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Bernie McGinn

Lancaster County District Judge Bernie McGinn takes a spin on his bike in this 2005 file photo.

Retired Lancaster County District Judge Bernard "Bernie" McGinn was still cracking jokes the day before he died, his family said Wednesday.

The former Husker football player who loved motorcycles died peacefully at home Wednesday morning after fighting skin cancer and heart disease, his daughter Mary McGinn said. 

"He could kind of lighten a situation with a little silly quip and everybody laughed," she said of her dad, who was 76. "You knew that he was OK with where he was going."

McGinn retired in September 2005 after 25 years on the bench. Colleagues said he was a well-respected, popular judge with a reputation for fairness, honesty and patience.

"When others would try the patience of a normal person, (he) always had the ability to keep his patience and treat everyone with respect," said District Judge John Colborn.

McGinn hired Colborn to work as a law clerk in the Lancaster County Attorney's Office in 1977, and Colborn said McGinn mentored him and served as a role model for other judges. The two served on the bench together when Colborn became a district judge in 2000.

Kevin McGinn said his older brother never treated his job as an 8-to-5 gig and that he worked many nights and weekends.

To get away, the brothers often rode their bikes to the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado. Time on the open road helped the judge unwind, his brother said, and tie-dyed shirts replaced the black robe.

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"There’s no way you would pick him out in the crowd as being a district judge,” Kevin McGinn said.

In 1992, McGinn granted an 11th-hour stay of execution for death row inmate Harold "Wili" Otey.

He ruled that the itinerant race track worker hadn't received a fair hearing before the Nebraska Board of Pardons. The Nebraska Supreme Court later reversed his decision, and Otey died in the electric chair in 1994.

In 2005, McGinn told the Journal Star that even though he had presided over big cases, including Otey's, he always felt he was "taking a crash course and taking a test for each."

After he retired, McGinn served on the Nebraska Commission on Industrial Relations, traveled and stayed connected to friends like Colborn through weekly lunches and fishing trips.

"He had a really full career as a prosecutor and his time on the bench," said his brother. "He knew when it was time."

Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican called McGinn a great judge and friend who was well liked because he respected the people who appeared in his court as well as those with whom he worked.

"Bernie’s common sense, good judgment, and camaraderie will be missed by his many friends,” Heavican said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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