Bill Ojala, an outspoken Iron Range lawyer whose political career extended into his 80s, died on Saturday. He was 92.
Family and friends said Ojala’s life was characterized by integrity and passionate convictions.
“When you got to know Bill you would know that you were speaking to a very honest man,” said Gabe Brisbois, who once formed a separate political party with Ojala. “Very, very honest.”
Iron Range historian Marvin Lamppa agreed.
“He was very straight-forward,” Lamppa said of Ojala. “He called things as he saw them - a lot - which irritated a lot of people. He had his enemies. There’s no doubt about that. … But he also had strong supporters.”
Both Brisbois and Lamppa got to know Ojala when they were teachers at Aurora-Hoyt Lakes High School and involved with union activities, Lamppa said. They quickly found a soulmate in Ojala.
“I remember him as a fierce fighter for human rights, a progressive in his politics and a true son of the Iron Range,” he said.
Born in Eveleth and raised in the little mining town of Genoa, Ojala served with the Marines in World War II after lying about his age to get in, said his son, Dave Ojala of Duluth. After he graduated from the St. Paul College of Law, he and his wife, Dorothy, moved to Aurora, and he set up practice in Gilbert.
He served at various times on the St. Louis County Board, as a state representative, as an Aurora School Board member and, in his 80s, as mayor of Aurora. He and Brisbois formed the Economic Justice Party, and Ojala ran for Congress under that banner in 1974. He and Republican Jerry Arnold were defeated by Jim Oberstar.
Ojala used his legal career more as an opportunity to help people than to gain wealth, Brisbois said. “He wasn’t interested in getting super-rich or anything like that.”
Dave Ojala, the last of four children, recalled traveling with his dad to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota following the Wounded Knee standoff in 1973, with Bill offering pro bono services to tribal members.
Staunchly opposed to the Vietnam War, Bill Ojala protested by declining to pay taxes for two years. It eventually led to Ojala being suspended from his law practice for three years. But the real issue, Dave Ojala said, was articles his father had written for the Gilbert newspaper alleging that a Virginia law firm provided entertainment and gifts to public officials in return for favors.
“The firm that he wrote about buying hookers and booze for judges had friends in the bar association,” said Dave Ojala, a former News Tribune copy editor who now works as a corporate writer for Allete.
Bill Ojala never officially returned to law practice, although he continued to provide free legal advice, Dave Ojala and Brisbois said. Instead, he drove a school bus.
“He then volunteered to be the bus driver for the sports teams,” Brisbois said. “So he went to a lot of the sporting events. He became the teams’ best cheerleader.”
His dad also drove a bus to El Salvador on behalf of Veterans for Peace in 1992, Dave Ojala recalled.
Along with Brisbois, Ojala was one of the earliest supporters of Paul Wellstone’s longshot campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1990.
“I remember meeting Paul Wellstone in his living room,” said Ashley Ojala, 31, a granddaughter, of Bill Ojala.
“I looked up to his political activism,” the Duluth East graduate said. “I don’t think I recognized it then, but now I feel like he’s the embodiment of that World War II generation. … He fought in the war and came back, and I think felt a duty to do something more.”
Bill Ojala briefly gained celebrity in 1983 for something that had nothing to do with politics, law or protest: his dog Sadie, the “counting dog.” The cocker spaniel mix seemingly could solve math problems, using her paw to tap a person’s palm the correct number of times. The uncanny ability earned Bill and Sadie an appearance on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.”
“She would just stare in your eyes,” Dave Ojala explained about Sadie. “Human eyes must have a give, or something. … If you looked directly in her eyes and asked her what was the square root of 49, she would slap your hand seven times.”
Avid lovers of the outdoors, Bill and Dorothy Ojala were among the original shareholders of Giants Ridge ski resort. “They fueled a passion for skiing that runs through the entire family,” Dave Ojala wrote in an email.
Dorothy Ojala died in 2012.
Bill Ojala’s first priority was other people, Brisbois said.
“He dedicated himself to people,” Brisbois said. “That’s the synopsis of Bill Ojala.”