A tough, no-nonsense jurist whose bark was worse than his bite, retired Napa Superior Court Judge William L. Blanckenburg died in Napa on Thursday at the age of 97.
An attorney whose career was interrupted by World War II, Blanckenburg served on the Napa Superior Court bench for 22 years where he insisted those who appeared before him — counsel and criminal alike — adhere to the strict letter of the law. He was also an advocate of tough love for young offenders who showed up in his downtown Napa courtroom.
“He might have been a law-and-order judge ... but as a citizen I felt good about him,” said retired Superior Court Judge Ray Guadagni. “There was no pampering of convicted criminals in his courtroom.”
While he had little empathy for lawbreakers, Blanckenburg — as well as his counterpart across the hall, Judge Thomas Kongsgaard — were generous with their time in chambers for young attorneys as well as hometown journalists.
In addition to the respect earned as a jurist, Blanckenburg is remembered as one of the founding fathers of the Napa Valley College Foundation. A champion of education, he served as its first president and as a member of the board of directors for 33 years. His vision and leadership were important to the growth of the foundation, which boasts assets of more than $5 million today.
He also made personal contributions to the college by establishing several endowment funds to support the library, student scholarships and college programs.
A native of Berkeley, he graduated from Berkeley High School, received his bachelor’s degree in history from UC Berkeley as well as his law degree from Boalt Hall School of Law. He was admitted to the State Bar of California in 1939, establishing a law practice in Napa from 1941 to 1957.
He came to Napa at the invitation of Frank Dunlap to join the law firm of Coombs and Dunlap. But his career as an attorney was interrupted when he enlisted in the United States Army during World War II. Blanckenburg was a combat infantryman with the 3rd Division, coming ashore at Anzio and fighting its way to Rome. He served as a member of the Battle Patrol, a unit that infiltrated behind enemy lines.
Upon his return to the United States, he was commissioned in the Judge Advocate General Corps Reserve, serving in Washington, D.C.
When he returned to Napa to work with former associates, the firm adding him to the letterhead — Coombs, Dunlap and Blanckenburg. Just prior to his appointment by Gov. Goodwin Knight to the Napa County Superior Court, Blanckenburg had ventured out on his own, establishing his own law firm.
After 22 years on the bench, Blanckenburg retired from judicial service in 1979. He was succeeded by Judge Philip Champlin.
“(Judge Blanckenburg) married my wife, Lynne, and me,” Champlin noted. “After his first wife, Mary, died, he met Bernice and I married them. We may well be the only two judges (in California) who’ve performed one another’s weddings.”
Champlin said he’d recently read Blanckenburg’s memoirs of his WWII experiences. “It’s a striking read and should be published,” he added.
Recently retired Judge Ray Guadagni said he’s known the Blanckenburg family for quite some time as he and Blanckenburg’s daughter Kathy Blanckenburg were schoolmates in Alta Heights kindergarten. “Kathy and I were the shortest members of our class and we were always paired together. She was a very good friend ... and he knew that.”
When Guadagni returned to Napa in 1975 to practice law, he came to court to find a judge who “was really kind to me and tried to help me. He brought me into his chambers on numerous occasions to offer tips.”
Guadagni also recalled that Blanckenburg was “tough on juvenile offenders because he cared about them. He even went to Juvenile Hall at Christmas every year to visit (incarcerated youths). He believed that tough love would set them on the straight and narrow. I, for one, always believed his heart was in the right place.”
Blanckenburg’s companion for the past nine years, Mona Humpert, agrees that the Napa jurist championed youth and education. She also pointed out that he was “fascinated by weather from the time he was a little boy. We listened to every weathercast all day. There was only one thing he loved more — and that was the law. He knew he wanted to be an attorney from the time he was 8 years old.”
In addition to being proud of being an Old Blue — a devoted Cal alumnus — Blanckenburg was fond of taking off on extensive road trips, something he did often with his first wife, Mary, according to Champlin. “We both share that (love of the open road). He was also quite fond of train travel.”
Blanckenburg was also a proud Rotarian who never missed a meeting, Champlin add.
Survivors include a son, Ted, of Napa, and companion Mona Humpert, of Napa. He was predeceased by a daughter, Kathy, and wives Mary and Bernice.
A memorial celebrating Judge Blanckenburg’s life is scheduled from 2 to 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 20 at Napa Valley Country Club.