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Attorney carries out family tradition in courtroom

By SAMANTHA STETZER
Winona Daily News

FOUNTAIN CITY, Wis. (AP) — David Fugina likened his childhood to Huckleberry Finn’s.

But his is more of an alternate ending to Mark Twain’s classic river-traveling tale — one in which Huck meets the love of his life at a school picnic, has a stint in the U.S. Navy, joins his family’s decades-old law practice and settles down along the Mississippi River he conquered in his youth.

David Fugina’s story of staying in Fountain City starts generations before he was born, tracing to when his ancestors first settled in the bluffside area.

His great-grandfather was a merchant and the father of seven children. His great aunts and uncles included a steamboat captain, a doctor, a druggist and a sister who cared for the parents.

And then there was his grandfather, Martin Fugina, a lawyer who started the family on its current path in 1895, by opening a law practice in Fountain City at the age of 20.

Martin Fugina also served Fountain City as city attorney and Buffalo County as district attorney from 1898 to 1908 and as a judge from 1909 to 1925, traveling to Alma by train to preside over cases. The 17-mile journey to Alma was a big commitment for his grandfather at that time, David Fugina told the Winona Daily News. His reliance on a train and its stops meant Martin Fugina could be gone for days at a time.

In 1935, David Fugina’s father, Marvin Fugina, joined the family practice his father had started, doing legal work until his death in 1988.

Marvin Fugina and David Fugina were close, David Fugina said, and their shared loved of the Fountain City outdoors that kept them that way.

During in hunting season, they spent their mornings in a duck blind and autumns in the woods, searching for trophy bucks. David Fugina remembered growing up outside with his father.

In particular, David Fugina remembers his father taking him by boat when he was 11 years old to Whitman Dam. David Fugina got out, and his father had him swim back as he watched alongside him from the boat.

“I grew up with a gun in one hand and a fishing pole in the other thanks to my dad,” David Fugina said. “I love the area here. I love the outdoors, I loved everything about it, and I always considered myself lucky because I had a goal. I realized early on in life that there was nothing else that I could do in Fountain City and have the kind of income that I wanted have, the kind of freedom that I wanted, unless I became an attorney.”

 

David Fugina has lived in Fountain City, Wis., his whole life -- one of three generations to serve as an attorney to the city for 120 years. (Chuck Miller/The Winona Daily News via AP)

David Fugina has lived in Fountain City his entire life and is a member of three generations of lawyers who have served as attorneys to the city for a total 120 years. (Chuck Miller/The Winona Daily News via AP)

With his passion for hunting, fishing and the Fountain City outdoors eventually giving way to a desire to become a lawyer, David Fugina headed to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the late 1950s. During his college years, he and other students were required to take two years of ROTC. David entered the Navy.

After his undergraduate years, David Fugina went to the Navy Supply Corps. School in Athens, Ga., a selective school that helped him obtain a master’s degree in five months. His place at the top of his class led him to serve in the Navy for a year in Key West, Fla. He and his wife Jeanne were married around the same time.

“It was like having a honeymoon for a year because here we are in Key West,” David Fugina recalled. “At the officers’ club, drinks are like 15 cents, live orchestras on the weekend. Here we are dancing on the patio outside with the palms and the moon and the waves crashing on the shore.”

Their marriage came six years after the couple had met one summer before high school began, when Jeanne’s father was hired as the superintendent of the newly merged Cochrane-Fountain City School District.

Jeanne had been settling into life at her old school when she was plucked and placed into the small river city district. She went to the picnic with girls she did not know, meeting up with her husband and his friend.

“I was a little overwhelmed,” Jeanne Fugina remembered, “probably just trying to take in these new people.”

The group of kids would wind up playing records and dancing at David Fugina’s house.

“And I came home that night and I told my mother I just met the girl I’m gonna marry,” David Fugina said.

There was one hiccough, though. David Fugina already had a girlfriend, who happened to be the daughter of the home-economics teacher at the school and was accompanying Jeanne that night.

“I told her that was just my practice girl,” David Fugina said.

Throughout high school and undergraduate school, the couple dated for six years, and Jeanne soon became just as much of a river rat as David Fugina. Much of her free time was dedicated to water skiing. She recalled one embarrassing incident in which her suit was caught on a nail on the edge of a boathouse. When the boat’s engine revved up, there Jeanne was left, dangling.

“We have a few embarrassing stories along life,” Jeanne Fugina said with a laugh.

Along with the embarrassing moments and the laughter, she said they have also had stability.

“I was just, I don’t know, just blown away by this new person who seemed to know where he was going in life,” she said.

Younger than he was, Jeanne graduated with a nursing degree in the summer of 1964. The next weekend, David Fugina said, they were married and headed to Key West for their first year of married life.

The next year they returned to Wisconsin so David Fugina could get his law degree at the University of Wisconsin Law School, but Fountain City was never out of their sights. Even during his undergraduate schooling, David Fugina would return to Fountain City in the summers and weekends to work and hunt. It was only when he moved to the south that he ever truly left the bluffside town he had always called home.

The couple waited four years into their marriage to have their first child. David Fugina graduated from law school in January 1968, and Eric, the couple’s first child, was born April, 30, 1968. They later had another son, Mark.

They eventually moved back to Fountain City, eliciting some good-natured teasing from his law school comrades. As a good student, David Fugina could have had his pick of places to practice law, but the river, his family practice and the town he had always known were ready for him to return.

“I took a lot of kidding when I was in law school because I graduated near the top of the class and people said ‘Why on earth to you want to go back to a one-horse town like Fountain City when you could go to someplace else and make more money?’” David Fugina said. “And I always said, ‘Well I’d rather be someplace where I can go duck hunting every morning, bow hunting every night and fishing out my front door and know my clients. And that’s really true.’”

David Fugina joined his father in 1968 at the family law practice, giving father and son 20 years of law together before Marvin Fugina died. For more than 10 years before his death, Marvin Fugina also served as Buffalo County Family Court commissioner.

Going to church with his clients and seeing them around town made them feel like family, David Fugina said. In the short time he was working on divorces, he even had couples asking him to represent both of them, despite his inability to do so.

David Fugina’s primary work was in income tax work for his clients, claiming that it was the “glue” that held his practice together for so many years. David asked clients questions and filled out input sheets, while his wife and a legal secretary entered the data into a computer. It was the one time a year he saw all of his clients, who brought their hunting photos and talked about the local woods along with their income taxes.

David Fugina estimated he did about 25,000 tax returns in his career, if not more.

He also served as a city attorney, much like his father and grandfather before him for 120 years, until April 2015. That was when the city, at David Fugina’s recommendation, appointed the firm then known as O’Flaherty Heim Egan and Birnbaum to the position.

Despite his 20 years of practicing law with his father, it’s not in the hallowed halls of the family law practice or in the city chambers where the family served as city attorney for three generations that David Fugina feels his father’s absence the most.

“Where I really miss dad is out in the duck blind or out deer hunting,” he said.

When he became a father, David Fugina found himself in the role his father served for all those years as he was learning to hunt and fish. Eric Fugina and Mark Fugina grew to love the outdoors and hunting, growing up in the same woods and floating on the same river their father did years ago.

And Jeanne Fugina took it up, too.

“I have two boys, and when they’re little, mom is the thing. But as they got older, dad’s the thing,” she said. “He taught them hunting and fishing. Being the only woman in the house, in order to be part of their world, I deer hunt, I turkey hunt, I go to the farm and work, I go fishing with him. I’ve enjoyed it, too. I’ve become more of an outdoor person than I ever was.”

The family also bought a farm just eight miles away from their family home up on the bluffs of Fountain City. When he was working in the law office, David Fugina left the office at 4 p.m. and was bow hunting by 4:30 p.m.

He’s roamed outside his Fountain City woods, too, hunting in places like Africa and Alaska. His home and offices are shrines to his abilities, with animals lining the walls, including some from other countries, deer from his own woods and rattlesnakes from when hunting them was legal.

In 2016, David Fugina retired after nearly 50 years of practicing law, but found it difficult to enlist an attorney to take over his law business. It’s something he has noticed a lot growing up and working in a small community, watching local dentists, doctors and now attorneys leave for bigger cities.

“These offices are simply closing,” said David, who was able to finally have the same law office that became city attorney take over his practice.

After more than 120 years, the Fuginas were done with the law in Fountain City and Buffalo County. Their children found other pursuits in life, and it was time for the city’s own Huck Finn to find time to relax the only way he knows how.

And in getting to that point, if he had to, he’d live it all over again.

“I’m one of the very lucky ones, and I know this, if I had my life to live over I would do exactly the same thing,” David Fugina said. “I’d marry Jean, I’d come back here and I’d do what I did for the last 50 years, because I enjoyed the heck out of it.”

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