.
“He loved being back in Cloquet,” his son said. “All his friends and family were here, and he wasn’t a big city guy. He loved northern Minnesota, and this is where he wanted to be.”
A service is scheduled for Nov. 25 at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, 615 12th St., in Cloquet. Visitation will begin at 10:30 a.m., with the funeral service to follow at 1 p.m.