"It's hard to put in words what we lost," said Richard LeMay, the program's interim executive director. "It will take a while to figure out where we go from here .... He has left us too soon."
A 38-year advocate of civil cases for the elderly, tribal residents and those with disabilities and low incomes, he will be remembered as the voice for the underdog, according to LeMay.
Fitzsimmons' funeral will be held 1:30 p.m. today at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Mandan.
After graduating from the University of North Dakota and the UND School of Law, Fitzsimmons began working with the North Dakota Legal Services in Ft. Berthold in the late 1970s. In 2004, North Legal Services and Legal Assistance of North Dakota, consolidated into Legal Services of North Dakota and Fitzsimmons was named its executive director.
Fitzsimmons continued to represent Native Americans in their civil cases after the merger, fighting for their rights statewide and nationally, LeMay said.
"Jim has helped the Legal Services of North Dakota so it is a highly respected program. Through Jim's efforts, we have acquired a good staff. Jim made us what we are today," said LeMay of the program and its mission to provide high-quality legal advice, education and representation to low-income North Dakotan and disadvantaged elderly.
That wasn't an easy feat after funding cuts, according to LeMay.
"He found a way to help more people with less money. It was a difficult task for the administration," LeMay said. "It was important people got their due process .... He did his work behind the scene rather than beating the pulpit. He liked to be behind the spotlight."
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said Fitzsimmons served the people of the state as few people could.
"I was fortunate to get to know Jim and his incredible work assisting disadvantaged and elderly folks, as well as his dedication as a fierce advocate for Indian country. His selfless spirit will surely live on," Heitkamp said.
Scott Davis, executive director for the Indian Affairs Committee for North Dakota, praised Fitzsimmons' work in improving communications between the state and tribal court systems.
District Judge Donovan Foughty of Devils Lake worked with Fitzsimmons during recent tribal-state forums. He credited Fitzsimmons with having the state court system honor civil judgments from the tribal court system and honoring tribal criminal warrants.
"He was a kind and thoughtful person, one to fight for the underdog and had a passion for the law. He was always intensely interested in justice," Foughty said.