Obituary of Marion Louise Klas
Mary Louise Klas, retired judge and human rights advocate, beloved wife, mother, grandmother, aunt and sister, died peacefully in her home on June 9, 2023, four days after her 93rd birthday, surrounded by her children.
Mary Lou was born on June 5, 1930, and grew up on the east side of St. Paul. Her Irish-German father delivered milk for Sanitary Farm Dairies while her Austrian mother kept her family well fed. Mary Lou’s parents exemplified hard work, their Catholic faith, and a strong commitment to family. As children, Mary Lou and her younger sister Joan, walked home for lunch from Blessed Sacrament grade school to eat their mother’s home cooking. Mary Lou would remark that their upbringing was modest: her mother never had a new coat or money to get her hair done, but they always had delicious food on the table.
At Blessed Sacrament, Mary Lou proved to be an exceptional student, graduating at the top of her class, an honor that earned her a full scholarship to St. Joseph’s Academy, a private, all-girls preparatory school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph. At St. Joe’s, she gained an excellent education, learning from the Sisters who were “wonderful role models” for young women.
Graduating as valedictorian from St. Joe’s earned her another scholarship from the Sisters to enroll at the College of St. Catherine (now St. Catherine University). In high school and college, she served on the debate team, participated in drama, and held leadership roles in student government. After graduating from St. Catherine’s with majors in English and Speech, she moved to Washington, D.C. where she did administrative work for the C.I.A., then traveled in Europe to study in Vienna. When she returned to St. Paul, she was hired as a secretary in Minnesota Governor Orville Freeman’s office before deciding to enroll in law school at the St. Paul College of Law (now Mitchell Hamline School of Law).
While there, she met Dan Klas, a Hamline graduate and the oldest of nine children from Wabasha, Minnesota. As a William Mitchell feature article captured, Mary Lou and Dan were aware of their differences when they met: “We are both first-borns,” says Mary Lou. “He’s Protestant; I’m Catholic. He’s Pisces; I’m Gemini.” “Worse yet,” Dan adds. “She’s taller.” The height difference never bothered Mary Lou. She had a particularly strong affinity for nice shoes of any variety and never restricted herself to flats.
What she and Dan had in common was their mutual interest in the law and a strong eagerness to start a family. As Mary Lou put it, “We were married after our 2nd year, had our first child after our 3rd year, and our second child after the bar exam in 1960. The next two children followed quickly, and by the time our oldest, Mary Ellen, was four years and three months, she was the oldest of four. That’s how we Catholic couples of that generation did things.”
Like United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Mary Lou faced gender discrimination when she graduated in 1960. No law firms were hiring women lawyers, despite her graduating cum laude and ranking second in the class. She remarked, “It’s very simple – there were no jobs for women lawyers. So, I became active in the Minnesota State Bar Association and began chairing committees, working for non-profit organizations, state commissions and doing work for the underprivileged. I wasn’t on the golf course–I was doing the grunt work.” And she did all of this while raising their growing family.
Through her work in the governor’s office, Mary Lou had made connections, and she began to find opportunities to expand her law practice. She was invited to assist as one of the attorneys in the 1962 gubernatorial recount representing Minnesota Governor Karl Rolvaag. After the election, Governor Rolvaag appointed Mary Lou to the Youth Conservation Commission whose goal was “to provide and conduct a program looking toward the prevention of juvenile and youth delinquency.” She served on the Commission for nine years and “read thousands of social histories, psychological evaluations, educational and chemical dependency evaluations.” The experience provided the foundation for her career in family law and later informed her decisions as a referee in juvenile court and later as a judge.
Mary Lou and Dan established their own joint law practice in 1973. Mary Lou also began serving as a referee in juvenile court, and she began focusing her private practice in family law. As she recalled, “I began to notice that the family law cases were the active ones on my desk while the probate and other files got pushed to the credenza.” Within those active files were divorce cases and custody cases, many testifying to the plight of women and children on whose behalf she would work for the remainder of her career.
As her case load grew, Mary Lou’s working hours extended into the evenings. Her children were used to her coming home to change her clothes, eat dinner prepared by her widowed mother who had moved in with the family, throw in a load of laundry, organize the grocery list, and then return to the office several nights a week to work late into the night dictating for her secretary’s inbox the next day. As her daily calendars attested, each minute of her day was scheduled.
In 1986, Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich appointed Mary Lou as the first woman to the second judicial district court bench in Ramsey County. Although the Chief Judge was eager for her to begin presiding in Family Court because of her wealth of experience in that area, Mary Lou, thorough in all areas of her life, wanted “to get [her] bearings in the other areas of the law” first.
So it wasn’t until February of 1988 that she began to preside exclusively in Family Court where she observed, “The extent and scope of domestic violence that existed in Ramsey County where I had lived all my life blew me away.” As the issuing judge for more than 100 civil orders for protection each month, she was determined to work for protection of victims and instigate change within the legal and judicial systems.
She declared, “When we make it safe for women and children to be in their homes, we will make it possible for each of us to be safe on the streets.”
So she began trying to change the culture, one judge at a time. She took on leadership roles in the training of new judges, ensuring that the curriculum included sessions on family law and domestic violence. She traveled nationally to speak on child custody issues and to participate in training on domestic violence issues.
Conscientious and organized, she considered all the details in her work. During her 14 years on the bench, she was known to write personalized thank you letters to each juror serving in her court, even following up with one juror’s employer – McDonald’s – to ensure she would get paid for the extra two days the trial lasted.
Judges face mandatory retirement at age 70. But when Mary Lou turned 70 in June of 2000, she still had much work to do. She continued her advocacy work on a volunteer basis for the next decade. She used her years of experience in legal reform work and judicial training to assist human rights advocates in Central and Eastern Europe draft new laws and establish legal systems to combat domestic violence.
She traveled with Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights to Bulgaria six times to train judges, police and legal professionals from 12 Balkan countries and to the Republic of Georgia encouraging the drafting of laws to protect lives.
Asked why she didn’t slow down after her retirement from the bench, she answered, she didn’t have a choice. “Women and children are dying.”
As seriously as she took her career roles as a lawyer and a judge, Mary Lou embraced her role as mother and grandmother. Married in the late-50s era when women were expected to be efficient housewives, she excelled not only in her work life but at home. She loved to sew and cook, making matching outfits for her daughters when they were young, then prom dresses when they grew older. She loved to try new recipes, and she clipped coupons and shopped the grocery store sales to be able to feed her large family on a limited budget.
She modeled fiscal responsibility, encouraging her children to earn and save their allowance, and she believed in conservation, adopting household recycling efforts thirty years ahead of her time; separating the trash before it was in vogue, and reusing envelopes for notes in black magic marker and used copies of legal documents for scratch paper.
Mary Lou had many loves: She loved dogs, especially her two golden retrievers—first Teddy and then Tschida--that she walked every morning in all weather with her neighbor Mitzi.
She loved shopping for her daughters and granddaughters, scouring bargains from the clearance racks at Dayton’s Oval Room: “The first markdown is not the last markdown”!
She loved watching her grandsons play Little League baseball and youth basketball, relishing the occasional stress-free blowout victory.
She enjoyed her signature Black and White scotch, season tickets to The Guthrie Theater, and her subscription to The New Yorker, especially its iconic cartoons which she would clip and post on the refrigerator for snack-time entertainment and attach to letters sent to her children and grandchildren over the years.
She loved “peace and quiet”: She played endless games of solitaire during her two-week vacation to Florida each March while listening to the sound of the waves.
She loved her family, her friends, her Victorian house, her church, and her neighborhood. She loved St. Paul. But most of all she loved her children and grandchildren whose lives have been forever enriched by her influence.
Mary Lou is survived by her daughters, Mary Ellen (John) Kennedy, Kathy (Rob) Thames, Barbara Klas, Trish (Jim) Montalbano, and son John (Christine) Klas; 13 grandchildren: Emily and Katie Kennedy; Ali (Matt) Thames DeVries, Hannah (Aris) Thames Ford, Quin and Adeline Thames; Jack and George Jamison; Delaney, Lauren, Nora Klas; Michael and Daniel Montalbano; great-grandchild, Charlotte Ford; and her sister, Joan (Melvin) Meyer. She was preceded in death by her husband of 58 years, Daniel Klas, and parents, William and Marion May.
Visitation: 3-6 p.m., Sunday, July 9, Willwerscheid Funeral Home, 1167 Grand Ave., St. Paul, 55105. Funeral mass: 10:00 a.m., Monday, July 10, at St. Thomas More Catholic Church, 1079 Summit Ave., St. Paul, 55105. Luncheon to follow at the church. Burial: 9:15 a.m., Tuesday, July 11, at Fort Snelling National Cemetery, 7601 34th Ave. South, Minneapolis, 55450.
In lieu of flowers, memorials preferred to the Klas Family Scholarship at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, Sisters of St. Joseph Ministries Foundation, or The Advocates for Human Rights.To send flowers to the family or plant a tree in memory of Marion Klas, please visit Tribute Store