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Legal Learning: Whitey Johnson, local attorney, local legend

James H. Manahan, J.D. 

One of Minnesota’s top lawyers lives in Lake County. Wayne Johnson, known to his friends as Whitey, has written his autobiography, a must-read book for anyone who wants to know the history of this county. It is called “Whitey – from Farm Kid to Flying Tiger to Attorney” (Langdon Street Press, Minneapolis, 2011).

An accomplished story teller, Johnson fills his 454 page book with wonderful anecdotes about his childhood on a farm and his World War II years as a fighter pilot in China. But the best part of the book is his stories about practicing law in Lake County.

After opening his law office in Beaver Bay in 1952, he became the city attorney the next year. In 1956 he became city attorney for the new village of Silver Bay. When he retired in 2009 he had set a record as the longest-serving city attorney in the history of the United States.

Johnson also handled civil and criminal cases on behalf of local clients. They ranged from a negligent fire claim against Standard Oil Company, to the defense of a man accused of murder in Cook County, to a suit against a hospital, to a claim by a farmer who was terribly burned after a propane tank exploded.

The most interesting litigation, however, involved Reserve Mining Company. For almost 16 years Johnson represented the cities of Beaver Bay and Silver Bay, as well as many other cities and counties, in the longest and most complex environmental case in history. Johnson’s job was to prove that the dumping of taconite tailings into Lake Superior did not constitute a health hazard.

Johnson was in court constantly, from Duluth to Minneapolis to St. Louis to the U.S. Supreme Court. He says he spent some 3,000 hours a year on this one case. When he felt that Judge Miles Lord had ceased to be impartial, he convinced the Court of Appeals to take Lord off the case and substitute Judge Edward Devitt, an almost unprecedented achievement. Finally the courts ruled that there was not sufficient evidence to establish that Reserve’s operation constituted a health hazard.

Reserve Mining had to find $450 million to build a tailings deposit area called Mile Post 7, so Johnson got the City of Silver Bay to raise that amount through revenue bonds. When the company later went bankrupt, the bonds became worthless and the people who bought them took a total loss. Since Johnson had insisted that the bonds be revenue bonds rather than the typical government issued bonds, the City did not take a loss.

There are many more fascinating stories in the book. About building the Silver Bay airport, now known as the Wayne Johnson Silver Bay Airport. About being named “Mr. Aviation of Minnesota” in 1968, and being named to the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame in 2001. About losing his legs to gangrene when he was 87 years of age.

Whitey is now almost 93 and still living in Beaver Bay with his wife of more than 50 years, Delores. He says he feels good and has learned to get around “pretty well” on his prosthetic legs. And if you get a chance to visit him, he still has many more interesting stories he can tell you about the practice of law in Lake County during the last 62 years.

James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota’s Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills, and probate in and around Lake County, and does mediation everywhere. The opinions expressed in this column are those

of its author.