The revolution, part 3: On the front linesby Sasha Aslanian, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — It felt like the sky was falling when my parents gathered my little brother and me in the living room and told us they were separating.
It was a bummer day for my parents as well. My dad told me what it was like the day he went down to Family Court to finalize the divorce.
"There was a part of me that thought the earth was going to stop spinning for just a little nanosecond in recognition of this earth-shattering event, where my marriage was going to be formally bombed," he said.
Instead, dad said he felt like a Ford Ranger pick-up truck moving down the assembly line. The court referee didn't look up.
"He asked if this marriage was irreconcilably over or damaged or something, I can't remember exactly. And I started to answer with this long flowery answer."
Dad got about four words into what he joked was his 40-page speech, and the referee grabbed the gavel and said "Granted!"
"And I thought, is that it? Is it over? And it was," said my dad.
That court referee my dad saw that day was Gerald Rutman. He's retired now to Scottsdale, Ariz., but he's happy to chat.
I mailed him a copy of the divorce decree ahead of time. I'm not surprised he doesn't remember my parents. I tell him the story of my dad getting the gavel during his divorce speech.
"Oops. Sorry!" said Rutman with a friendly laugh. "But that doesn't sound like me. I must have been in a hurry."
Rutman must have been in a hurry a lot in those days. He worked as a divorce referee from 1970 to 1986 in Ramsey County when the divorce rate was surging. A St. Paul Dispatch reporter wrote a "day in the life" piece about Rutman in 1978. The headline was "Divorce Referee Faces Human Drama Daily -- and Lots of It."
Rutman can tell tales. He remembers when there was no guidance for deciding things like child support, so he priced out various living expenses and made up his own formulas for what families needed to get by.
Rutman never met my brother or me the day our dad passed through his courtroom because our parents agreed on our custody. But Rutman did meet with lots of kids who were caught in the middle of horrible custody disputes.
He'd meet with them one-on-one in his office. There, kids would confide secrets they were carrying, like they knew about their parents' affairs. Or they worried about a parent who was sad. And they'd ask him questions.
Rutman remembers one little boy in particular. He was about 11. His dad had been taking him on fancy weekend boat trips while his mom struggled to get by. The boy wanted to move in with his dad. Rutman decided to keep him with his mom so he'd learn the right values of hard work.
"And by golly, I got a call at home in the evening from him, the little boy," said Rutman. The boy said he just couldn't go back to his mom, so Rutman agreed to revise the custody plan.
"They know more than the parent!" said Rutman.