A lion of Minnesota's business community, Dwight Opperman led West Publishing to become one of the most prominent publishers of legal content in the country.
He also helped launch West into the digital age as a provider of online legal research.
Opperman died Wednesday at age 89. He will be remembered for his lifelong interest in the law and his career at West Publishing helping legal research be more thorough and efficient. By his family, he will also be remembered for his bootstrapping.
His son, Vance Opperman, recalls that Dwight Opperman grew up poor. Dwight and his first wife, Jeanice, now deceased, were both gifted musicians who in the early days of their marriage earned money by performing. But Vance said the family was effectively broke when Dwight graduated in 1951from law school at Drake University.
"We didn't have any money at all, and we lived in student housing which was the old Drake trailer camp, and he took the bar exam, which he passed," Vance said. "And we went out looking for a job, and we didn't have any daycare, so I went with him. I was just a little kid. And he talked to various law firms that were trying to hire people."
Vance Opperman said his father got the best job offer from West Publishing in St. Paul, where he would become an editor. The job matched his father's scholarly demeanor. Vance said.
"He's a very academic person and very drawn to the English language and the structure," he said.
A few weeks after arriving at West, Dwight Opperman made friends with John Nasseff, who had a very different background. Nasseff only finished 9th grade. Both men would rise to the firm's senior executive ranks. Nasseff said Dwight stood out for his intellect.
"He was a very brilliant man. He had a good memory. He could remember things in detail, which was really an asset," Nasseff said. "And when he got started at West, he read a lot about the history of the company. So he knew a lot about the company. And everyone could see how smart he was."
At the helm of West Publishing, Opperman, led the company to develop Westlaw, an online legal database that has become an essential tool for lawyers, judges and legal scholars. In 1996, the publishing company was sold to what is now Thomson Reuters.
Opperman made many other contributions to the legal field. He was a major benefactor of the American Judicature Society and the United States Supreme Court Historical Society.
His contributions were regarded as so important that the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Roberts, took time to mourn Dwight Opperman's passing.
In a statement, Roberts wrote, "Dwight has long been a committed friend and supporter not only of the Supreme Court but of the Federal Judiciary as a whole. Those of us on the court will miss his warm friendship."
In Minnesota, Opperman gave financial support to William Mitchell College of Law and Hamline University School of Law.
But Nasseff's esteem for Opperman extends far beyond his legal contributions. He says Opperman was a deeply kind man.
Nasseff recalls his own heart attack in 1959. Opperman and Jeanice invited Nasseff on a trip to San Diego to speed his recovery. Nasseff said Opperman personally nursed him back to health.
"And every morning, he'd get up, he'd make me walk about a half a mile, then a mile, take breakfast. He watched me like a hawk. Every day. Every day," Nasseff said.
Nasseff said from then on he and Opperman were inseparable friends who spoke every day, either in person or by phone, until the very end.
Opperman had recently been diagnosed with liver cancer, according to his son, Vance. He is survived by his second wife, Julie Chrystyn, sons Vance and Fane, nine grandchildren, and 13 great grandchildren.
A memorial service is expected to take place sometime in August in St. Paul.