Not Out to Change the World
If you know anyone living in Bemidji, Minnesota, who is elderly or low-income, chances are they’ve benefited from one of the area programs Bob Enger has been instrumental in building or maintaining—dentistry, housing, legal services, youth at risk—heck, if they’ve needed a transfusion, they might have received his O-negative blood. He’s been giving every six weeks since arriving in Bemidji in the 1990s as a staff attorney for Northwest Minnesota Legal Services (LSNM), the same organization he serves today as supervising attorney.
Bob Enger might have woven himself tightly into the fabric of the community but you shouldn’t expect to hear about this incoming MSBA President from the local paper, the Bemidji Pioneer, or even from his alma mater, Bemidji State University. He’s kept such a low profile over the years that his name registers barely a whisper in their archives.
And that’s despite the fact that the dental clinic he helped found for low-income residents (Northwest Dental Access Center) served 10,000 people last year, and the legal services office he staffs with three other advocates handles hundreds of cases annually, ranging from family law to tenant disputes to consumer law. If that weren’t enough, he’s also been instrumental in the growth of a program for at-risk youth (Evergreen Youth and Family Services), has been the treasurer for his church, and has volunteered his leadership for the Beltrami County Housing Coalition and other nonprofits in the Bemidji area.
One Person at a Time
What drives Enger’s giving of time, energy, and yes, blood? Enger will tell you that he’s not a typical legal services professional in that he’s not trying to make big changes. He explains, “I don’t have these special qualities of lifelong legal services attorneys who have the desire and drive to change the world. They’re special people. What I do have is that I see my clients not getting help without me doing it. I see a problem and I tackle it. I’m stubborn that way.”
Josh Ogunleye, a staff attorney at LSNM since 2009, has seen Enger tackle those problems and has come away with an appreciation for his mentor’s abilities. “It’s impressive to see him in court,” Ogunleye says. “He’s got an amazing memory. Bob’s the person who can quote you the statute and the number and sometimes the subdivision. In court he’s right on point and he just rattles it off. But he’s also a people person; that’s what it’s all about for him. When [his clients] come to him it may be the worst point ever in their life and his goal is to get them out of that situation. As far as the war on poverty or something like that, I don’t think he sees it like that. He’s wanting to help these individual people solve their problems.”
Mary Deutsch Schneider, executive director of LSNM and one of the team who hired Enger in 1995, agrees that “He certainly is not the typical legal services attorney. I think he has a legal aid heart and he came to our program with that,” she says. “But he had a background that was less rooted in social work kinds of activities and he’d been in the military. He was disciplined, professional, and very business-like.” Considering the question of Enger’s impact on the community, Schneider reflects, “If the world changed because of him, he wouldn’t take any credit for it anyway. He might not even notice. But he certainly has had an impact on people in poverty, one person at a time, through his representation of his clients and his commitment to justice.”
Rooted in Work & Service
According to Enger’s wife Becky, a geriatric-psychiatric nurse, it’s not a need for recognition that motivates her husband but a passion for serving, especially the poor and under-represented. The roots for that service might lie in his own roots, Becky says. She’s known him since their high school days, when both grew up on the northeast side of the state—Becky in Parkville and Bob in Palo, tiny communities dependent on mining for their existence.
When Bob moved to Palo in sixth grade, he and his brother and sister had already lived in several places across the Iron Range, first with their mother Sherri, and then with their new stepfather, Dennis Scheuring. Bob was five and the oldest of three when Sherri remarried after a difficult marriage to the children’s father. The new start wasn’t easy, although family life was better. Bob recalls Dennis as a very good father and credits him for much of what he has brought to his own parenting skills. But money was tight and the family was forced to move several times before settling in a trailer on land owned by Bob’s grandmother in Palo. Dennis worked in road construction when the weather allowed, Sherri worked at odd jobs, and the family filled in with food stamps when the dollars wouldn’t stretch for three growing children.
While the family legacy of hard work, frugality and self-reliance has stuck with Enger, he had to come to the practice of law on his own: As Becky and others in Enger’s life recall, he didn’t get much support for that goal from his family. When Enger began talking about being a lawyer, his mother, who has since passed away, responded that he wouldn’t be able to achieve that dream. Becky Enger, whose father worked in the mines, notes that working class families just didn’t have goals like that. She thinks Enger’s mother was trying to protect him from disappointment by discouraging him. “She wasn’t trying to knock him down,” Becky explains. “She just thought, ‘That’s not something you’re going to be able to attain.’”
Enger’s brother Kevin, 11 months his junior, recalls the same response to Bob’s ambitions from the larger family. “Until he went to college, I don’t think anybody took him seriously about getting to be a lawyer,” Kevin says. “The aunts and uncles and cousins—no one really thought about bettering themselves that way.”
But Enger’s family didn’t count on his intent to succeed. Both Becky and Kevin speculate that hearing “You can’t” only pushed Bob harder to make it happen. “I’m sure when he talked about it he recognized that people were thinking that he wasn’t going to make it,” Kevin says. “I was very proud when he started law school.”
Enger himself recalls that his early motives weren’t exactly pure: He wanted to be a lawyer because he wanted to be rich. He was tired of looking across his elementary school classroom at the kids who had money when he didn’t. He laughs when he says that, the irony of working for Legal Services not lost on him: “And now I can look across the courtroom and see the attorneys who have the money. I’m still envious!”
Building a Life
Their childhood may have been hardscrabble, but the Enger kids—Bob, Kevin and Crystal—say that it wasn’t all a grind. Bob has warm memories of summers spent riding his bike to nearby Twin Lake to swim, while Kevin recalls entire days spent riding around with Bob and a friend looking for ways to spend a shared three or four dollars. For her part, Crystal likes to tell stories about her older brothers trying to operate a broken-down, yellow Ski-doo every winter and about Bob getting in trouble for inadvertently shooting the family’s pickup truck with his BB gun. “He shot out the back window by accident,” she says, “and then tried to claim he broke it with a football. I guess that must have seemed like a better story.”
The Enger kids were responsible for finding their own money and they started working as soon as they could. For Bob that meant washing dishes and then cooking at a Mr. Steak franchise in nearby Virginia, MN. That’s where he met Becky and, almost as importantly, where he learned to make steak kabobs—a family favorite that he still produces on a regular basis. In fact, to many in Enger’s circle, one of his chief contributions to any gathering springs from this early job in which he learned to grill meat to perfection. More than one person cites his instruction in testing the doneness of meat using a pinch method. When asked to demonstrate, Enger will grab the inquirer’s hand and show the range between “rare” and “well-done” by pinching along the person’s thumb.
Becky and Bob may have met on the job during high school, but they didn’t get together until years later. Enger recalls being smitten by Becky but that she “wouldn’t give me the time of day.” But Becky explains it differently: “He was always dating someone else and I’m not the type to go chasing a guy around.” So when the shift was over, each would go his or her own way. On Friday nights, Becky would trade her polyester waitress uniform for jeans and sneakers before joining her friends for the small town ritual of “bombing drag”—driving up and down Virginia’s main street while calling to friends and gathering in parking lots. Even though Bob was sometimes there, she still didn’t feel particularly interested in chasing him.
After graduating, Enger joined the Army and Becky married another friend from high school and moved to Hawaii. Enger served as a military policeman stationed in Alabama, New Jersey and Alaska, and then tried a short stint in maintenance construction in Tennessee, working for an uncle. Finding the work unstimulating, he soon returned home and enrolled in Mesabi Range Community College where he kept up a busy schedule that amazed those around him. In addition to his studies, he also participated in college plays, returned to work at Mr. Steak, and picked up another job working at Silver Creek Liquor Company—operated by Mike Lambert, who would become his lifelong friend. “I still call him the best employee I ever had,” Lambert says. “When I wasn’t there he took care of it like it was his own store. That was a dream for a small business owner. He was the hardest working person you could meet.”
Enger may have been a good liquor store employee but he hadn’t forgotten his plans to get through college and law school. He piled on the courses and one day had a surprise when Becky sat next to him in history class. She had also returned to Minnesota, with her three-year-old son Ryan and a pending divorce. But even now she resisted Enger’s advances. At one point, she laughs, she tried to match him up with a girlfriend but the friend couldn’t help noticing that he only had eyes for Becky. Romance eventually won out and the couple moved to Bemidji where Enger finished his undergraduate degree and then on to South Dakota for Bob’s law school studies. And why South Dakota? As the new father of a young son, Enger chose his school according to the best place to raise a family. It helped that a friend was already there and recommended the lifestyle.
Becoming a Lawyer
Decision made, Enger was at long last on the final stretch toward his goal of becoming a lawyer. He entered the program at age 27 with a wife and son and graduated three years later, 12th in his class. The family returned to Bemidji where Enger clerked while studying for the bar and then accepted his Legal Services position. With the family growing to two and then three children, Enger dropped only one part of his original life plan: The part about becoming rich. Indeed, of all the pathways possible in pursuing the practice of law, he may have found the one that absolutely won’t make you wealthy, no matter how you slice it. Becky laughs ruefully about that. It would be nice to see the higher salary Enger could have earned with the other offers he’s received over the years—especially with their middle son just heading into college and student loan payments still going out for her, Bob, and Ryan. But she also knows the sacrifice that kind of work would demand in terms of his family life and the joy Enger finds in everyday victories against bad landlords and others who take advantage of the poor.
Already she and Enger are anticipating the lost family time his year of service to the MSBA will exact. They’ve purchased a second-hand Toyota to cut the costs of the commute and Enger is stocking up on audio books to help the miles fly faster. He’s also planning his agenda for the year, which he says will have one primary theme—access to justice—implemented through three conduits: legal services for those with low incomes, a properly functioning judicial branch, and adequately funded public defenders. In addition, he’s developing a new initiative, with the working title “Northern Star Attorney Program,” to inspire and recognize the pro bono service of those attorneys whose work would otherwise go unnoted—namely those serving in rural areas or for small firms not covered by the pro bono standards established by MSBA in partnership with larger organizations.
One thing Enger can’t prepare for, although he says he’s bracing himself, is the drop in adrenaline he might experience while loading his days with meetings and driving. One of the many reasons he enjoys his work with LSNM is what he calls the MASH unit factor (named for the 1970s television show): Every case that comes in the door is an emergency or crisis situation or it wouldn’t be a Legal Services case. By contrast, he’s not as enthusiastic about systems and meetings. “My first thought is always, ‘What is the problem and how do we resolve it,’” he says, “not, ‘Let’s organize a committee and who wants to sit on this committee?’ That’s not me.”
That may be so, but for a person who’s not excited about committees, Enger has served on his share of them. Back in Bemidji where he has been on the board of Northern Dental Access Center since before it even opened, Enger earns kudos from the Center’s executive director, Jeanne Edevold Larson, for his governance style. “He pays attention to the mission and he has a tremendous grasp of the dangers of mission creep,” she says. “He’s vision-driven, mission-focused, and he understands the role of governance expertly.” Larson also credits Enger with being “The funniest guy on the planet,” with a dry wit and a humility that draws people together.
Becky Schueller, the executive director of Evergreen Youth and Family Services where Enger has chaired the board and led training sessions for youth, says Enger can come across as brusque, perhaps because he’s not a big fan of meetings. “He often looks impatient in meetings,” she says. “He will sigh and sometimes you can see the intensity in his face and it can be read wrong. He’s no wallflower; he’s very direct when he participates. He has gone with me to many a nasty meeting where somebody has wanted to tell me what they want us to do. And Bob is there as a total advocate, willing to speak his mind. But he also has a soft heart, which I have seen on many occasions. If I say, ‘Hey, the food shelf is low and we need help,’ he’ll be the first one to respond with a check.”
Picking Up the Gavel
When Enger picks up the gavel as the new MSBA President, he will temporarily decrease his activities in Bemidji, including some of his board meetings and legal services caseload. He’ll be contributing to a broader community, however, as he carries his values to his new post. Mary Deutsch Schneider, his boss at LSNM, is enthusiastic about Enger’s opportunity to broaden his outreach with his emphasis on justice.
“We’re really proud of him for being the first legal services attorney who’s been head of the state bar association,” she says. “Bob really brings a heritage to the position. He brings the iron will of the Northeast Minnesota ranger and the hard work of the Northwest Paul Bunyan logger. So he’s a formidable champion of justice. He knows the devastation of poverty and the barriers it poses. That’s an important perspective to bring to the position.”
For his part, Enger is sticking with his original story, which is that he can only do the work that is in front of him. As he says, “I can’t change the world, but I can change the world for my clients, one person at a time.”
Staying Busy with Bob
You don’t have to spend much time with Bob Enger before you realize: This guy’s always on the go. If it’s not his fully packed work schedule or his challenging slate of volunteer commitments that take his attention, it’s going to be family, friends, and recreational activities. And we’re not talking about an occasional round of golf or an evening spent watching his kids at Little League. A day without an outside activity is the exception, not the rule, and he’s more likely to be on the playing field than on the sidelines.
To appreciate Enger’s activity levels, you can start with his family life. By all accounts, dedication to family defines Enger: It’s nearly always the first thing that comes to mind when colleagues, friends and relatives are asked to describe him. As the father of three very different children, Enger has carved out activities that honor each one’s interests.
For Ryan, 28 and newly married with step-children, Enger’s time might be spent helping with home projects such as floor tiling and putting in doors, which are projects he’s also managed for his father, Dennis. Since Ryan is the latest entrant to a three-generation tradition of step-fathering, it’s not unusual for these get-togethers to include family stories and advice as well. Ryan’s favorite memories center on camping trips to the Boundary Waters where father and son spend a week fishing and “just staring at the stars and talking life,” as Ryan puts it.
For son Paul, on the other hand, nothing could be less enticing than a week camping with dad. Enger laughs when he notes that there are very few outdoors pictures in the family album that feature his intellectual, book-loving middle child. And, while Paul, 18, tries to disassociate himself from his father’s inexplicable love for Louis L’Amour novels (“I think he likes that the good guy always rights the wrongs,” Paul says), he admits that he and his father share an interest in playwright Arthur Miller. Enger anticipates richer conversations this next academic year when Paul heads for college in Minneapolis and the two start a new tradition of biweekly dinners scheduled around MSBA meetings.
With 13-year-old Martie, hunting and cooking have been the glue for a solid father-daughter relationship. Both are looking forward to this fall when Martie will have her own deer stand after years of sharing Bob’s. It will be good way of increasing her odds of getting a deer because, as Martie says, “I do like to talk a lot when we’re together.” They get more time for that conversation when they settle in to cook, especially when Enger makes Martie’s favorite “Palo hotdish”—comfort food featuring macaroni and vegetables which Enger will assemble in a giant batch to last them the week.
In addition to these activities, the Enger clan can also be found boating and camping, or in the back yard with Bob manning the grill for steaks and kabobs. Not surprisingly, this affinity for camping and cooking makes him a favorite with friends as well, including Dave Frank, assistant county attorney for Beltrami County. Frank, who has faced Enger in court in years past, prefers his friend’s competitive nature in deer and fish camp. Noting that Enger usually gets his deer on opening weekend and is “an exceedingly good shot,” he adds that Enger is always a leader in camp, telling a lot of stories and jokes. “Fortunately,” Frank says, “Bob has a very rich life and a lot of good stories.”
If Enger’s list of activities hasn’t overwhelmed you yet, it’s because the list hasn’t really begun. Those were just the special activities. Now, on a daily or weekly basis you’ll find Enger riding his motorcycle to work, playing racquetball or Frisbee golf at lunch, organizing a cleaning bee at the office, handling his caseload (36 open files on a typical day), attending committee meetings, playing on a volleyball or softball team after work, cooking the family dinner, and possibly returning to the office in the late evening. Now are you tired? Apparently he isn’t; as Becky Enger notes, her husband seems to get by on about five or six hours of sleep and is always looking for something new to try—such as his current interest in woodworking and brewing beer.
No wonder Enger is apprehensive about the hours of driving that his new MSBA duties will entail this year. It’s not the driving itself that worries him, but the downtime. To fill those empty spaces, he’s even considering language instruction. Consider yourself warned: If Enger pulls that off, one of the next Bar meetings could be held in Spanish or, if those tapes have already been checked out from the library, perhaps Japanese. A guy’s gotta stay busy, after all.
ARTICLE BY AMY LINDGREN