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Retiring judge hopes to run into the sunset after a career of public and community service

SUBMITTED PHOTO  - Dan Ahern, left, and the late George Wilson after a run in the 1980s.  So, my brother Dan turned 60 and is retiring as a judge. Whew, that was fast.

Dan married his high school sweetheart, Fran Moses Ahern, shortly after graduating law school. Fran was raised in Warm Springs, and they both wanted to return to Madras to raise a family.

A young attorney in town, Dan was just 29 when he dove into local politics and government service, winning the county judge race by a landslide, the first Democrat to hold the job in decades.

Under the county court system of government, the "judge" served as the lead administrator (a major, separate job in itself now); headed up county government meetings and was one of three voting policy-setters, along with the two commissioners; and handled the county's juvenile court system. Just about the same time he was up to be named a judge, the other two commissioners were moving to change the systems, as most other counties had already done. They knew the county judge job was too much of a job for one person. But it wasn't too much for Dan. He did a hell of a job, and the county taxpayers got far beyond their money's worth.

He had some difficult cases as the juvenile judge, but his skills in the art earned praise. When a Circuit Court judgeship opened, many saw him as a perfect choice. In 1996, Gov. Kitzhaber made it official.

So, for the last 22 years, he's refereed legal matters in Jefferson and Crook counties. From what I've always heard, he was very highly thought of as a judge. He didn't bring a giant bag of ego to the bench, as some judges do. He was known for his fairness to both sides of the case, for showing respect to all parties, and for his sense of humor.

As his younger brother, I can't help but be proud of him. But then I always have been.

Born in '59, he was four years older than me. He was just older enough to be an inspirational hero — him too old for me to challenge, me too young to hang with him and his friends. But that was OK. I was lucky enough to live in a neighborhood packed with kids my age. So I just watched him, watched him play Little League baseball, watched him play basketball from sixth grade, junior high, soon high school varsity as just a sophomore. Dan was a very thin kid, but an athletic inspiration to me. He was doing great and I figured that I was a bit bigger than he had been and I practiced like a maniac, so I would for sure be awesome!

I did my best to follow in his every step in youth and high school sports (except for that crazy long distance running thing). I did OK, but never, when all was said and done and totaled, as well as he did.

Cross country and basketball were his best sports. He was a top White Buffalo runner as a junior and senior, but missed a state meet invite by one place in district in both years. He carried his love for running throughout his life. He and our brother, Mike, another ex-MHS cross country performer, have run a couple times a week for years — figuring out all the community's, and the world's, problems as they'd go.

Dan also played tennis a bit in high school. When I was in junior high, I stopped by the tennis court while on my way home. I watched him play some guy. At one point, Dan won a game and play stopped and the two players switched sides. While they were walking, it was quiet, until I called out in my seventh-grade squeak: "Way to go, Billie Jean."

The people watching the match seemed to think it was pretty funny. Even Dan smiled. But when play resumed, I figured I'd better get my butt home. He wouldn't step out of the match to kick my butt, but when it got over? Well, I wasn't going to risk it. Sure enough he'd run me down, tackle me, and do the "spit-drool" game over my face. Isn't that why God made big brothers?

Running. Dan's loved it all his life. He's run a handful of marathons. When my brother Mike turned 50, Dan talked me into joining him and Mike in training for and running the Portland Marathon. I was the youngest, at 43, and the slowest. When Dan turned 50, we ran it again. Mike was out with an injury, but my other brother Shannon, his wife Kathy, and my sister, Jo Ann (still an excellent runner), ran the thing. A firm believer in consistency, I again took up the rear of the family contingent.

For 20 years, Dan operated the George Wilson Memorial Run, in honor of a family friend who passed away in 1986. While he stopped the event after 2005, the money raised continues to provide scholarships to track or cross-country athletes in Madras and Culver.

Sports have always been a big part of our lives, from playing as kids to being fans as adults. We jointly owned Duck football season tickets for about 10 years, before family dynamics (kids aging) changed things. He grew up on the '60s Green Bay Packers and the Yastrzemski Red Sox. I naturally adopted them as well. The Trail Blazers would worm their way in once they were established in 1969-70. So we long had favorite teams in common.

If one of our favorite teams was in a big game, odds were than Dan and Fran would be hosting a party for it. Civil Wars, Super Bowls, NBA playoffs, or just catching some Jacoby Ellsbury at-bats after work, Dan's house was the place.

Dan's birthday was Sunday, St. Patrick's Day. He and Fran were up at their daughter's celebrating with their kids and two grandkids. On Saturday night, moments before he turned 60, my phone buzzed. Dan was sending out a text to Mike and me. "How about them Ducks?" He knew we'd be watching the glorious Pac-12 title game.

After some basketball babble text, I wished him a happy birthday, saying "60. I cannot believe it." And I can't. Life happens too damned fast.

Here's to retirement, big brother.

If anyone is looking for someone to try and emulate, to try and walk in their footsteps, I would say through experience that Dan Ahern would be a great choice. Just don't fool yourself into ever thinking you'll catch him.


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