2003 - Howard Albertson

Howard Albertson
Howard Albertson

Howard Albertson – 1945: Legislator and judge whose volunteerism helped preserve the history of Washington County


Story by Mary Diivne, Twin Cities Pioneer Press
February 2, 2011

Judge Howard Albertson put people together — an estimated 6,000 couples — over half a century. He married people on planes, on trains, on boats; in nursing homes; on horseback. He performed weddings in Western wear, Renaissance garb, a Civil War uniform and Halloween costumes. He officiated at the first wedding at the Mall of America's Chapel of Love, married a couple at home plate at the Metrodome and joined in holy matrimony a motorcycle-loving couple atop their Harleys.

Albertson — known around Washington County as "the marrying man" — performed his first marriage in 1957; his last one was in August. "He loved being a judge. He especially loved the fun part of it, like marrying people or presiding at adoptions," said his wife, Ellen Albertson. Albertson died Monday night at the family farm in May Township. He was 83.

Although he took a 12-year break from weddings while he was a state representative, he used to perform as many as 200 a year. His record was eight in one day: He started with a 6 a.m. ceremony in a hot-air balloon over the St. Croix River and ended with an evening wedding in St. Paul. Albertson transformed his farm into a wedding wonderland, complete with thousands of flowers, a gazebo and a 45-foot waterfall. At one point, a staff of two full-time and two part-time gardeners maintained the grounds. "I don't play golf. I don't hunt. I don't fish. I do weddings," Albertson said in a 2003 interview with the Pioneer Press. "It keeps me young."

Albertson prided himself on his vast wedding wisdom. He recommended that brides and grooms practice putting on their rings before the ceremony and not memorize their vows. Most important, he said, was to keep the ceremony short. "I hate long weddings," he told the Pioneer Press. "It should be to the point. If it's over 20 minutes long, you've lost everybody."

Albertson graduated from Stillwater High School in 1945 and graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., in 1949. He served in Korea untilil 1952 and received his law degree from William Mitchell College of Law in 1957. He met Elen Midthun in downtown Stillwater in January 1958, and the two were married six months later.

"He used to tell me that when he saw me, he knew I was going to be the one he was going to marry, so I didn't have much choice," she said. Albertson was a senior partner in the law firm of Albertson, Norton, Jergens & Gunderson, which had offices in Stillwater and Forest Lake.

In 1960, he ran for the Minnesota Legislature. He served as a state representative for 12 years and chaired the House Judiciary Committee. "I think campaigning was his favorite part of being a legislator," said Ben Blair, his court reporter of 18 years. "He liked knocking on doors. He liked meeting different people." Albertson was elected to the Washington County District Court in 1972. Although he officially retired from the bench in 1996, colleagues say he never really retired. He continued to perform weddings, hear mediation and arbitration cases and fill in for other judges when they were sick or on vacation. "My retirement party will be what's known as a memorial service," Albertson told the Pioneer Press in 2008.

As a judge, Albertson specialized in juvenile law. "Howard always tried to get kids on the right track," said Doug Johnson, former Washington County attorney. "He would keep a drawer open behind his bench. If he thought he had a tough kid in front of him, he'd start lecturing him, and then he'd slam that drawer shut ... just to make a big bang." Albertson was compassionate and open-minded, Ellen Albertson said. "He listened very carefully to both sides of everything," she said. "He liked people. He just really liked people, and he really liked the law."

When he retired, Albertson made a point of timing it so his successor would be elected — not appointed by the governor. "He said he got his seat from the people and that he wanted give it back to the people," said Judge Susan Miles, who was elected to the seat. "He was a man of a great deal of authenticity. You always knew what you were getting with Howard." Albertson was a Civil War buff and a founding member of the St. Croix Valley Civil War Roundtable. He had a Civil War uniform and would perform a first-person characterization of Sam Bloomer, the Civil War hero from Stillwater, at special occasions such as Fourth of July parades and fundraisers for the restoration of the Washington County Historic Courthouse. "He was like a thespian on stage," said Blair. "He would become Sam Bloomer of the 1st Minnesota Regiment. He would not let anybody address him as anything other than Sam Bloomer, and he played the part to a T." Albertson was also known for his collection of antiques.

Among his prized possessions: his Jewel Tea premium dishes and his Hubert Humphrey memorabilia. "He was not a collector," Ellen Albertson said. "He was an accumulator." Blair said he and Albertson spent many lunch hours trolling flea markets, garage sales and estate sales. "He was on a wicker kick for a while," Blair said. "He would scour the county, and he knew all the garage sales. He would take it all home and store it in the barn or the shed." Two of Albertson's treasures — statues that used to adorn his garden — now decorate Roger and Myra Peterson's yard in Cottage Grove. "He was really a Renaissance man — legislator, judge, historian, lawyer, gardener," said Myra Peterson, former Washington County commissioner. "He loved life to the fullest."