Harold Hanser, an architect of modern law and justice initiatives in Yellowstone County, died Friday at age 83.
Voters elected Hanser, a Democrat, as Yellowstone County attorney for five consecutive terms. He served from 1970 until his retirement in 1990. He successfully prosecuted a capital murder case and helped get the county a new jail. He also played a key role in revising the way law enforcement deals with drunken drivers and crimes involving minors.
“First of all, he was sort of a father to a lot of us in law enforcement back in the early days,” said Dwight MacKay, who served as a sheriff’s deputy in the early 1970s before being elected to the county commission in 1982.
“ ‘MacKay, you got to go out in the field and get more than this, this isn’t gonna work,’ ” he remembers Hanser saying when a case needed more work before going to prosecution.
“He was always a straight shooter,” MacKay said.
Hanser was born Aug. 16, 1930, to William and Helen Benesh Hanser on their family farm in Broadview.
By the time he retired, he was well aware of the dire, multi-generational implications of child abuse and neglect.
“Serious and violent offenders almost exclusively had serious abuse and neglect in their backgrounds,” Hanser said in a 1990 interview with The Gazette. “Kids raised in dysfunctional families are at-risk kids. Unless there is intervention, there is a high probability of perpetuating criminal behavior.”
In the early 1970s, Hanser served on a statewide committee that redrafted Montana’s Youth Court Act.
Around the same time, MacKay remembers Hanser being instrumental in combating rampant drug use by teens.
“He had a soft spot for kids in trouble, but he also wanted to hold them responsible if they needed it,” MacKay said.
“Unless we’re willing to commit funding to early intervention, we can’t build enough prisons or hire enough cops,” Hanser told The Gazette. “We’re far more willing to deal in punishment than we are to spend money for treatment.”
That said, Hanser did fight for harsh punishment when he thought it was appropriate. In a triple murder, he successfully persuaded a judge to impose the death sentence.
The defendant in that case was David Thomas Dawson, who kidnapped and killed David and Monica Rodstein and their 11-year-old son in April 1986, leaving the couple’s teenage daughter alive. Her testimony helped lead to a conviction. Dawson was executed in 2006.
“He did a wonderful job as the lead attorney in that case,” said Diane Barz, the now-retired judge who presided over the case. “He was very, very clever in the way he could present cases.”
Interestingly, Hanser had given the judge her first job as an attorney when he hired her in 1979. Barz said she was the only female prosecutor in the office at the time. She went on to be the first woman to serve on the Montana Supreme Court.
“He was forward thinking, I guess you’d say, enough to give me a chance, and he was an excellent teacher,” Barz said. “It was really something to hire a woman in those days.”
Hanser also launched the county’s DUI Task Force in the early 1980s. The initiative continues today.
“That was very, very, very dear to him,” MacKay recalls. “He was one of the first and strongest leaders in Montana in that area.”
After his retirement from public service at the end of 1990, Hanser returned to private practice. He also started a weekly newsletter of his observations on current events and other topics.
The series, which he circulated among friends and acquaintances, was called, “Reflections on the crumbs left in a brown bag lunch sack: The sometimes weekly, but always informative and inspirational, commentaries on great truths we live by.”
“I think if he wasn’t an attorney he would have been a philosopher,” said his daughter, Stephanie Hanser.
She remembers her father’s quick wit and sense of humor.
He called his wife Marieanne “Miss Daisy.” The couple, married for 58 years, was known for their close relationship.
When they would travel together, Hanser would “joke that he was driving Miss Daisy,” Stephanie Hanser recalls.
“I think that’s why he died on Valentine’s,” she said. “I think he needed to spend Valentine’s Day with mom.”
Visitation will be 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday at Dahl Chapel, 10 Yellowstone Ave. Rosary will be recited at 5:30 p.m. followed by the Vigil at 6 p.m. Thursday with Funeral Mass noon on Friday, all at St. Patrick Co-Cathedral, 215 N. 31st Street.