The nation first met Carla Kjellberg in 1971 when, at the age of 14, she broke her back jumping out of her burning home, lifted a 20-foot ladder and saved her family.
Kjellberg went on to become a family law attorney in Minneapolis and a key adviser and lawyer for progressive political figures such as Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison.
Kjellberg died of a sudden heart attack on Aug. 28, hours after she and her husband, Dick Kaspari, planted flowers outside the Midtown Global Market condominium complex she proudly called home. She was 65.
“She was just one of those people who seemed to have more hours in the day than the rest of us do,” said her daughter, Jeanne Stuart, who followed her mother into politics and now manages Ellison’s re-election campaign.
Born in Chicago, Kjellberg moved to Minneapolis to clerk for U.S. District Judge Miles Lord after graduating from the Villanova University School of Law. Her legal career continued as a leader for the National Lawyers Guild, through which she met both her husbands. She also met a young Ellison, then a student at the University of Minnesota Law School, and later became his lawyer and fierce political advocate and confidant for him and other progressives.
Kjellberg “never needed to soft-pedal her advice,” Ellison said.
“Some folks break it to you gently, but she favored telling it to you straight,” Ellison said. “That was enormously helpful to me as a friend.”
Kjellberg turned down a job offer at a large corporate law firm after finishing her clerkship and instead worked for the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group. She ultimately opened a practice specializing in family law. Kaspari remembers Kjellberg taking on many cases pro bono, or at a lower rate.
“She was able to make it work because she worked as hard as she did,” Kaspari said. “She was willing to take cases that virtually few people in her position would even look at.”
That included, in the 1980s, representing four Carleton College students in one of the first cases to allege a higher education institution ignored reports of rapists on campus. Before Kjellberg, the students failed to find an advocate. With her, they reached a settlement that led to policy changes, and they later testified before Congress in favor of a bill requiring schools to report incidents of sexual harassment and assault to the federal government.
Kaspari remembered how he and Kjellberg would so often be stopped by someone touched by her family law cases who would thank her for “metaphorically saving their lives.”
“It reminded her why it was worth it to work so hard,” he said. “I just wish she had more time to rest.”
Along with her husband and daughter, survivors include “bonus” children Emily and Jonathan, and two grandson. Services have been held.
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