Art Nordhoff Jr.: Service, history and law define a life

Art Nordhoff Jr.

Tuesday morning, Art Nordhoff Jr. called the county highway superintendent.

“Where do you live,” he asked Steve Berg.

“Holland,” Steve answered.

“And that’s in Indiana, isn’t it,” Art continued.

“Yes,” Steve responded.

“Well, then you have a patriotic duty to support the Colts next weekend,” Art ordered.

Steve, being a Kansas City Chiefs fan, guffawed and assured Art that wouldn’t be the case.

Art was a day late in informing Steve of his duty since he had missed the county commissioner’s meeting on Monday. He no longer attends those meetings as county attorney since resigning late last year. With his job as the attorney for three of the county’s school corporations as well as the North Spencer County School Corporation in addition to his private law practice, he felt the commissioners’ and county’s needs were likely too much for him to adequately cover anymore. He’ll still be available to help the county’s new attorney, Greg Schnarr.

So, he missed the meeting and his chance to give Steve some grief on Monday. The pair would flank the three commissioners in the commissioners’ chambers at the courthouse annex, and it wouldn’t be uncommon for Art to lean forward and take a verbal poke at Steve or vice versa. Art explained this is his and Steve’s way of lightening the mood at times when the meetings get tense or a little long in the tooth (commissioner meetings easily last four to six hours).

“I don’t miss the meetings but it is a change,” Art said.

Art would spend hours at the meetings offering his legal advice as decisions were made. He also drafted ordinances and kept the minutes. After those long meetings, he would come back to his office to write them all out.

He was the county attorney for 27 years and for five to six years before that he was the deputy attorney. “My uncle (Clemence Nordhoff) was the county attorney at the time,” Art explained. “As he aged, he started going to Florida in the winter, and I filled in.”

Art Jr. grew up under the auspices of municipal law. His father, Arthur Nordhoff Sr. served as county counsel from 1936 to 1945 when he was hired by then-Mayor Herb Thyen to be the city’s counsel. When Art Sr. took over those duties, Uncle Clem became the county attorney.

“When I first arrived, there were only two offices in the building so I was given a little desk out in the hall.”

Art Nordhoff Jr.

Growing up, the legacy of his father, uncle and his grandfather, Robert Nordhoff who had previously served as Dubois County Sheriff, afforded Art Jr. access to the county systems. Junior — some still call him Sonny — would regularly cruise up to the square on his bike from the family’s 9th Street home to putter around the courthouse.

He saw the impact his family was having on the going-ons of the county and city.

But despite this paternal legacy, Art initially didn’t want to go into law. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of his mother’s side of the family. Art’s uncle Austin Miller joined the army, went to West Point and served in World War II where he was a quartermaster for the Seventh Armored Division for the Army. He played a large part in the Battle of the Bulge in ensuring the advancing U.S. Army had fuel and other supplies as they advanced.

“But mom (Wilma) said no, she didn’t think it was a good idea to move a young family around so much,” he explained. “And you listen to mom.”

He headed to the University of Notre Dame to work on a degree in accounting and then went to Indiana University-Bloomington where he received his law degree.

He worked as a tax attorney at Arthur Andersen in Indianapolis for a little over two years before returning to Jasper with his wife, Patty, in 1967 to work with his father and uncle at Nordhoff Law Office.

“When I first arrived, there were only two offices in the building so I was given a little desk out in the hall,” he laughed.

When they moved into a larger building, he received his first office. As the new attorney, he began to assist his uncle which slotted him into a position he’s filled for more than 50 years.

While more than 30 years of duty as the county attorney is a long time, Art has been a part of the schools since 1967. He was there when the Dubois County School Corporation split into the four school corporations. He advised them through the process.

The state wanted the corporations to reorganize to remove the single-room school systems and ensure everyone was represented. In Dubois County, there was a school in Jasper and a school in Huntingburg and a county system of schools. “The county superintendent had an office in the courthouse at the time,” Art added.

The state left it up to the counties to establish their corporations. A judge was appointed to create a committee, and an attorney advised through the process. Art was appointed as that attorney.

At the time, the committee considered a single school corporation and two school corporations before creating the four corporations.
“Phil Schneider’s dad (Norb) continued representing the Huntingburg school corporation,” Art explained.

Art had already handled the Jasper and county school systems, and after the reorganization, he took over duties for the three new school corporations — Greater Jasper, Northeast and Southeast. He eventually took on North Spencer as well on the mid-80s.

Since then, he’s seen a lot of change. “I’ve been involved in building 17 schools,” he beamed.

Through the years, his position has been one of advice and counsel built upon those many years of service. While these boards change with the appointment or election of new members, Art and his family before him have provided continuity. In a way, they are the wisened prophets that help guide the board members — individuals that come from a variety of backgrounds — through the legal and state-controlled processes required by municipal boards and service.

The decisions and problems that occur are cyclical and similar for each board, commission or committee. He creates ordinances and advises on them (in fact, he is drafting an ordinance for the Jasper School Corporation to address individuals throwing private trash away in the corporation’s dumpsters; one that would allow the school corporation to set penalties for the offenders), human resource issues, bond issues, school process and procedures that are regulated by the state.

“An example is how we handled improvements at Ireland Elementary,” Art explained. “The state allows a corporation to spend $2 million without a referendum annually.”

He advised they conduct the renovations in stages to avoid exceeding that amount. The bathrooms were renovated one year, the cafeteria another.
While the duties as the county attorney are no longer on his plate, he will continue handling the school corporations needs.

Retirement isn’t on the horizon — although he admits his wife, Patty, would appreciate it. The 78-year-old still shows up at his office at 6 a.m. daily and doesn’t leave until 4:30 p.m. Phones don’t get turned on until 8 and Art doesn’t carry a cellphone. “If I had a cellphone, I’d be getting calls all the time.”

Art viewing the eclipse outside his office on Main Street in Jasper. <File photo from 2017>

There’s plenty on his plate still. Besides his law practice, Art serves as the county’s historian as well as works with veterans of World War II accompanying them on their return to the European theatre. He also helps in various capacities like determining where military members may have perished in hopes of finding their remains. Those searches are still going on today. It’s a large part of his life and worthy of its own story.

As a historian, his office is somewhat of a museum with personal artifacts from his family’s history as well as Jasper and the county’s histories.

The building is more than 100 years old and was formerly the Wagner Wagon Works owned by Jasper’s first mayor, George P. Wagner. Art’s reception area and administrative office was the blacksmith’s work area. A photo on the wall shows the men working on the original dirt floor. It’s been updated.

In his office are various mementos of World War II — fuses designed to be attached to tripwires and other items he’s been able to find — as well as local pieces like a bit of timber framing found in the Patoka River that was part of a mill no longer in existence. There’s a hand-carved Wells & Fargo stagecoach model gifted to him for his service to the historical association attached to the historic business.

Of course, there are paintings of Lincoln peering down at him at his desk. The attorney, the president, a part of this area’s history and an important part of Art’s life; of course he’s spent years researching him as well.

Through the years, Art has contributed to the guidance of the public entities he’s served as well as to the preservation and explanation of the area’s history. In regards to that service, he admits to a simple reason for that service and his continued service as an attorney and historian.

“I enjoy helping people.”

Art lives in Jasper with his wife Patty. The couple have five children; Greg, Beth Lods, Jim, Steve and Jane Wehr.

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