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Attorney Thomas Wilson was an early advocate for the rights of mental patients and an expert in guardianship cases.

Wilson, who also specialized in the areas of employment law and veterans' rights, died of complications from lung cancer May 19 at his Edina home. He was 61.

"He was the dean of civil commitment law," said Judge Peter Albrecht of the Hennepin County District Court's probate-mental health division.

He said Wilson was drawn to that area of law because "he cared about people."

When Albrecht was working on his first mental health case in the mid-1980s, he learned the hard way about Wilson's expertise. The parents of a girl wanted to keep their child in the hospital, and Wilson took the case to court, advocating for the child. Albrecht, with juvenile court experience, ruled against Wilson, saying, "Of course they can [say what happens to the girl]; they are her parents." "He said, 'No, they can't,' and he got the Minnesota Supreme Court to tell me I couldn't," Albrecht said.

"He cared about people, and everybody in the court system liked him," added the judge.

Richard Wolfson, a referee in the probate mental health division of Hennepin County District Court, said Wilson was a "voice in the wilderness" when, around 1980, he vigorously advocated for his clients in commitment cases.

"Tom was instrumental in helping to protect the rights of the mentally ill," said Wolfson, adding that Wilson spurred reform in the law covering commitment of the mentally ill.

Art Katzman, an assistant Hennepin County attorney, often sat on the opposite side of the table from Wilson in the guardianship-probate area of the law and was glad of it, he said, because Wilson's presence guaranteed that the proceedings would be just.

"He always brought a sense of humanity to the practice of law," Katzman said.

Wilson's wife, Gayle Gaumer, joined him in his practice in 1982. He could see possibilities where other attorneys could not, she said.

After graduating from the former Edina-Morningside High School, where he was a varsity wrestler, Wilson earned his bachelor's degree at Florida's University of Miami in 1969. In 1979, he earned his law degree from Hamline University in St. Paul.

Long active in GOP politics, he was to have been a delegate to the upcoming Republican State Convention.

He coached youth sports for 15 years -- girls' varsity soccer at Minneapolis' Roosevelt High School and varsity soccer at Bloomington's Concordia Academy -- and was active in the Minnesota State High School League.

In addition to his wife of 29 years, he is survived by two sons, Toby and Ryan, both of Edina; a daughter, Corinne of Edina; a brother, Patrick of Bloomington, and two sisters, Diane Scheremet and Marjorie Lee Hane, both of Edina.

Services will be held at 4:30 p.m. June 5 at Colonial Church of Edina, 6200 Colonial Way.