Although a minority in a land of Scandinavian Lutherans, Chuck Krekelberg built practice based on serving clients of all backgrounds — with all sorts of legal dilemmas

Two weeks into his law practice in Pelican Rapids, a client stared Chuck Krekelberg square in his face. = With a squint in his eyes, the client posed the big question. 

Chuck Krekelberg enjoyed being in the courtroom and litigation, but he was also driven to serve–attributed in large part to his Catholic upbringing. He was well known for offering services “pro bono” at no charge through the non-profit Northwest Legal Services, to the disadvantaged and under-represented.

“You’re Catholic, aren’t you?” 

That was 1978.

A guy’s faith shouldn’t mean a hill of beans, especially a full century after the arrival of the first Scandinavian Lutherans to the Pelican area. 

But with the distinctly  “Nordic” townships of Trondhjem, Oscar and Norwegian Grove to the west of Pelican; and the  Swede Grove settlement to the southeast–a three-syllable, Germanic name like Krekelberg was uncommon.  

And..the coffee shop talk no doubt quickly circulated the fact that the new lawyer in town grew up on the “other side” of Otter Tail County.  

Over there: Where the steeples of a half dozen Catholic churches pierce the sky; from Dent, to Perham to Rush Lake to  Bluffton and Butler.

In Pelican Rapids 1978, Charles A. Krekelberg was, indeed, a minority.

“But you know, I never found that it was a factor,” said Krekelberg, not long after he emptied his office in the historic, main street brick structure the law firm is located. “I took the position that it never made a difference…I was hired to be their lawyer–not a religious guide.”

This separation 0f the law, and the church, was successful for Krekelberg. 

For four decades. 

Barnyard background brought hands-on experience in farm crisis

Charles “Chuck” Krekelberg in 1978, when he joined the Williams, Nelson and Nitz law firm in Pelican Rapids, which was founded by attorney Henry Polkinghorn.

When farmers were under assault in the 1980s, during the ag crisis years, Krekelberg became one of the region’s top authorities in family farm debt restructuring, foreclosure and bankruptcy. He served more than 200 farm clients–Lutherans and Catholics–not only in the greater Pelican area, but throughout the region. 

To a struggling, desperate farm family in the 1980s, sound legal advice was paramount–whether it came from a Methodist, a Baptist, or a Mormon. 

Krekelberg’s collateral with farm folks was also earned–the hard way. He grew up one of nine kids, on a small dairy farm east of Dent. He knew a bit about agriculture by the time he was able to walk.

“You have to know farmers.  They love the land but they’re not always the best businessmen,” said Krekelberg. “I was really the only lawyer around here that knew anything about farming.”

Krekelberg handled the first Otter Tail County case under the state’s new Chapter 12, bankruptcy-related legislation that gave small farmers tools to stave off creditors, maintain control of the farm, reduce the interest rate to market level, and extend payments over 20 to 30 years. In one successful case, Krekelberg proudly noted that farm is still in the family to this day. Farm clients have always been central to the Krekelberg law practice.

In retirement, Krekelberg plans on writing several books. One of the key topics will be the farm crisis of the 1980s. 

Another book: “Growing up Catholic.” 

 Krekelberg was product of ‘Catholic ghetto’ in rural Otter Tail County

“Catholic ghetto” is how Krekelberg describes the community of St. Joe’s. 

It wasn’t a city. 

Not even a township.  

St. Joe’s was really just a “place.”  A rural Catholic “village.” It is still identified on some current maps; a few miles southwest of Perham.  

There was a St. Joe church, which later burned. A rectory where the priest lived.  And even a convent,which was listed as the “Sister’s School” in turn-of-the century documents.  Remnants of old St. Joe in the form of a sturdy brick structure still stand today, though now owned as private property.  

“It was a very close community; a very Catholic community; it was the center of everything,” said Krekelberg. 

Kids were all over the place. 

Pictured at the main street Krekelberg law office building, a historic structure that was originally the J.P. Wallace Bank, are Jennifer Hams, Chuck Krekelberg, and attorneys Lindsey Forsgren and Chad Miller. Krekelberg, who has practiced in Pelican Rapids since 1978, retired this year.

Most families averaged nine to fourteen girls and boys. Some were even larger. 

Interestingly, St. Joe’s had an eight grade school which was originally a private Catholic school.  It evolved into a public, country,  school.

“But the crazy thing was, in many ways it still functioned as a Catholic school,” recalled Krekelberg–with religious studies and Bible school. The one neighborhood Lutheran kid of Krekelberg’s era didn’t last long.  He transferred up to Perham. 

“It is impossible to measure the influences the church had on those families…even as far as telling farmers whether or not to use commercial fertilizer,” he chuckled.  “It was just part of our life.  And the values I picked up still hold.” 

At Pelican’s St. Leonard’s Catholic Church, he’s been a reader at Mass “forever.” 

On a path toward priesthood, Krekelberg shifted gears to education–then law 

Though the Krekelberg story is really about a small town lawyer, the Catholic connection is a thread untangle-able.

As a young teen, Krekelberg left home for his education–to the Crosier private school in Onamia.  

On a path to become a priest, he went on to St. John’s University, a prominent Catholic liberal arts school and seminary in central Minnesota, where he spent nine years. 

His ambitions of priesthood shifted.  He earned a master’s degree in education; and went to work for several years as an administrator at Faribault-based Consolidated Catholic School Systems.  From 1969 to 1976, he  helped build the program with some 100 volunteers  into ‘“the envy of the diocese.”

“Many of the skills I needed as a lawyer, I learned at Faribault–not at law school,” said Krekelberg, who decided to become an attorney at age 31, earning his degree at William Mitchell College of Law. “I felt comfortable in front of a judge and jury; I understood communicating to people who were hard to persuade.” 

While in law school, he worked as a legal assistant at a prominent Minneapolis law firm–very valuable experience, which served him throughout his career. 

Chuck Krekelberg, with a scattering of newspaper clippings and other documents spanning his 40 year practice in Pelican Rapids. He has been active at St. Leonard’s Catholic Church, in Pelican Rapids Area Rotary Club and has served in officer roles with the United Way, Lakeland Hospice and the Good Samaritan Nursing Home.

In 1978, he joined what was then Williams, Nelson and Nitz law firm in Pelican Rapids, a firm started by Henry Polkinghorn, who later served as an Otter Tail County judge. 

Service, to the community but also to those in need, is a characteristic ever since his youth–nurtured by his Catholic upbringing and education. This background inspired Krekelberg’s long association with Northwest Legal Services, which offers legal help to the poor. 

“I saw a huge need,” said Krekelberg, who represented clients for free, or “peanuts.” 

“(Northwest Legal Services) gives people a feeling of self-worth,” he said.  And his work earned him several honors, including the “superior service award…for promoting equal justice for those least able to afford counsel.”

Divorce, custody, estates, bankruptcies, probate, civil litigation, real estate, personal injury, business law…as a rural Minnesota attorney, Krekelberg’s experiences covered virtually all areas of law. 

Political, elected office not an ambition–unlike many attorneys   

Unlike many attorneys, Krekelberg chose not to enter the political arena. 

In fact, he chuckled at the prospect of  elected political office. (However, he was in line for judgeship appointments, twice in his career.)

“I can’t imagine being in a large room, listening to people debate issues from a partisan perspective…and getting nothing done!”

As a litigator and mediator, his objectives were usually to resolve issues, finding compromise, and arriving at solutions; which is not always consistent with elected, legislative bodies–especially these days. 

There were legal situations that are somewhat out of his  expertise. There have been some cases that were “too big” to handle for a small firm. In some of those instances, he collaborated with another firm with certain legal specialties and backgrounds.  

What sort of cases has he declined? 

“I stopped doing criminal sexual conduct cases,” he said, noting that those cases are sad and depressing. “Life is just too short.”

In closing comments, it was difficult to avoid discussing the sexual abuse scandals that have shocked Catholics across the globe. 

“I can understand why some people have left the church. It makes me very sad, disappointed, disgusted, betrayed…”

He recalled the Bishop speaking to a group, where it was suggested that the Catholic “rank and file” were not ready to let women be ordained…or for priests to marry. 

One of the oldest women in the congregation rose her hand and said “I’m ready,” recalled Krekelberg. 

Had priests been allowed to marry, back in his seminary days, Krekelberg said he may have continued on has path toward ministry. 

But – that would have changed the course of history. 

Tens of hundreds of clients would not have been represented by Krekelberg over the past four decades.