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Elmer L. Andersen(1909 - 2004)

Ex-Gov. Andersen, true public servant

The one-term governor who died Monday was a vanishing breed, a liberal Republican. He championed paid parental leave, a national park and child welfare.
Pioneer Press

Former Gov. Elmer L. Andersen, who served only two years as governor but changed Minnesota with a lifetime of public service, died Monday evening at Fairview University Medical Center in Minneapolis. He was 95.

"Elmer Andersen epitomized the Minnesota spirit," Gov. Tim Pawlenty said. "His civic involvement touched every important aspect of Minnesota life."

Andersen, of Arden Hills, had checked into the hospital earlier this month after suffering lethargy. Doctors found some blockage in a bile duct and inserted a small stent to ensure normal flow. He died about 8 p.m. Monday.

Tom Swain, who served Andersen as chief of staff and campaign manager, praised the former governor's public service.

"He led a life totally committed to public service," Swain said. "He was Minnesota's greatest living citizen."

After losing re-election in 1962 to Karl Rolvaag by a mere 91 votes in an election that prompted a five-month recount, Andersen took the lead as a private citizen in pushing for two major initiatives that reshaped Minnesota.

He helped enact the Taconite Amendment to the Minnesota Constitution to allow lower taxes for taconite developers and help revitalize the Iron Range and he helped create Voyageurs National Park.

Andersen served 10 years in the Minnesota Senate, representing St. Paul, and was an early proponent of civil rights and a promoter of child welfare.

He served as chairman of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents and president of the Minnesota Historical Society, as well as sitting on the boards of the University's Arboretum Foundation and the University Foundation.

Andersen also served in the private sector as chief executive officer of H.B. Fuller Co, an Arden Hills adhesives manufacturing firm, and helped turn it into a Fortune 500 company.

In 1976, he bought two weekly newspapers in Princeton, Minn., and merged them, later adding more to build a chain of weeklies. He wrote signed editorials that were widely read around the state and in the Legislature.

Andersen regarded himself as a liberal and progressive Republican, a vanishing if not already extinct breed.

"I remind people I want to be known as a liberal Republican," Andersen said in a 2003 Pioneer Press interview. "If that's a dirty word, so be it."

Andersen endorsed Democrat John Kerry in this year's presidential election and criticized the invasion of Iraq.

"Iraq is a foolhardy venture," he said. "It's wrong for the U.S. to make a pre-emptive strike. It's not our country's way to start wars. For us to embark on a sole course of war is out of character for our country."

Andersen also criticized Pawlenty for campaigning on a vow not to raise taxes.

"We've gone way overboard in thinking taxes are evil or that government is flagrantly wasteful," Andersen said. "Taxes are the way people join hands to get good things done. That's the tradition of Minnesota."

He wrote an autobiography, "A Man's Reach,'' and a collection of his newspaper columns, "VIEWS from the Publisher's Desk.''

Born June 17, 1909, in Chicago, Andersen farmed during the Depression and then went to work as a salesman for H.B. Fuller before buying the company for $10,000 in 1941.

He grew up in Michigan and his father abandoned the family when he was 6 years old. He graduated from Muskegon Junior College in Michigan in 1928 before taking a job as a school furniture salesman. He ultimately graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in business administration in 1931.

In his political career, Andersen started out assisting in local campaigns and helped Harold Stassen become governor in 1938. He finally ran for state Senate in 1949, serving five terms.

In 1960, Andersen won election as governor, defeating DFL incumbent Orville Freeman. But the term of governor was just two years at that time and his stint as Minnesota's chief executive was short-lived.

DFLers accused Andersen of rushing the completion of Interstate 35 so he could reap the political benefits. They charged that the rush job resulted in shoddy construction that would cost the state millions to repair. The charges ultimately proved to be false, but Andersen lost to Rolvaag, the DFL lieutenant governor, by a scant 91 votes.

The close election triggered a protracted recount in which thousands of disputed ballots were examined, one by one. But the result did not change.

Many Andersen stalwarts wanted him "to appeal it all the way" to the Supreme Court, Swain recalled. But he says Andersen did not want to appear to be usurping the office and throw the state into political turmoil, so he "gulped hard" and accepted the outcome.

Andersen's political philosophy was a minority view within his party even in his day. And yet he succeeded in some accomplishments of which he was proud: switching to income tax payroll deductions from annual payments and banning discrimination in housing, as well as creation of a state Human Rights Commission, Fort Snelling State Park and the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources. He also sought budget increases for education and mental health.

Andersen — sometimes mistaken for another Republican governor, the late C. Elmer Anderson — developed a reputation as a generous employer at H.B. Fuller; he began offering health insurance to retirees in 1945, for instance, years before the federal government created Medicare. By 1998, he was offering employees parental leave at 40 percent pay, for up to three years, because he believed in the value of parenting during the first three years of life.

"I always had a philosophy at Fuller that making a profit was not our No. 1 priority," Andersen said. He believed that if a business paid attention to its customers and generously rewarded employees who did their best, profits would follow.

"He was ahead of his time in so many ways," Swain said.

In 1976, when he was in his mid-60s, Andersen retired from H.B. Fuller after 35 years as the boss there. He enrolled in a course at Anoka-Hennepin Technical College, to begin learning about the newspaper business.

"I didn't know anything about newspapering," he recalled, "so I took a skills course in photography and writing. I had a lot to learn."

In 1981, Andersen's newspaper company began acquiring other weeklies and shoppers on or just beyond the fringes of the Twin Cities area. ECM Publishers now owns 17 weekly newspapers and seven shoppers.

A committed reader, Andersen had started buying books for 10 cents during the Depression, a hobby that led to a personal collection of some 12,500 books. He gave them all to the University of Minnesota, which named a new library after Andersen.

"It's nice to look up at breakfast, see Emerson's journal and have coffee with Ralph Waldo Emerson," he mused after making the donation in 1999. "I'm going to miss these books when they leave. I've promised them I'm not going to cry." The books were valued at $760,000.

He also gave $10,000 to the State Law Library to create a rare book fund in honor of the late state Supreme Court Chief Justice Peter S. Popovich. The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum named the Andersen Horticultural Library in honor of Andersen and his wife, Eleanor. A rare illustrated volume on roses the couple donated alone is valued at $500,000.

His environmental activism lasted throughout his lifetime. In 1997, he received the Willard Munger Environmentalist of the Year Award from the Minnesota Natural Resources Foundation for his conservation efforts.

Writing in his 2000 autobiography, Andersen noted that "a belief that success is inevitable has proven very powerful in my life." Explaining his core belief, he said that "... the greatest force in life is love.... If people will believe in the power of love and let it work, it can do wonders."

Andersen is survived by his wife, Eleanor, daughter, Emily, and sons Julian and Anthony.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Pawlenty said he was ordering state flags to be lowered to half-staff from sunrise today until sunset the day of Andersen's burial.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Published in Pioneer Press on Nov. 15, 2004
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