Pioneering judge reflects on a life in law

George Stigler (UNI ’72), who retired July 30 as Iowa’s longest active serving judge and only its second Black district jurist, credits an impromptu hallway chat with two of his University of Northern Iowa professors with changing his life’s course.

“In fall semester of my senior year, I was waiting for class to start in Seerley Hall when Professor Thomas Ryan asked me to come into his office,” recalled Stigler, 70, who earned his bachelor’s degree in History in three-and-a-half years. 

Ryan shared an office with Professor Charles Quirk, and the two asked Stigler his plans after graduation. Stigler hadn’t figured that out. 

After all Stigler, one of nine children, had no time for frivolity. He worked to pay most of his way through Northern Iowa University at The Rath Packing Company, a now-shuttered hog-slaughtering and meatpacking house on the Cedar River in Waterloo. He packed pork butts in the plant’s “cutting” department.

Quirk and Ryan suggested he study law.

“I hadn’t mapped out a course for my life, other than getting a college degree,” Stigler said. “They expressed an interest in my life.

“But for that chance meeting, I wouldn’t have registered for the LSAT or gone to law school,” he said. “It just shows that a person’s life can be greatly affected by someone expressing an interest in them.”

And how. Stigler went on to serve on the bench for 42 years, four months and four days, and became the state’s second African-American district court and second district associate court judge. 

At the time, Stigler also knew that he’d be joining the Iowa National Guard, since he held Draft No. 13 at the height of the Vietnam War.  

“I joined the Guard (in December 1971) so I could control — the best I could — the timing of going to law school,” said Stigler, who graduated from the University of Iowa School of Law and passed the bar exam to become a lawyer in June 1975.  

Stigler’s decision to enlist led to his serving 38-and-a-half years in the Army National Guard. In 1983, his first sergeant convinced him to join the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps. He started as a first lieutenant and rose to the rank of full Colonel before he retired in 2010. 

It also enabled Stigler to travel to places he’d never dreamed, having started life in Durant, Mississippi, 100 miles south of Memphis in the northern Delta region. His father, a sharecropper, moved the family to Waterloo, Iowa, for a better life when Stigler was 6. His father worked at the Illinois Central Railroad and at the Armour Company’s fertilizer plant. His mother worked as a housekeeper, notably for a prominent Waterloo psychiatrist.

He attended Longfellow and Hawthorne elementary schools, the latter distinguished as counting the rock-and-roll duo, The Everly Brothers, among its alumni. He also graduated from McKinstry Junior High and East High schools.

Stigler recalled fond memories of growing up in Waterloo with neighbors with as many as 16 to 17 children in a family.

“We were one of the smaller families,” he said. “You had someone to argue with, fight with and talk to. Everybody you know [was] broke, so you don’t know what you don’t have.”

Stigler said one of the “amazing discoveries” of his youth happened when he went to a church summer camp between seventh and eighth grade, and learned that only one person slept in a bed at a time and that each bed had two sheets — one to lie on and another to lie under.

After law school, Stigler worked part-time in private practice and as an assistant prosecutor with the Black Hawk County Attorney’s office. The district court judges appointed Stigler in March 1978 as a full-time magistrate, a post later named district associate judge. 

William Parker — believed to be the state's first Black judge —was then serving as an elected municipal court judge in Waterloo. 

Stigler followed Luther Glanton of Des Moines — the state's first Black district court judge — to the bench when then-Gov. Terry Branstad appointed Stigler to the district court in February 1985.

Stigler said the criminal justice system “is grotesquely minority” in terms of the numbers of the accused, and “that always concerned me.”

“I don’t know the solution,” he said. “It’s a big problem.”

Yet Stigler said he treated everyone who came before him in court the same, regardless of their race or religion.

And again, he credited his high standards to his educational underpinning at UNI.

“I’m very proud to be an alumnus,” he said. “It’s an outstanding school. I say it because I think it’s true. It’s got some of the most committed, best professors around.”

His sentiment goes to the heart of why an undergraduate degree in history prepares students so well for law school, said the head of UNI’s Department of History.

The skills that history students learn — in-depth research, critical thinking, purposeful writing and how to break down complex texts — are seminal and beautifully tailored to a legal career, said Jennifer McNabb, who’s also a professor in the History department she leads. That’s evidenced by data showing 85% of history majors nationwide who sat for the law-school entrance exam successfully entered law school in 2016 and 2017, according to the Law School Admissions Council. 

“History students learn to develop arguments, articulate them clearly and defend them with evidence,” McNabb said.

Indeed, McNabb said she believes it’s more important than ever, as the studies of history and law evolve, for students to understand America’s history to be citizens of the 21st century.

“It’s so important to motivate students to want to be inquisitive, to want to know the answers,” she said. “And it’s essential to enable students to make a real difference in the world.”

And there’s no better example than retired Judge George Stigler.