Duluth Celebrates The Life Of Judge Sally Tarnowski

A day of fond memories, professional achievements, and deep friendships

DULUTH, Minn. — A Duluth born-and-raised attorney and judge was remembered by friends, family and colleagues Thursday during a memorial at the DECC.

Judge Sally Tarnowski died unexpectedly in March when she was struck by a vehicle while jogging on vacation in Florida.

Tarnowski was 63 years old.

Thursday’s reflections included her Duluth public school roots, her going to law school, and a number of firsts–including the first female judge in the 6th District.

Poetry helped Minnesota 6th District Chief Judge Leslie Beiers describe Tarnowski’s life.

“In her poem ‘The Summer Day,’ Mary Oliver asks, ‘Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?’ She then goes on to ask, ‘What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ ” Beiers read. “Sally certainly died too soon. But boy oh boy, she did a lot with her one wild and precious life,” Beiers said.

It was a day in which the life of the late judge was painted in memories, feelings and words.

“She recognized that the people who came into our courts are not just case file numbers, but individuals, often facing some of the toughest moments of their lives,” said Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea. “She believed each person who came before her deserved respect, acceptance, and the chance to turn their life around.”

The East High School graduate was a woman known as both Sally, and Judge. When she almost inevitably was selected to put on her black robe, colleagues were not surprised–saying they knew she was born to be a judge.

“I wrote to the [selection] committee that Sally had the all-important trait of ‘judicial temperament’,” said Joe Roby, a fellow attorney who worked with her at Johnson, Killen and Seiler. “Calm, even-keeled, patient, thoughtful. Okay, she could get aggravated from time-to-time, but she was always under control. Her judgement was always sound, and her good cheer quickly returned,” Roby remembered.

Those who knew her described Tarnowski as innovative and whip- smart. Compassionate.

“This woman who knew we all have a need to be seen, to be heard, and to be cared for,” said Dr. Carolyn Phelps, who worked with Tarnowski in the Mental Health Court system. “This woman who was committed to lifting up those who historically and unjustly…have been the most marginalized members of our community. Those with the greatest unmet needs, whose trajectory could be changed if we cared enough to do something different,” Phelps said.

To her lifelong friends, she was someone who used a spatula as a pretend microphone and knew every word of every song on Carole King’s album, ‘Tapestry’.  She loved a good prank. And more than once, she got her friends in over their heads.

“Sally and Ann swore to us they knew how to sail,” recalled longtime friend, Nina Novitzki. “We ended up on the far end of the lake, in the neighbor’s borrowed sailboat.  Apparently, they only knew how to sail one direction, and Lori’s dad had to tow us back with his pontoon boat,” said Novitzki, as friends smiled, laughed a little, and wiped away tears.

Determined. That description was apparent when a snowstorm interfered with her swearing-in. Tenth District Judge and friend, Krista Martin, could not get up to Duluth to do the honors. It would have to be rescheduled–or so Martin thought.

“But Sally would not be deterred. She wanted to get to the business of judging. She was born to do it. She had work to do,” said Martin. “So, she went looking for a judge in the building, and found Judge Sweetland, who had also managed to arrive in the storm. Sally had Judge Sweetland administer the oath in her chambers, so that Sally could start work that day,” said Martin.

The person with work to do was seen as a life changer.

Working in the Indian Child Welfare Act Court, Bree Bussey told of a conversation with a co-worker after Judge Tarnowski had been involved in a family case.
“She had a parent come up to her and said, ‘You know, that’s the first time I’ve ever been in a hearing where people talked with me, and not about me,’ ” said Bussey.

Appearing in Treatment Court, Chris Dunker said he was slow to warm up to Judge Tarnowski. He resisted and held her at bay for months. But then accepted her. He said she hung in there, and it made all the difference. “She was just a great person…and a lot of people in this room, with the status and where you’re at, you’ll never know some of the people that you’ll never meet or talk to, just what that woman did,” said Dunker.

Then, looking directly at Tarnowski’s family, Dunker told them, “She was incredible. And she changed my life, and she altered my course for the better. And for that I thank you so much. God bless you.”

For many of those who gathered, it was to remember and reflect on a life that had come to an end, but for Dunker and others, the Judge, Sally, would be someone who forever, had changed their lives.


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