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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published November 21 2010

Eriksmoen: UND head football coach served on Supreme Court

In 1992, former Minnesota Vikings all-pro Alan Page was elected to a seat on the Minnesota Supreme Court. He wasn’t the first star of the gridiron to be elected to a state’s highest court.

Seventy years earlier, William Nuessle, a football captain and later head coach of the University of North Dakota football team, was elected to serve on the state Supreme Court.

Two of Nuessle’s teammates at UND were Lynn Frazier and William Lemke. They later became bitter opponents when Nuessle ruled that Gov. Frazier’s decision to seize control of the Washburn lignite mines was unconstitutional. Lemke, acting as Frazier’s attorney, unsuccessfully appealed Nuessle’s decision, stating that his action invited “bloodshed and a civil war.”

Nuessle was born May 5, 1878, in North Boston, N.Y., to Christopher and Mary (Vail) Nuessle. In 1886, the Nuessles moved to a farm near Emerado in Dakota Territory. One of William’s teachers at Emerado was Edwin J. Taylor, who became North Dakota superintendent of public instruction in 1911. Because Emerado did not have a high school, Taylor encouraged Nuessle to attend UND so he could also take high school courses in preparation for college.

At UND, Nuessle tried out for football and began playing in 1894. Players had to buy their own uniforms and equipment, the teams were coached by college professors, the games were played only in October and November, and UND players did not have their own football field. Still, during the first four years Nuessle played, UND compiled a 6-4 record.

The highlight of the 1898 season was on Nov. 11 when UND traveled to Minneapolis to played the University of Minnesota. UND lost 15-0, but it was hailed as a “moral victory,” and the heroes, Nuessle, Joe Flanagan and Frazier, were treated to a banquet by faculty and students.

With high expectations for 1899, a Grand Forks attorney put up money to hire a regular coach for the new season. Harry “Babe” Loomis, a star athlete at the University of Minnesota, was hired. The core of the team consisted of Nuessle, Frazier, Flanagan and Lemke. UND won all six games, outscoring opponents 179-5.

Nuessle graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1899 and entered law school. In 1901, he received a law degree, was admitted to the bar and set up a practice in Grand Forks. He also coached UND’s football team to a 3-4 record.

One of Nuessle’s teammates from 1894-98 was J. Ellsworth Davis. Davis was from Goodrich, N.D. After graduating in 1898, he returned home to enter the banking business. He convinced Nuessle to establish a law office in Goodrich and obtain a homestead near Denhoff. Nuessle was appointed U.S. commissioner, with an office in Washburn, by Judge Charles Amidon. In 1904, he was elected state’s attorney for McLean County, but was defeated for re-election in 1908.

In 1912, Nuessle was elected district court judge, serving until 1922. By 1919, he had begun sitting in on North Dakota Supreme Court cases when judges disqualify themselves. His biggest challenge as a district court judge occurred late in 1919 when he took action against Frazier and Lemke.

Frazier was elected governor in 1916. There was a major crisis on Nov. 8, 1919, when the United Mine Workers of North Dakota went on strike, halting 70 percent of the state’s coal production. On Nov. 10, Frazier published a proclamation warning mine owners and workers to settle the strike in 24 hours or the state “will take over the mines.” When no action was taken, he ordered the chief of the State Guard Militia to take control of the state’s 33 mines.

The Washburn Lignite Co. in Wilton appealed the action. On Nov. 19, Nuessle ordered the mines returned to the owners, stating that holding the mines “would be despotism.”

Lemke, acting as Frazier’s attorney, appealed Nuessle’s decision to the North Dakota Supreme Court, but the higher court upheld Nuessle’s ruling.

In May 1920, Nuessle was the judge in a case that caught the nation’s attention – the brutal murder of Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Wolf, their five young children, and a chore boy who worked for Wolf. The murders occurred near Turtle Lake on April 22, and the man convicted was a neighbor, Henry Layer. Nuessle sentenced Layer to life in prison. A dramatization of the event was presented on radio’s “The Big Story” on Nov. 16, 1949. It was also the subject of Vernon Keel’s 2010 book “The Murdered Family.”

Nuessle was elected as a Supreme Court justice in 1922. He was re-elected to two more six-year terms in 1928 and 1934 and to a 10-year term in 1940. He resigned on Dec. 31, 1950, becoming the justice with the fourth-longest tenure on the state’s highest court.

While chief justice in January 1933, Nuessle swore in Minnie Craig as speaker of the state House when she became the first female in the nation to serve as speaker of a state’s lower chamber.

Nuessle’s alma mater, UND, bestowed an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 1948. In 1956, the college’s Alumni Association awarded him an Alumni Achievement Citation. He died at his home in Bismarck on March 30, 1959.


Information about “Did You Know That” and all four volumes of the book are available at eriksmoenenterprises.com. The column and books are written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen.

Reach the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net