A Trusted Partner

On Behalf of | Jan 24, 2004 | Firm News

Nearly everywhere Garylle Stewart goes, his red and white El Zagal coffee cup seems to follow.

The plastic sipper with its snap-top lid is almost always fastened to Stewart’s hands — whether he’s strolling into a meeting at Fargo City Hall or sitting at his desk, barricaded behind rows of neatly stacked legal documents.

And though Stewart’s cup is small, it speaks volumes.

It’s getting old, yet a quick inspection reveals it is sturdy as ever. It shrieks of practicality, yet is distinctive enough to stand out in a crowd.

That, too, is how this longtime Fargo city attorney has been categorized by those who know him best.

Stewart’s friends and colleagues say they think of him as a deeply dedicated, down-to-earth guy with a firm grasp of the law and a penchant for all things old — be it stories, houses, friends or cars.

Wayne Solberg, Stewart’s law partner since 1968, said he’s never known his friend to buy a new car or sell an old one.

Stewart, ever the attorney, will argue that, recalling the day he bought a new 1977 Lincoln, a luxury car complete with an eight-track tape player.

But the evidence behind Solberg’s observation is in the law office parking lot. There sits Stewart’s faded black 1992 Ford Ranger — a second-hand purchase from Solberg that Stewart devotedly drives all over town.

And true to Solberg’s word, Stewart admits he never parted with the Lincoln.

Stewart’s take on it: They just don’t build ’em like they used to.

The same could be said for the 63-year-old Stewart.

Horsing around

As the lead city attorney, Stewart is now researching whether a proposed half-cent food tax requires a public vote.

While the final decision lies with the city’s elected leaders, Stewart must advise them of the legal ramifications. What Stewart tells them could help shape the outcome.

The pressure is something Stewart says he enjoys. He’s been preparing for it all his life.

Of Scottish, English and Swedish decent, Stewart says his upbringing in Humboldt, Minn., was probably stricter than he’d like, but never stifling. The family didn’t have much money so, from an early age, Stewart and his three siblings got used to being thrifty.

Growing up, most of Stewart’s friends called him “Gary” for short. People were unsure how to pronounce “Garylle.”

His advice: “It rhymes with Daryl.”

His mother, Melvy, was set on naming her son Gary, even though a family cousin had just been named the same.

“So, she just added an ‘lle’,” Stewart says.

He spent much of his childhood at the horse-racing track. His dad, Glen, a farmer, owned horses and Stewart and his brother, Bob, loved riding them.

In the mid-1950s, Stewart was a jockey and rode in the local fair circuit. Once he got a little older, though, he left the riding to Bob and focused instead on training horses.

“I liked hamburgers too much” to be an effective jockey, he said.

In a way, Stewart’s days at the race track helped prepare him for his law career.

“I learned a lot of street smarts,” he said. “You learn to tell the con from the guy that’s being honest with you.”

Stewart says he wanted to be an attorney ever since he can remember.

He graduated from high school in 1958 — his class was only the second high school class in the history of Humboldt, a town in Kittson County on the Canada border now populated by fewer than 100 people.

The next year, in addition to getting married to his high school sweetheart, Marian, he started college at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

By 1960 Stewart was drawn back into horse racing — partly because he loved it, partly because this was the only way to pay for school. He was a full-time student during the spring and winter quarters and off to Canada, Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia to train horses during the summer and fall.

At 20, Stewart was one of the youngest in the race circuit. His friends were all older, and Stewart admits he was sometimes envious.

“I was always looking for lines to see if I could look older,” Stewart says, pointing to his face and chuckling. “Now, I’d like to go back and pick up some of that time.”

By mid-1960, he had taken on another role: father.

In the early part of the decade, Stewart was going to school, traveling the country racing horses and helping raise two daughters, Elizabeth and Audrey.

“Back then, things were different,” he said. “I suppose I was faster in those days.”

His daughter Audrey Stewart-Farol, who lives in Fargo, said she never minded. Farol said she has great childhood memories of being at the races.

Stewart’s stay in Moorhead would have ended in 1963 had he finished college with the rest of his class. But he was hooked on racing.

By 1962, he had several horses of his own, and before long he was making money off them. If it weren’t for a horse named “Poetic”, Stewart said he may not have been able to afford law school.

“That horse kept me eating,” he said.

Stewart started law school in 1964 at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, though he still hadn’t finished his undergraduate degree at MSUM. He wriggled his way out of the undergraduate requirements for his law degree, promising to eventually pick up the remaining four hours he failed to finish.

To this day, it hasn’t happened.

Instead, MSUM waived the credits and granted him a political science degree in 1968 — the year after receiving his law degree from UND.

“My whole life has been bass-ackwards,” Stewart jokes. “Ah well …”

Humor and heart

Those who work with Stewart today have flattering things to say about the man who helps keep the city out of legal trouble.

Fargo Police Chief Chris Magnus said he can’t think of any Stewart enemies.

“He’s an attorney; he must have some,” Magnus said. “But he’s probably outlived enough of them and charmed the rest.”

Friends describe Stewart’s sense of humor as disarming, sarcastic and slightly off-beat.

Just ask Stewart his age.

“Well…,” Stewart says in his gravelly voice. “I tell the girls (in the office) I’m 39.”

He pauses and his signature smirk appears.

“They don’t believe me either.”

Since Stewart has been with the city 36 years this July, he’s played a hand in much of Fargo’s growth during the past three decades. Fargo Mayor Bruce Furness said Stewart’s knowledge of the law and of city history is remarkable.

“He knows the liquor control ordinances very well. He wrote most of them himself,” Furness said.

Another one of Stewart’s strengths, according to Furness, is his ability to emotionally remove himself from issues.

Stewart says he tries to focus on the law, not the politics of government.

“I try not to inject any of my thoughts as to what they’re doing on the business end of things,” he said. “If I think they’re crazy, I’m not going to say ‘Hey, don’t you know what you’re doing?’ ”

But as Stewart is quick to confess, he hasn’t always been successful at staying out of the hot seat.

In 1995 he signed his name to a petition started by Fargo’s Crystal Dueker in support of the city’s only strip club, The Northern. The problem: Stewart had just written the ordinance that banned exotic dancing.

As Stewart recalls the controversy, his mischievous smirk resurfaces. Fortunately for Stewart, his allies quickly came to his defense.

“I trust Garylle Stewart’s judgment, and I think he has the utmost integrity,” former City Commissioner Erv Inniger said at the time.

Stewart said he had never been to the club and didn’t care whether it was open. He just wanted to stand up against censorship.

“If somebody wants to see something, they can see it as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

What Stewart is too modest to reveal about his professional life is that in addition to his city duties, he also does a great deal of pro bono work for nursing home residents who can’t afford it.

“He’s really got a good heart that way,” his daughter says.

In the early 1990s, Stewart won three awards from the North Dakota Bar Association for his dedication to providing equal access to justice.

A walking archive

With more than five decades behind him, Stewart has more than a few stories to tell.

Take any topic in the city’s history and he’ll have a story — with the names of everyone involved, the year, if not the exact date it took place and even specific dialog.

“He’s like a walking archive,” Magnus said. “And there’s no issue … no matter how serious … where he hasn’t made me laugh at some point in the conversation.”

Stewart looks happiest leaning back in his chair, telling stories about days gone by. But he admits, he’s one of the few people still around to pass on the colorful tales.

Most of his racing buddies are no longer alive.

“Wayne (Solberg) and I were talking about that … just thinking about the people. There’s nobody to ask anymore because they’re all gone,” he said.

These days, Stewart says he throws almost all of his energy into his job. As the city grows, so does his workload.

Divorced since the early 1990s, Stewart said he’s now married to his job.

“I guess I wouldn’t be lying if I said I devote a lot of time to this,” he said with a hushed voice, his eyes now gazing downward toward the floor. “I don’t know if I’m any good at it, but I devote a lot of time to it. That’s just the way I am.”

Stewart also will be the first to tell you he’s not a morning person. That fact surfaces occasionally at the Fargo Airport Authority meetings, held at 8 a.m. every other week. He’s often the last one in the room — his coffee cup in hand, of course.

Still, it’s not uncommon for Stewart to work until 8 p.m., maybe later.

The offices of Solberg, Stewart & Miller are nestled in a historic house between Fourth and Fifth avenues south and South University Drive. From the outside, its picturesque pillars and front porch are reminiscent of a southern plantation house.

Inside, the warmth radiates — from the twisting wooden staircase beginning in the law office’s teal-carpeted lobby to the quaint bedrooms-turned-offices throughout the second floor.

Stewart’s first-floor office is in the center of the house, once a sitting area. The walls are lined with old law books other than one wall showcased by the fireplace. It’s not your typical office environment.

At the house next door, the atmosphere is much the same. In 2001, Stewart helped save this historic home from demolition and then transformed it into a second office for the law firm.

Outside work, Stewart said he doesn’t get involved much in community activities, aside from being a member of the El Zagal Shrine Temple — as his coffee cup reveals.

Solberg says Stewart has never been big into leisure activities, and Stewart says he has no interest in golfing.

“I don’t need many things to keep me calm,” Stewart said.

In his rare free time,Stewart says he enjoys spending time at his house on Minnesota’s Little Detroit Lake.

On occasion, he also makes time to tinker with his 10 old cars. But Stewart said he leaves the major restoration work, including mechanics, to the professionals.

He stores several of the fix-up vehicles in a three-stall brick garage he had built next to his north Fargo house after the 1997 flood.

His project of the moment: A light blue, 1950 GMC one-ton truck, which Stewart said “runs like you wouldn’t believe.” He hopes to be done with it sometime this spring.

No time for rest

Aside from the “worry lines” embedded in Stewart’s face and the gray hair that has crept up on him, it’s easy to believe he’s the same guy he’s always been.

Most people his age are thinking about or have already retired.

Not Stewart.

He said he’ll keep serving the city until he dies.

“I pretty much live and breathe the law,” he said.

At the same time, Stewart said he does what he can to expose some of the less-experienced attorneys in the firm to the ins and outs of city government by giving them a hands-on role in various issues and by having them attend commission meeting.

This is the same way a young Stewart learned the ropes of City Hall — by watching his colleagues.

Magnus said it’s great to have someone around who not only provides a historical perspective as to why an ordinance or policy was created, but also gives a good sense of how things might work in the future.

“It’s hard to imagine what it will be like to make some of these decisions without that information when he retires,” Magnus said. “He’s sort of at the center of everything. As a city, we’ve been very lucky.”

Stewart struggles to pinpoint what has kept him going at such a rapid pace for all these years.

Maybe it’s the coffee.

Or maybe, says Solberg, it’s just Stewart’s one-of-a-kind personality.

“He’s got a lot of moxie,” Solberg said.