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WOSTER: We need more like Max

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opinion Mitchell, 57301
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

My lawyer died the other day, and South Dakota lost a decent human being.

Max Gors drew up a will for Nancy and me early in our marriage. He did the work during a stint in private practice. I think of it as a brief stint, because for most of his adult life, Max was in public service, one way or another. He worked as an assistant attorney general in Iowa and in South Dakota, served in the South Dakota government cabinet and on the circuit court bench in the circuit that covers the central part of the state, and as an acting justice of the state Supreme Court.

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He also served on the Board of Pardons and Paroles. Max called it the "cut'' board, a term I heard other old-timers on the board call it, because they were asked to cut time, I suppose. For much of his career, he had a thick beard and somewhat unruly hair that always looked about a week past needing a quick trim. His eyes behind the spectacles never rested during a court hearing. I asked one time how he, and other judges, managed to stay awake during the boring cases. He just smiled.

On the bench, Max behaved as if fairness, justice and the law should, if not always mesh perfectly, then at least always be in the same neighborhood when lives and fortunes were at stake.

I can't count how often I sat on squeaky, hard wooden benches in courtrooms and watched Max preside. He handled an odd case involving my old newspaper's lawsuit to obtain a list of invitees to the governor's pheasant hunt one year. After it was over, I asked him if he'd care to talk about it one day.

"Maybe one day, a long time from this day,'' he said. I didn't push it.

He presided over the case of a young Winner boy, the center of an emotional, complicated custody argument that crossed state borders and tugged at the heart. It isn't for me to say if he made the right decision. I was a reporter witnessing events. What I witnessed was a good man in a robe struggling to find the best possible outcome for a child.

I said in my opening sentence that he was my lawyer. We both laughed about that in the years after Max drew that first, simple will that cared for our children and property if Nancy and I left this place at the same time. It was the only legal work he ever did for me.

I've often told of the time I reminded Max of his legal work. It was many years later, during a hearing involving a multi-million dollar lottery ticket in the Gregory area. As was often the case in our relationship, Max was presiding. I was sitting on one of those squeaky benches taking notes. One of the lawyers asked that I be called to the stand to testify about a story from earlier in the week.

Max granted my request for a short recess to call a lawyer. During the break, I suggested that having me on the stand in his court wouldn't be right.

"You're my lawyer,'' I said, or something like that. "You wrote my will.''

He laughed and allowed as how he thought he could be pretty even-handed in spite of our brief legal relationship from 20-some years earlier. When my testimony was over, I had to admit, he'd been more than fair. He'd been kind.

For the record, when I call him Max? It is not a sign of disrespect. Throughout his career, I always called him Judge. When I did, he'd say, "It's just Max.''

As I age, I find myself thinking fondly of the good people I've known. Max Gors is one I will think of fondly, and often. This may, however, be the last time I write about him. Just this once, then, I'll respect his wishes and call him Max.

South Dakota would be well served with many more men and women like "it's just Max'' in the cabinets, in the courtrooms and, most importantly, in the communities.

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