Jeff grew up in Highland Park, with his parents Harry and Betty, and brother Scott. Jeff started at Highland Park High School in its second year of existence, where he helped lead the school to state tournaments in both basketball (as a 6’1” guard) and baseball (as a leftie pitcher).
After raising their sons Zach and Brett in Sunfish Lake, Jeff and Tracie now live in a condo near the Guthrie Theater.
In addition to his family and sports, Jeff’s professional life has revolved around his passion for criminal defense, including for over 25 years as a Hennepin County Public Defender. A career that came into focus with his experiences in the antiwar movement at the University, during the height of the Vietnam War.
He is now “limping toward retirement” later this year, though in honesty, he seems to have a few more good innings left in him.
Lets start with the basics. Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in Highland Park. Actually my parents lived in an apartment on Grand Avenue just before I was born and two months after, in March of 1950, they bought the second house built along the block on Saunders Avenue, between Fairview and Davern.
I would have to say that the early part of my life was defined by athletics. I had a great family life. I had one brother, Scott, who is no longer with us. Scott had a stroke when he was 54 and spent the last nine years of his life in a nursing home. We lost him in 2009.
But growing up my older brother was athletic, and I used to always be called on to fill in for the kids four years older than me, and I think it helped me tremendously as far as my progression as an athlete. And I hesitate to say I was a good athlete in high school. All Conference in basketball, and I got recruited to the U, which for a Jewish kid from Highland Park, to be recruited to a Division I school, was exciting.
I played basketball and baseball at the U, then after my first year I switched to baseball full time. And I can say that a highlight of my baseball career at the U was being Dave Winfield’s teammate.
But somewhere along the line I figured out that maybe I’d better get an education
So once you you finished your undergrad at the U, then law school at Florida State. What did you do from there?
I knew in my mind that I wanted to do something that would not be too ‘establishment’, and immediately started thinking of becoming a criminal defense attorney and trying to level the playing field.
So out of law school I spent five years in the Miami Public Defender’s Office, which was probably the premier public defender’s office in the country. They were just cutting edge. A lot of death penalty work. Florida had the death penalty.
I think I was well regarded. And though I had probably already tried a dozen cases, within three months after passing the bar, I was first chair, lead counsel, in a capital murder case and we saved the client’s life. And I can’t say that was exactly the beginning, but I’m sure that in five years in the Miami office I got more trial experience than many lawyers get in a career – it was that busy. I ended up in what they call the Major Crimes Division where all I did were murders and criminal sexual conduct cases. And then I went into private practice and spent 8 ½ years in private practice in Miami.
How did you meet Tracie?
I met Tracie in 1979. She was going to college and working in a very nice restaurant in Miami, and a buddy of mine, my roommate actually, said you’ve got to come see this woman. And so we went down there for brunch one day and she was as adorable as advertised and so I made it a point to keep going back there. And after several times, I got up the nerve to ask her out, and she totally blew me off. She later told me that’s not how she wanted to meet people and she wouldn’t go out with anyone she met at work, and I was no exception.
I take it that wasn’t the end of the matter?
Well about two months later I was at a park in Miami with my dog, and I saw her. They had a thing where you could run through the park, and do exercises, and she was there working out, and running. And I saw her resting up by the water, and so I threw the ball, for my dog, who dutifully ran after the ball right up to Tracie’s feet. And predictably she started petting my dog, and I trotted up after the dog and said “Oh, it’s you”. And the rest was history.
What prompted the move back to Minnesota?
We moved back here in 1989 to start a family. And in 1990 we had Zach. Zach has graduated college, and is working on a second degree, down in St Petersburg, at the University of South Florida, while he is working as an EMT. And 2 ½ years later Brett came along, and Brett is graduating this spring from San Diego State University.
So we made the move back here and its been, I think, a tremendous move for us. I’ve since lost my birth family, but for many years they had us here, they had grandchildren here, and Tracie’s parents were nearby.
We’ve talked about Tracie’s ‘finding’ Judaism – can you tell us about that?
As the boys got closer to bar mitzvah age, we were raising them Jewish, and we were celebrating the Jewish holidays. And my Dad was tremendous, he would always call Tracie up around Passover, and say “Honey, what do you need?” And he would come over and he would cook with her. My Dad was a tremendous cook.
So she was living a Jewish life but had not formally converted. And she had been taking classes – Mixed Roots, I think it was, and Taste of Judaism. And as the bar mitzvahs got closer and we discussed what she would be able to do, and not be able to do, I think she just made the decision that it was time. And we had been together 23 years.
I should say, it never really mattered to me, whether she converted – until she did.
And when she did I was very emotional. I was very happy she’d done it. But my joke to her was, when she finally did convert, I would say “Honey, I’ve never dated a Jewish woman before. I may have to start looking around now”.
The humor was lost on her!
So she converted before Zach was bar mitzvahed – I’m sorry, before Zach became a bar mitzvah – that’s for Rabbi Spilker.
What led you to the law, and criminal law in particular?
When I got to college, the spring of my freshman year, the U of M students went on strike. And I took a course called Cold War Foreign Policy – I think the Professor’s name was Noble. I don’t know why I remember that.
And we read a book that was an eye opener, about how we truly got involved in Vietnam, and I got involved in the anti war movement, and became aware of government overreaching.
What was your experience like at the U?
I was tear gassed, I got stitches from a protest out on University Avenue, down by fraternity row. The Minneapolis tactical squad came marching down the street in full riot gear, with riot sticks and helmets, just knocking everything out of their way. Students were throwing rocks, and police were throwing them back, and I got hit by one right on the shin, and split it wide open. I was still playing baseball, but I had skipped practice for a couple of days. And though I had stitches, and basically no sleep, Coach Siebert had me pitch in a double header against Northwestern a few days later, the final games of my senior season. It did not go well.
Another time, there were helicopters on the mall and they started dropping tear gas. And I remember running into the Chemistry building, and they shot tear gas into the building. I couldn’t see, and I was choking, and someone grabbed me by the arm and led me out the back of the building. I never learned who that was.
But the experience of becoming ‘anti establishment’ stayed with me my whole life, which is frankly why being a criminal defense attorney is perfect for me. It allowed me to be a professional, but not really part of the establishment. So it suited my personality and my politics perfectly.
What do you know about your family history, back to the ‘old country’?
My father’s family emigrated from the Ukraine, from Kiev, in 1914 and settled on Saint Paul’s old West Side. My grandfather had a little kosher meat market. Their name had been something like Voyevod, but the story goes, that when he arrived at Ellis Island and told them his name was Shmuel Voyevod, they told him “your name is Sam Ward”.
My mother’s parents were born in the US but were of English and German extraction. At the wedding, my father’s side, which were all Eastern European Jews, sat on one side of the room, and my mother’s side, the German English Jews, sat on the other.
They didn’t talk at all. They sat on different sides the entire time.
Years later, when it came to choosing a synagogue, my father compromised and joined Mount Zion.
What are your plans for retirement?
I am going to write three books.
Tracie has a business – Celebrations of Life – that trains faciliators, to write life stories, and ethical wills, about significant parts of your life. And I have become a convert. I totally agree with Tracie. Everyone has a story, and they should tell them, if not for anyone but their family, so that it can be handed down. And thank goodness we have my Dad’s story because so much of that I had never heard, or forgotten, and now it’s there in a hard bound volume for my kids, and for their kids, and it will live on. I want to do that also, although I feel I am too young to start that project.
But I have always had in my head the thought of writing a David Letterman style “Top 10” list of my 10 craziest, funniest, best cases. And so I’ve started to try to accumulate the materials I would need, to get it down. But as I started to get it down, I realized it should be more than just top ten.
I want to put down – kind of what we’ve been talking about – where I came from, how I ended up doing what I did. Why I did it. Did I change anything? Ultimately the answer to that is probably no. You know, I was going to change the world, but of course it never happened. But I have probably changed the lives of several individuals. So I am anxious to start putting down on paper this book about my criminal practice.
And then I would like to write a small book about my brother. My brother died without any kids. And I just would like to memorialize his time here.
But I will start with my criminal practice.
Though its origin and meaning may be subject to debate, many may recall the Talmudic expression attributed to Sanhedrin 37a, to the effect that “one who saves a single life, it’s as if he has saved the world”. I’m guessing it has happened, and quite likely several times over.