Perham woman reflects on career as one of North Dakota’s first female lawyers
Mildred Johnson’s life began in the small prairie town of Tolna, N.D.
“Well actually, it was Mayville,” the 95-year-old says.
In January of 1918, with no roads open, her mother, Louise Burns, took the train 14 miles to Mayville to wait 10 days until Mildred’s birth.
Mildred’s life has been quite a ride ever since. She became one of the first women to practice law in North Dakota. She served as a “downtown lawyer” for 48 years with the Wahpeton law firm of Johnson, Johnson, Stokes, Sandberg & Kragness.
Graduating from the University of North Dakota Law School in 1939, she was the only woman in her class.
From 1952 to 1966, she served as the first woman on the North Dakota Board of Higher Education, where she exchanged ideas and often butted heads with the Legislature, college presidents, newspaper editors and governors. Twice she served as president of the board and was appointed to the National Association of Governing Boards for Higher Education.
Before and after her terms with the higher education board, Mildred taught business law part-time at the North Dakota State College of Science. The school christened the Mildred Johnson Library in 1971, and she received the college’s first honorary associate’s degree in 2002.
Chosen “Woman of the Year” in education by the North Dakota Education Association in 1964, Mildred was named the 1973 “Woman of the Year” in law. UND awarded her with the highest alumni award, The Sioux Award, in 1988.
Former law partners describe Mildred as fearless, intelligent and well-read, with exceptionally good judgment.
In Tolna, Mildred’s parents ran a drug store, and when Mildred was nine years old, the family moved to Grand Forks, where they owned a neighborhood grocery store. Mildred lived close to the library, heaven for a girl who was “never without a book in her hands.”
At age 16, Mildred graduated from Central High School (Tolna teachers had advanced her a couple of times). As a result, Mildred entered a two-year pre-law program at the University of North Dakota and completed her law degree by age 21. She took all the speech, debate and argumentation classes she could and debated on the university’s varsity debate team, traveling the Midwest to compete and win.
“I did not have antagonism from the men,” Mildred says. “It was too early. The guys weren’t worried about me and treated me as an equal.”
Lawyer and advocate
As a woman, Mildred never expected to practice law but thought she would get a bank job in a trust department. A month before school finished, however, a downtown Grand Forks lawyer gave her a chance to try a case. She won.
“He asked me to work for him,” Mildred says. “I don’t want to give myself too much credit because we all knew a war was ahead, and there would be fewer men to work in law practices.”
While working on a case in Red Lake Falls, Minn., Mildred met a Wahpeton, N.D., lawyer, Vernon Johnson, also a University of North Dakota law school graduate, and soon they started to “go together.”
“We’d take the bus to Detroit Lakes, dance at the pavilion and have smoked ribs afterwards,” Mildred says. “Then we’d go to his house in Wahpeton. Of course his sister and aunt were there to chaperone.”
In September of 1940, Vern and Mildred were married. Vern was elected to the North Dakota House of Representatives, and Mildred joined Vern’s firm, Johnson and Malloy. The couple enjoyed the outdoors, hunting after work and nearly every weekend until their three children were born. They also purchased a cottage on Otter Tail Lake, which is still in the family 60 years later.
Then the phone rang.
It was then North Dakota Governor Clarence Brunsdale calling Mildred about an appointment to the North Dakota Higher Education Board.
“I considered and accepted,” Mildred says. “Then I found out I was pregnant with our third child, Russ. What to do? It was a difficult decision. Then I figured what the heck, the guys on the board wouldn’t know the difference for about five months. Pregnancy isn’t affecting my brain. I fussed and fussed about it, but in the end, the guys didn’t even care.”
Mildred hauled Russ and a babysitter with her to monthly daylong board meetings, all held in Bismarck. She says she “tore out from meetings” at noon and 5 p.m. to breast feed Russ.
Mildred solved problems for the board, particularly in finding financing for buildings, and she helped acquire two large pieces of property next to the North Dakota State College of Science that allowed the college to expand. She advocated that state colleges and universities receive a fair share of operating funds from the state Legislature and insisted that colleges retain good teaching faculty. She also urged colleges and universities to adopt long-range planning, with campus beautification of prime importance.
“We finally decided to meet at the different campuses,” Mildred says. “That way, we could see what was going on. I walked around campus at night and realized just how dark and unsafe they were. We got that changed with better lighting across the state.”
Mildred remembers some nasty fights in which she stood as the lone vote against a decision. The board wanted her as president because she had the courage to speak.
“I always tried to promote discussion, but I wasn’t always popular,” she says. “One editorial in The Forum spoke against my appointment for a second term. I was called a communist. Can you believe it? I’m a good North Dakota Lutheran Republican. But I got lots of good support and the appointment.”
Mildred feels the top three accomplishments made during her terms were getting a top-notch air school at the University of North Dakota, starting the best rural nursing school in the country, and establishing a dental hygiene program at the North Dakota State College of Science.
As a general law practitioner, Mildred also took on pro bono cases, especially those involving domestic abuse and children. As a result, women came to her home for consultation. They wanted to know their rights, she says, and they had no money to help themselves.
“I represented a lot of juveniles whose parents had given up on them,” she says. “These weren’t serious crimes. One kid had a drug problem and no money.”
Mildred became an activist in Wahpeton and says she did “everything under the sun,” including teaching Sunday school, leading Brownies, volunteering for the swim team, and establishing the first kindergarten.
The Johnson’s oldest daughter, Gail, now retired, went to Harvard University and Harvard Business School and ran her own software business in New York. Laurel Hillier attended Wellesley College and Harvard Business School and lives in New York City, and Russell, who also attended Harvard and Harvard Business School, owns a business in China.
Mildred divides her time between Otter Tail Lake and Perham, where she lives in Prairie View Assisted Living. She still devours books – on subjects ranging from railroads and Mozart to small villages and Henry VII – but because of diminished eyesight, she now listens to them on tape.
Her friend, Pat Holper of Perham, often visits Mildred.
“Throughout all of her challenges, she has kept a terrific sense of humor,” Pat says. “Having a good laugh with Mildred makes my day.”
Merrie Sue Holtan Forum News Service