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Juvenile justice pioneer Edward Foote Waite was known as ‘the children’s friend’

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Edward Foote Waite, 1918.
Photograph by the Lee Brothers.

Edward Foote Waite was a distinguished Minneapolis judge and community leader. His involvement in public affairs spanned much of the twentieth century.

Waite migrated from his birthplace in Norwich, New York, to Minnesota in 1888. He worked as a traveling examiner for the U.S. Pension Office, processing applications for pensions from Civil War veterans. As an examiner Waite gained a reputation for his keen eye in spotting fraudulent claims—a trait that dismayed cheaters but impressed his superiors.

After a brief time in private law practice Waite was named Assistant Hennepin County Attorney. In this role he investigated the administration of A. A. “Doc” Ames, the corrupt mayor whose four terms in office became known as “The Shame of Minneapolis.”

Based on his background as a tenacious fraud spotter, Waite was appointed by Mayor David P. Jones to serve as Minneapolis Chief of Police. In 1904 he was appointed to the municipal bench to fill a vacancy. He served in that role until 1911 when he became a district court judge.

It was at this time that Waite’s interests turned to work with the juvenile court, which was in its experimental stage. Like other officials, he recognized that the city’s juvenile justice system needed reform.

In 1917 Governor J.A.A. Burnquist appointed Waite to head a state commission to modernize and restructure the children’s juvenile justice code. The revised code remains part of Waite’s lasting legacy.

A proponent of what would be known today as “tough love,” Waite was a strict enforcer of the law. He was credited with helping hundreds of young people. He once dismissed his critics by observing that boys from well-off families were more likely to complain about being punished harshly than those from less privileged backgrounds.

Waite’s commitment to juvenile justice and children’s rights earned him a reputation as “the children’s friend.” Reflecting on Waite’s career in 1950, journalist Jay Edgerton noted that the judge “could be as firm and unyielding as Plymouth rock” with parents who had neglected their children. He projected a stern authority from the bench. Lawyers who flouted legal protocol risked his censure. “Children always got the breaks in Waite’s court,” Edgerton wrote, “and woe to those who forgot it.”

After twenty years presiding over juvenile court (1911–1921, 1931–1941), Waite retired in 1941. For almost two decades after his retirement he remained an active community leader, working long hours in his office on the twenty-third floor of the Rand Tower.

Waite explored a range of local issues in his publications and speeches. He wrote about the separation between church and state, about the condition of minorities in Minneapolis, and about racial segregation in the city’s public schools. He stressed the importance of overcoming prejudice, pointing out that facets of identity like race and religion are determined by chance.

While serving as special assistant to the U.S. Attorney General after World War II, Waite heard the cases of conscientious objectors. In 1949 he was appointed by Governor Luther Youngdahl to the state commission on reform of the state’s divorce law.

Waite died in 1958 at the age of ninety-eight. His contributions to social justice are recognized in the name of the Edward Foote Waite House in South Minneapolis and Waite Park and Waite School in Northeast Minneapolis.

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