‘We can’t even say goodbye’: Judge lost to COVID-19 remembered for wit, compassion

Steven Anderson, 65
Steven Anderson, 65, died on April 17 after a brief battle with COVID-19. He was the first person in Mille Lacs County to be diagnosed with the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and the first in the county to die from it.
Courtesy of the Anderson family

Through conversations with their family members, colleagues and close friends, MPR News is remembering the lives of the people we’ve lost, too soon, to COVID-19. If you’d like to share the story of someone you’ve lost, please email us at tell@mpr.org.


When Barry Anderson started law school at the University of Minnesota in 1976, students were seated alphabetically, so he ended up spending a lot of time next to a guy named Steven Anderson — no relation. 

They got to be friends, and played on an intramural basketball team together — despite the fact that Steven Anderson was missing his right arm.

“People would always say, ‘Well, how does somebody with one arm play basketball?’” Barry Anderson said. “In Steve's case, the answer would be: Very well."

It wasn't the only thing Steven Anderson did well. He had been an outstanding high school athlete, graduated at the top of his class and achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. 

Steven Anderson, 65
Steven Anderson, 65
Courtesy of the Anderson family

After law school, Steven Anderson joined the law firm of Arnold and McDowell, and Barry Anderson later ended up there, too.

The two worked together for 15 years, until Barry Anderson was appointed to the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1998.

Justice Anderson said his friend, who died April 17 at age 65 after a brief battle with COVID-19, earned a reputation as a thoughtful lawyer who didn’t need to speak at great lengths or be the center of attention.

“Steve would be the guy that would speak at the end,” he said. “We’d all look at each other and say, ‘Well, that makes sense. We'll do what he says.’"

In 1984, Steven Anderson moved with his family — which includes his wife, Karen, and sons, Christopher and Mark — to the central Minnesota town of Princeton, about 50 miles north of Minneapolis, to start his firm’s branch office there. He practiced all kinds of law, including estate planning, probate, municipal and criminal.   

Sometimes his clients didn't have money for their bill — but Justice Anderson said his friend wasn’t particularly fussy about the accounting. One client paid him in ears of corn.

In 2006, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed Steven Anderson to an opening on the 7th Judicial District bench in Mille Lacs County. Karen Anderson said being a judge was the perfect job for him.

"He just thrived there,” she said. “It just took all his personality, all his years of criminal work. He'd been the city attorney for 20 years, so he knew everybody's situation, from Milaca to Foley."

As a rural judge, he presided over cases both joyful and heartbreaking — adoptions, divorces, even murder trials. Judges so often see the bad side of humanity, and those cases disturbed him, Karen said, but he believed in the legal process.

Steven Anderson had a good grasp of human nature, its strengths and its weaknesses, Justice Anderson said. He supported drug court programs and other opportunities for redemption, but also was conscious of the risk of human failings.

“He had the ability to see in people possibilities that maybe others didn’t,” Barry Anderson said. 

Despite the seriousness of the job, the judge kept his sense of humor — and he had a collection of wise one-liners that his wife calls "Steve-isms." A frequent one: "Don't let the law get in the way of what's right."

Mark Anderson, who’s now a lawyer, said his dad always came to their swim meets and Scout meetings, and took on challenging home repair projects.

"That's the kind of guy he was,” Mark Anderson said. “He put our bathroom in downstairs. He pounded wells at our cabin. And he always installed our dock, even when we were little — which is no small feat, when you're a one-armed guy."

Mark Anderson said his dad rarely talked about his arm, which he’d been missing since birth. Most people didn't notice. If they did ask about it, he'd give a crazy answer, like he’d lost it in a bear attack.

Steven Anderson, 65
Steven Anderson dances with his wife, Karen, in an undated family photo.
Courtesy of the Anderson family

One of his favorite ways to connect with his sons was watching horror movies — even when they were young, as they hid behind the couch during the scary scenes.

Karen Anderson has a theory about why he did it.

"He never just ignored them,” she said. “He would tell them how to [watch] it … so that they could understand and be brave."

To this day, horror is still Mark Anderson’s favorite movie genre. “But did it give me nightmares growing up? Probably,” he said with a laugh.

Steven Anderson retired in 2018. This spring, he and Karen Anderson traveled out west to look at retirement homes. Four weeks into the trip, things took a turn: He had congestion and body aches, but none of the typical symptoms of COVID-19 — no fever, no dry cough, no loss of smell, his wife said. Still, they decided to return home early. 

He ended up in the hospital, where he tested positive for the coronavirus. He was transferred to Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul. Karen Anderson waited at home because visitors aren't allowed there.

The next morning, she got a call. Her husband had lost oxygen. His heart had stopped. After 45 minutes of CPR, he was intubated, then declared brain dead.

“And we can’t even say goodbye because he's not there,” Karen Anderson said.

Mark Anderson, who lives in New York City, decided he couldn't travel to Minnesota and risk exposing his family to the virus.

"They ended up just putting the phone up to his ear,” he said. “That's the last time I talked to him when he was alive, which is awful. I hope no one ever has to go through that."  

Steven Anderson, 65
Steven Anderson with his granddaughter in an undated family photo.
Courtesy of the Anderson family

The pandemic has paused his family’s grieving process, Mark Anderson said. There's no funeral, no chance to get together and share memories.

He said it has been cathartic to write and talk about his dad. He advises others experiencing loss right now not to isolate themselves.

"Don't sit there and just think it's going to go away, that feeling,” he said. “Talking to other people about it … is helpful. It helps you grapple with the loss."

Steven Anderson was the first person in Mille Lacs County to test positive for COVID-19. And he was the first person in the county to die from the disease. Along with his wife and two sons, he is survived by his father, four grandchildren and nieces and nephews.

His family hopes that his sudden and unexpected death will help others understand just how serious the disease can be.

“He's now a case to learn from — because that's what helps you to get through this,” Karen Anderson said.

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