Mother of Five Beryl Levine Cooks Up a Second Career—as a State Supreme Court Judge

updated 03/24/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/24/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

As a would-be law student, Beryl Le-vine looked like a bad bet in 1971. The 35-year-old Fargo, N.Dak. housewife hadn't cracked a college text in more than a decade, and, as one law school dean told her bluntly: "You've got five children; your husband's a doctor. You won't come to classes."

Once enrolled at the University of North Dakota law school, however, Levine began hitting both the books and the road, driving the 85 miles between her Fargo home and the university's Grand Forks campus each day. In 1974 she graduated first in her class, 10 years later was voted the first woman president of Cass county's bar association, and in 1985 became the first woman—and first Canadian-born American—ever appointed to the state's Supreme Court.

A fast climb to be sure, but don't be fooled, cautions Levine, now 50. That first year of law school was "extremely difficult—the demands on my time, the reading, the developing of skills of legal analysis. I would have chucked it, but my husband, Leo, was so encouraging. 'Just try one more week,' he'd say, so I did. And then I'd try one more, and then another."

Born in Winnipeg, where her father was a grass seed merchant and her mother a housewife, the young Beryl Choslovsky first met Leonard Levine at Canada's University of Manitoba. The couple married during her junior year, moved to Cleveland where Leo completed his residency in urology, and finally, as naturalized citizens, settled in Fargo just 200 miles across the border from Beryl's Canadian kin.

With Leo's practice flourishing by 1971 and five children in hand (three sons and two daughters, ages 4 to 15), Beryl and Leo one night drew up a list of careers for her to consider. It "included medicine, teaching, architecture, social work and law," she recalls. Thanks to an "abiding interest in our political system," the law won out, and the unlikely new student soon began her daily drives up Interstate 29.

Leo and the family housekeeper, meanwhile, began tending to chores and children so that Beryl could have study time. Oftentimes chaos triumphed over quiet. "I can remember this sort of island," says Levine. "There I'd be in the middle with my books. Around me there'd be the children, Leo and the television set. But I didn't hear a thing."

Such sharp focus served Levine well after graduation when she joined Fargo's most prestigious law firm. "We knew from the first that this was no ordinary lawyer," says Mart Vogel, the firm's senior partner. "Her briefs were clear, her style rich and powerful. In some respects I think she was born to be a judge." Levine's colleagues on the high court tend to agree. Says her boss, Chief Justice Ralph Erickstad: "After being here 23 years, I may have lost some of my initial enthusiasm. Beryl brings it back."

Levine concedes that her court appointment has made life tougher on her family, and for a while youngest son David, now a 19-year-old freshman at Stanford, began leaving notes around the house: "Justice, I need a shirt," or "Justice, we're out of milk." Family members must fend for themselves as Levine now lives in a two-bedroom apartment near the courthouse in Bismarck, 200 miles from home. Leo drives over every other weekend, and Beryl returns the favor on alternate weeks. "I don't give any parties or dinners when I'm home in Fargo," she says. "Too many women strive to be superwomen, to manage the rigors of family life and the rigors of a career."

For Levine now the career will do just fine. Being a judge "is very much like being a student, with a lot of status," she says softly, sending an unintended jab at that once-doubting dean. "In fact, it was the opportunity to be a student again, to contemplate, that spurred me into applying. I love the research and the writing. And I am so privileged. I'm one of the very few people doing exactly what she wants to do." Case closed.

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