Daniel Winfree grew up a few blocks from his office at the Rabinowitz Courthouse in Fairbanks. The self-described “downtown kid” played games in the street on Seventh Avenue, joined pick-up baseball games at Griffin Park and frequented the Lacey Street and Lathrop theaters.
“When I was young, I wanted to do whatever my older brothers were doing,” the 68-year-old said.
So when his brothers went to law school, Winfree — the youngest of three boys and one girl — followed suit. Forty years after earning his law degree, he was sworn in as chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court on July 1.
Winfree answered questions by email about his family, his youth and his new job, which he’ll hold for two years until turning 70, the mandatory retirement age for Alaska judges under the state constitution. The Lathrop High School graduate is the second chief justice to come from Fairbanks.
“Alaska, and Fairbanks in particular, is in my DNA,” Winfree wrote. “I’m so honored to have this job. I’m so honored to be the first Alaska-born chief justice. What I’d like people to know is that I still am just a kid from Fairbanks, and I want all the current kids in Fairbanks, and across Alaska, to know that they too can be ordinary kids who end up having extraordinary careers and opportunities to do important things for Alaska.”
Winfree’s maternal grandparents, Edward and Agnes Hering, moved to Fairbanks from Dawson in 1905-1906, following the gold strikes.
“I have copies of their mining claims in Dawson, but my grandfather earned a living in Dawson as a freighter,” Winfree wrote.
Ed Hering wound up buying a freight company in Fairbanks.
“My grandparents had a large home at 7th and Lacey Street, now the site of Golden Towers. My grandmother was a telephone operator in Fairbanks for quite some time. Family lore has it that she was friendly with the women of the red light district through her telephone work,” Winfree wrote.
Ed and Agnes had 11 children, including Winfree’s mother, Betty Hering, the youngest.
Winfree’s father, James, arrived in Fairbanks from Tacoma at the end of the Depression and worked various jobs, including with the F.E. Company and as a civil mechanic at Ladd Field.
“He later worked for the state, manning the old weigh station on the old Richardson Highway just south of North Pole,” Winfree wrote. “My mother graduated from UAF (University of Alaska Fairbanks) with a teaching degree in 1940.”
Winfree was born at St. Joseph’s Hospital in 1953 and raised in a house on Seventh Avenue, between Lacey and Noble — the house is still there and is now a hair salon — that was built by his father in the early 1940s. His mother went to work as a school teacher after Winfree entered the first grade. The family spent time during the summer at their cabin at Harding Lake.
“I had numerous aunts and uncles in Fairbanks as I grew up and many people would recognize their names, but perhaps the most interesting is my mother’s brother Walter Hering,” Winfree wrote.
The Hering Auditorium at Lathrop High School is named for Winfree’s uncle, who was memorialized after he was killed in World War II.
Winfree told the story of Walter Hering.
Bob Bartlett, one of Alaska’s first two U.S. Senators at statehood and an old friend of the Hering family, arranged for Walter’s appointment at the Naval Academy.
“Family lore has it that Bartlett also loaned (gave) my grandmother the money for Walter to travel to Annapolis,” Winfree wrote. “He became a lieutenant commander and was taking over command of the U.S.S. Hazelwood when he was killed in a kamikaze attack during the Battle of Okinawa. I still recall the ceremony in the mid-60s when the auditorium was opened and Bob Bartlett spoke.”
Winfree attended Main School and Barnette school before finishing at Lathrop where he ran on the cross-country team, played basketball, bowled, curled and was senior class president.
“When I was not yet a teenager and I realized that our old family friend Bob Bartlett was something more than just an old family friend, I concluded that ordinary Alaskans can do extraordinary things for Alaska and I hoped to be in a position to do so when I grew up,” Winfree wrote.
During college, he earned money driving trucks and busses at the Delta and Isabel Pass camps of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. In 1977, after receiving a bachelor’s degree in finance from the University of Oregon, Winfree worked in a warehouse in Prudhoe Bay.
“I met such a wide variety of people and saw so many different things,” he wrote. “It was a culture shock to get back to the civilization of law school, and I had to work hard to convert my pipeline language back to civilized language.”
In 1981, Winfree earned a law degree and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of California Berkeley.
“I thought of law school more as a vocational activity than an intellectual activity,” Winfree wrote. “My law school classmates were all shocked when I was appointed to the supreme court, and rightfully so based on my law school performance.”
He worked for Perkins Coie law office in Anchorage 1982-85 and then operated his own law office in Valdez from 1985-90. Winfree returned to Fairbanks to open a legal partnership, Winfree and Hompesch, and then started the Winfree Law office in 1996. In 2006, he was hired as general counsel and executive director for the Greater Fairbanks Community Hospital Foundation.
“I spent some time as a member of the Alaska Bar Association’s Board of Governors, including a year as president of the Bar, and not long thereafter I became interested in being on the supreme court,” Winfree wrote. “I never had an interest in being a trial court judge. I thought my abilities, interests and comfort with collaborative work suited me better for appellate work.”
Being a supreme court justice involves long hours but Winfree said the work inspires him.
“We are here to decide cases that affect people’s lives in one way or another, and that inspires me to strive to do my very best to make the right decisions,” he wrote. “Some of our decisions affect all Alaskans, and I always think about the impact our decisions can have on the state.”
Winfree largely stays out of the limelight, but can feel its glare when a controversial case comes before the court, he said.
He spends his free time at his cabin at Birch Lake and enjoys snowmachining, jet skiing and hot tubbing.
Winfree is married to Cathleen Ringstad, and they have two grown children.
Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7545. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMborough.