Many of us who are in our 70s, 80s or 90s try to stay active, and occasionally push ourselves to do things that are physically challenging, but I believe the majority of us don’t attempt to set physical goals that appeared to be out of reach 50 or 60 years earlier. Ralph Maxwell, a retired Fargo attorney, believed that you are never too old to dream. After retiring from the legal profession, Ralph devoted much of his time competing in track and field events. In preparation, he drew up a training program and diet and stuck to it.

In 1958, Ralph resigned as North Dakota’s Assistant U.S. District Attorney to begin a private law practice in West Fargo. While there, he was able to spend more time with his wife, Liz, and their five children. He also began skydiving and acting in the Fargo Moorhead Community Theatre. To relax, he played the trombone, ukulele and harmonica, became engaged in wood carving, and wrote plays and poetry. One of his plays about the Irish patriot, Robert Emmett, was performed by the theater.

In 1967, the North Dakota Legislature added three additional district judges, two of them to the First Judicial District which covered the eastern portion of North Dakota. On Aug. 1, Governor William Guy appointed Ralph to one of those positions in the First Judicial District.

During the primary election of Sept. 1, 1970, North Dakota voters approved of a constitutional amendment to have elected delegates write a new North Dakota Constitution that would get rid of arcane language and also sections in the Constitution that were no longer applicable. At the general election on Nov. 3, 98 delegates were selected to serve at a Constitution Convention to be held in 1971-1972, and Ralph was elected as one of the delegates.

Ralph was not the first member of his family to pursue a personal or professional goal at an advanced age. When his wife, Liz, was in her mid-40s, she decided she would also enjoy being a lawyer. She enrolled at Minnesota State University Moorhead and earned her bachelor's degree in 1974 and then attended law school at the University of North Dakota, graduating in 1977 at the age of 51.

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Now that Liz had finished her education and become a lawyer, Ralph felt free to pursue an aspect of law that he thought would be more challenging. He filled out an application to become a federal administrative law judge, which is a judge who adjudicates claims or disputes involving administrative law. ALJs take testimony, rule on questions of evidence, and make factual and legal determinations, often regarding complex administrative issues. ALJs are the only merit-based judges in the U.S.

Ralph Maxwell. Special to The Forum
Ralph Maxwell. Special to The Forum

Ralph traveled to Chicago where he took a four-hour written examination and an oral examination before a panel of representatives from the Office of Personnel Management and the American Bar Association as well as a sitting federal ALJ. Ralph scored very well on the exams and felt confident he would soon receive his ALJ appointment. He then resigned his position as district court judge and notified the press in December of 1977 that he was “expecting a new appointment.”

Early in 1978, Ralph received his appointment to be an ALJ, first as a judge for the Social Security Administrations Bureau of Hearings and Appeals in Fargo, and later in the year he was transferred to the regional office in Chicago. In 1981, Liz was able to join her husband in Chicago when she was hired to be an attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency at its Chicago regional office.

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After William Maxwell earned his law degree in 1988 from the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, he and his parents, Ralph and Liz, founded the Maxwell Law Office in Fargo. In 1991, Ralph and Liz retired to do some traveling and to follow the career of their daughter, Jan Maxwell, whose acting career was beginning to blossom on Broadway. After working for the North Dakota state government, William relocated to the Iron Range in northeastern Minnesota to practice law.

Ralph had kept himself in relatively good shape and realized that he could do a number of things that most people his age could not do. He learned about “masters athletics” competitions where athletes over the age of 30 could compete in a number of events. He decided this was something he wanted to compete in and devised a training program and diet that would assist him in being successful. According to Nancy Maxwell, one of Ralph’s daughters, “He was unhappy about his physical condition and this prompted him to get in shape when he was 72. But getting in shape for its own sake didn’t hold his interest. Competition, however, did hold his interest.”

When Ralph started competing in U.S. track and field events in his 70s, most of his competitors had been athletes during the early part of their careers, and some were Olympians. Although he initially did not win a lot of competitions, he was pleased that he could hold his own in a number of events. While he was in his 80s Ralph really began to shine, and as an octogenarian he set 18 U.S. and world records. People wanted to know about his training secrets and his reply was, “If I told you, it wouldn’t be a secret anymore, would it?”

However, one individual got him to reveal some of his secrets. On May 18, 2003, in his “Neighbors” column in The Forum, Bob Lind wrote that “to stay in shape Ralph works out about two hours, takes two days off [to recover], . . . then puts in another two hours of more fun and games: calisthenics, running (jogging, say, 100 meters at 75 percent and 200 meters at 90 percent). . . He keeps his weight at 135. . . Normally, he eats three meals a day, with no snacking between. A Ralph Maxwell breakfast, as a for instance: half a grapefruit, orange juice, three fruits, oatmeal with soy milk and raisins (or an occasional splurge of bacon and eggs), one slice of whole wheat toast with peanut butter, one mug of coffee, one multi-vitamin, two vitamin Es, two baby aspirins and a large glass of water.” In his later years of training he reduced his weight so he would not have as much weight to lift up for the high jump and the pole vault. His weight in the last years of his competition was 118 pounds.

Ralph continued competing into his 90s, setting another seven different U.S. and world track and field records, and was one of very few athletes to compete in the hurdles and high jump while in his 90s. Ralph Maxwell competed to the very end, winning gold medals in every event he competed in at the Iowa Senior Olympics in mid-June, 2014. He died only a few months later on Sept. 28, 2014.

(Next week’s story is about actress Jan Maxwell, a daughter of Ralph & Liz Maxwell)

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.

Curt Eriksmoen, Did You Know That? columnist
Curt Eriksmoen, Did You Know That? columnist