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Harry's Gang: In a league of lawyers, Tom Skare stood out

I learned Tom Skare passed away over Labor Day weekend. He was apparently in his law office on Cloquet Avenue across from the Holiday gas station, where he spent a lot of his time, and wasn’t heard from for two days. I had driven by his office that Saturday morning and thought maybe I should stop in. I hadn’t chatted with Tom for a few weeks and I was due a visit. I wish I had stopped in.

Tom was an interesting character. I first met him when I was interviewing at the Newby law office back in 1999. It was an odd interview. While Dave Lindgren focused on my interest in real estate law and litigation, Tom was more interested in my musical skills, which are very lowly developed, but not non-existent. It turned out that he had been a music teacher before going to law school and was an enthusiastic bass player in rock and blues bands. I played with him occasionally over the years, but he was so much more talented than me, we never formed a band or anything. He used to say you don’t play a bass, you feel a bass. His amps were big enough that when he played, your hair moved like it was in a breeze.

We were more evenly matched on the golf course, which is to say he wasn’t very good. I’m probably the only hire ever at Butch Newby’s office who was not a golfer. But that firm played a lot of golf, and I learned. Tom had a stroke that inevitably sliced or hooked but rarely went straight down the fairway. I was grateful — he made me look competent on the golf course. He tried to get me on a team for Thursday men’s league for probably the same reason, to have someone more in his skill range to commiserate with. I think he stopped golfing after he left the Newby firm and started his own boutique firm, where the pressure to golf was non-existent.

Tom helped a lot of people in his legal career. He was a part-time public defender for many years, helping the accused navigate the legal system. He firmly believed the state must prove each case beyond a reasonable doubt.

One day about 15 years ago, he called me up and said the public defender’s office needed a substitute for a few months, as the newly graduated lawyer they had in Carlton had flunked the bar exam and couldn’t retake it for six months. He told me to call Fred Friedman right away, but I was pretty busy and told him I’d call next week. Tom said, “Pete, if you want this job, hang up the phone now and call Fred.” Then he hung up, sort of punctuating the urgency.

I took the assignment and gained a new appreciation for public defenders. They have unbelievably large caseloads and few resources with which to do their work, all while being stacked against a well-funded criminal prosecution office with all the resources of the state. Nearly every prosecutor and probation officer cautioned me to not approach the job like Tom did, saying that it was easier to go with the flow rather than insist on thorough evidence before pleading out a case. Those comments convinced me that Tom was right, and that our constitutional rights required a high level of dedication if we wanted to protect people. I don’t know how he did it for so many years, because six months was stressful enough for me. But he did.

His skills in civil litigation were equally impressive. Tom mentored me in civil lawsuits from the time I started working for him in 1999 until just a few weeks before he died. He’d had a very bad experience with an insurance company, which used tricks to deny his family health insurance when his son was very young with some very serious, life-threatening medical issues. He never forgave the insurance industry and blamed them for nearly losing his son. If you were lucky enough to have Tom on your side, you were sure to get justice going after insurance companies. Tom didn’t quit until you did. He was a fantastic advocate for many who just don’t know how awful some insurance companies can be.

“I’m doing God’s work,” he used to joke.

He also had some amazing victories in jury trials during his career.

He had a pretty good sense of humor too. On many of my visits to his office over the years for peer-to-peer consultations, I’d move a stack of papers off a chair in his office (he was meticulous, yes, and messy, too) and discuss my cases with him. Inevitably, our conversation would turn to politics and we’d take turns making the other one laugh.

My last visit to him was 10-percent consultation, 40-percent political analysis, and 60-percent laughter. He was retired by then, so he could afford to take such time. I often did not have the extra time, but now I’m glad I visited.

Tom was a mentor, a boss, a confidant and a friend. I’ll miss him.

Pete Radosevich is the publisher of the Pine Knot News and an attorney in Esko who hosts the cable access talk show Harry’s Gang on CAT-7. His opinions are his own. Contact him at [email protected].