After childhood on the farm, a half century in the courtroom
Longtime Caledonia attorney Bill Von Arx says there’s one case whose details have lingered in his mind more than any other.
When middle-aged bachelor Helmer Odegaarden was murdered by a relative on his farm in rural Rushford in the late 1960s, the sheriff asked Von Arx to be present as the body was removed.
The one aspect of that macabre scene that sticks out in his memory is the smell.
The “death odor,” as Von Arx put it, was with him when he returned home for dinner.
“Boy, did he smell when he came home that day,” his wife, Teddy, recounted.
Von Arx wasn’t in the mood to eat, either.
“I told Teddy that the roast beef smelled like Helmer,” Von Arx said.
It was all part of the job for Von Arx, who began practicing law in Caledonia in 1961. He served as Houston County attorney for 16 years, and throughout his career worked as the city attorney for every city in Houston County except Spring Grove.
“There was lots of action there,” Von Arx said of being a city attorney. “You get to know the police officers well and they get to know you.”
Recently retired, Von Arx said he expects the sale of the Kingston Street building where he practiced law for a half century to be finalized by the end of the month.
A career as a lawyer was an unlikely prospect for Von Arx when he was growing up on his family’s farm in rural La Crescent. His grandfather, AJ Von Arx, immigrated here from Switzerland and is credited with introducing strip cropping to the Upper Mississippi Valley area. There were no lawyers in the family and, in fact, “you could say I was from a family of lawyer-haters,” Von Arx said with a laugh.
But an ugly business deal his parents got mixed up in kindled his interest in the law at a young age.
“My parents had a loan from somebody, from a neighbor, and they were awfully surprised when they were undertaking to pay off the loan that the neighbor now wanted to charge interest, too,” he said.
There was no contract or legal document to speak of that could have settled the matter, and, “It really bothered me,” he said.
The law, he added, has the ability to remove the “grossly human element” from these types of transactions.
After serving with the U.S. Army’s counterintelligence corps in the early 1950s, Von Arx took a job as elementary school teacher in St. Paul. During that time he attended night classes at William Mitchell College of Law to earn his law degree. After a stint as a lawyer with the Northern Pacific railway company in St. Paul, Von Arx moved back to Houston County in the early 1960s to join the law office of an attorney he’d known while working for the railroad.
Von Arx and his wife, Teddy, have lived at their home on Jefferson Street in Caledonia since the early 1960s. They have seven children, and 25 grandchildren.
In retirement Von Arx said, one thing he’d like to do is finish writing his memoirs. He’s already completed chapter one.
Von Arx still occasionally gets letters from students he taught in St. Paul.
“Just recently I’ve been faced with some illness, and here I get an email from one of my former students – and he was the worst hellraiser – but he’s a teacher now, and he said it’s all because of me,” Von Arx said. “This ne’er-do-well kid turned out pretty good. It made my day.”
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