2022 Alumni Achievement Award: Mike Pirtle ‘75

2022 Alumni Achievement Award: Mike Pirtle ‘75

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

From his accolades on the football field, to a long career as both a lawyer and a judge, Mike Pirtle ‘75 knows what it takes to be successful. Pirtle is being honored with the Midland University Alumni Achievement Award and will be recognized during the Alumni & Legacy Banquet Sunday, September 25th at the Fremont Golf Club. The event is part of Midland’s Homecoming celebration.

“It means a lot to be recognized by Midland with this award,” Pirtle said. “It’s the culmination of a long journey.”

Pirtle starred as a quarterback in Don Watchorn’s wishbone offense in the early to mid 1970s, but were it not for a late change of plans, his legacy at Midland would never have been forged. “I was all set to attend another college, but things fell through at the last minute,” he said. “My coach at Creighton Prep (Don Leahy) was friends with Coach Watchorn, who was getting ready to start his coaching career at Midland. Coach Watchorn told me he was ready to rebuild the program and needed a quarterback. We had a great visit and everything fell into place.”

Pirtle was a four-year starter for the Warriors, who won just a single game his freshman year, but steadily improved over the course of his career. Pirtle’s career culminated with what is widely considered the greatest season in Midland football history in 1974. That team went 11-0 (still a single season record for wins) and ended the season with a 32-6 victory over Friends University in the Mineral Water Bowl. “That was a great team and we had a lot of fun,” Pirtle said. “Back then, only four teams made the NAIA playoffs. Had they taken eight teams, I think we could have been very successful in the playoffs.”

Pirtle also spent two years as a member of the Midland baseball team. He was inducted into the Warrior Athletic Hall of Fame in 1993. 

After graduating from Midland with a degree in business in 1975, he entered the University of Nebraska College of Law, earning his Juris Doctorate in 1978. He then began a 33-year run as a trial lawyer, serving as a partner for several different law firms, as well as working as a Senior Staff Attorney for American Family Insurance. “I have an older brother who was a lawyer, and I saw how much he enjoyed it, so I knew from the beginning that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. “I got a lot of guidance from him, as well as having great advisors at Midland along the way.”

While he always knew he wanted to be a lawyer, becoming a judge wasn’t foremost on his mind. “I really enjoyed being a trial lawyer, but I guess my interest in being a judge evolved over time,” he said. “I became a mediator for civil and family law cases, and really enjoyed it, so that’s probably when I started thinking seriously about becoming a judge.”

He became a Judge on the Nebraska Court of Appeals, 2nd Judicial District in Omaha, in 2011. In 2020, he was appointed as Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals. Pirtle said he has enjoyed working both sides of the bench in his career, with each offering different challenges. “As a lawyer, you’re advocating for one side, and you work to represent that client to the best of your ability,” he said. “As a judge, you’re more like a referee in that you have to stay neutral. In the appellate court, it’s important you get along with the other judges. You might not always agree, but you have to work through your differences in a professional manner. We also have a lot of cases to work through, so you have a combination of getting things done in a timely manner, but making sure they are done correctly.”

Throughout the years, Pirtle has maintained a strong connection to Midland. He served on the booster club board for several years and was a member of the Board of Trustees for four years. He was awarded the Master Teacher Award from Midland in 1993. “I’ve always stayed in touch with Midland,” he said. “I had some great coaches and professors who I had a lot of respect for. It was a great experience.”

Pirtle and his wife, Kimberly Knoll, are the parents of four adult daughters and have four grandchildren.