Anchorage resident Judge James A. von der Heydt, age 94, died December 1, 2013.
A memorial service will be held on Friday, December 6, 2013 at 2 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church of Anchorage, followed the next day by internment at Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery. Judge von der Heydt was born July 15, 1919, in Miles City, Montana. He is preceded in death by his parents, Dr. Harry Karl and Alice Arnold von der Heydt, and his brother, Dr. Karl Edmond von der Heydt. Both his father and his brother were orthodontists, his father practicing in the early days of orthodontics.
A graduate of Albion College in Michigan, James first came to Alaska in 1943 and worked construction, first on the Alcan Highway and later, on Mark's Air Force Base in Nome. In July 1945 he was appointed deputy U.S. Marshal at Nome, serving in that position until August of 1948, when he resigned to attend law school at Northwestern University in Chicago. After graduating in 1951, with a Juris Doctor degree, James returned to Alaska, where he worked construction at Cape Prince of Wales while waiting to take the Alaska Bar examination in October 1951. He served first as U.S. Commissioner at Nome and then as United States Attorney until 1953, when he entered private practice in Nome.
While attending law school, James met Verna Johnson, whom he married in Seattle on May 21, 1952. A few days later, the couple flew to Nome to establish their home.
James was a member of the Alaska Territorial Legislature during the 1957 session. In 1959, when Alaska became a state, he was appointed Judge of the Superior Court for Alaska at Juneau. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to the position of U.S. District Judge for the District of Alaska. He will be remembered as a mentor to the Alaska legal community and known for his sage advice, frequently saying, "If you make a mistake, learn to forgive yourself."
His interests were varied and included painting, in both watercolors and oil, and writing. He authored two volumes of Alaska fiction, "Mother Sawtooth's Nome" and "Alaska, the Short and Long of It" as well as a collection of poetry dedicated to his wife, entitled "Simple Rhymes of Whimsy, and Others" (unpublished).
Judge von der Heydt was instrumental in bringing several attorneys to Alaska, including Russell Arnett, also a graduate of Northwestern University School of Law.
At the Judge's retirement party in 1994, the Sweet Adelines sang "Unforgettable," a song which exemplifies his service to the State of Alaska as well as the United States. The September-October 1994 issue of "The Alaska Bar Rag" quoted speakers at the party who described Judge von der Heydt as "kind, distinguished, gentlemanly, elegant, fair, charming, compassionate and, yes, unforgettable."
As a youngster in the eighth grade and early high school, James was a Junior Assistant at Trailside Museum in River Forest, Illinois, working with well-known curator Mary Cooper Back and studying birds native to the area, and avian taxidermy. One of his chief avocations while in Nome was the study of western Alaska bird life. He collected 156 scientific avian specimens, all of which were donated to the University of Michigan Museums, at Ann Arbor, Michigan.
During his years in Anchorage, he was one of the founding members and first President of the Anchorage Fine Arts Museum Association (now AMA). He served on many community boards, including AFAMA and AMA for many years, the Anchorage Municipal Fine Arts Commission for 21 years, and the Rasmuson Foundation. He was President of the Alaska Bar Association from 1959-1960. He was the master of ceremonies for numerous bar functions for many years. When he was active in the museum he was always the M.C. when one was needed. In 1995, he received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Albion College. He was a member of the American Bar Association, the Alaska Bar Association, Sigma Nu fraternity, Phi Delta Phi, the Fraternal Order of Masons, Scottish Rite, Inns of Court, and Pioneer Igloo #1 in Nome, Alaska.
Alaska Supreme Court Justice Walter L. Carpeneti wrote the following in January-March 2010 Alaska Bar Rag:
"With the work of people like Tom Stewart, John Dimond and Jim von der Heydt, we have a very different and much better system than the one we abandoned in 1959. We owe a great debt to these early Juneau pioneers. I hope we pause for a moment today, 50 years after our admission to the Union, and acknowledge our debts to these greats."
Judge von der Heydt is survived by his beloved wife of 61 years, Verna, and a number of nieces and nephews.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the Collections Fund of the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, 121 West Seventh Avenue, Anchorage, AK 99501.
Arrangements are with Janssen Funeral Homes.
Published in Anchorage Daily News from Dec. 3 to Dec. 4, 2013.