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Fall 2004

A L U M N I P R O F I L E S : L AW O N T H E B E N C H

B U I L D I N G T H E R U L E O F L AW I N A L A S K A Ask anyone in Alaska who has had the greatest impact on the state’s legal system and they’ll say Judge James M. Fitzgerald LLB’51.


he venerable judge is a former football star, a war hero and one of the driving forces behind bringing the rule of law to a wild and wooly young state. It was Dec. 7, 1941 and Fitzgerald was a star freshman football player for Willamette University. His team had just played in a bowl game in Honolulu the night before the bombs began to fall. “On the morning of Dec. 7, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor,” he says. “On Dec. 9, they issued us uniforms and rifles and put us on guard duty.” 28

Two weeks later, he was headed back to the mainland aboard the ocean liner Coolidge, which was filled with wounded. Many of the young men onboard had been terribly burned and Fitzgerald and his fellow students were assigned to take care of them. “I kept trying to talk to one of the wounded assigned to my cabin,” he recalled. “But he didn’t respond. The corpsman came over and said, ‘He’s dying. Leave him be.’ The boy died on Christmas Eve.” It was the beginning of four war-torn years that would see Fitzgerald earn three Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service as a Marine gunner in the Pacific Theater. After the war, Fitzgerald simultaneously earned his BA and LLB at Willamette College of Law. Then, intrigued by stories of adventure he’d heard from his Klondike miner father, he and his new wife packed up their Model A and headed north to Alaska. “When we got to Ketchikan, we were just about broke,” says Fitzgerald. “I got my first job pulling lumber on a green

chain at the spruce mill. Later that season, I worked as a deck hand on a cannery tender.” An attorney friend suggested he apply for a job as assistant U.S. attorney in Ketchikan. It was a job that tested the young lawyer’s metal and gave him a reputation for being fearless and independent. At the time, Alaska was still a territory and Ketchikan was largely wild and lawless. The local chief of police was on the take from the brothels on infamous Creek Street. None of the local authorities would prosecute, so the job fell to Fitzgerald. “The territorial judge,

Willamette Lawyer | Fall 2004 • Vol. IV, No. 2  
Willamette Lawyer | Fall 2004 • Vol. IV, No. 2  

Lisa Murkowski - An Advocate for Alaska: U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski JD’85 demonstrates she can stand the heat in the Senate’s pressure cook...