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Former Gov. Wendell Anderson, regent, ‘Minnesota Miracle’ architect, dies

ST. PAUL -- Former Minnesota Gov. Wendell Anderson, a truck driver’s son who emerged from St. Paul’s East Side to become a college and Olympic hockey star and one of the state’s most popular political leaders, died  Sunday surrounded by family and friends at Our Lady of Peace hospice in St. Paul. He was 83.

Gov. Mark Dayton confirmed his death, which occurred a month after he was admitted to the hospice.

“Governor Anderson was one of Minnesota’s greatest governors,” Dayton said in a statement. “His transformational ‘Minnesota Miracle’ — which he achieved through one of the most momentous bipartisan agreements in our state’s history — has dramatically improved the quality of our state’s public education.”

Memorial service arrangements will be announced in the coming days.

Anderson served Minnesotans as a state legislator, governor, U.S. senator and University of Minnesota regent for 32 years.

A rising star in the state and national Democratic parties in the 1970s, he rocketed from silver medalist in hockey at the 1956 Olympics to state legislator at age 25 and governor by the time he was 37.

In his first year as the state’s chief executive in 1971, he worked with a conservative-controlled Legislature to craft the “Minnesota Miracle,” landmark legislation that won national acclaim by replacing regressive local property taxes with more-progressive state taxes, increasing funding for K-12 education and reducing disparities between property-rich and property-poor school districts.

Enormously popular, he was re-elected in a landslide in 1974. “He was the only candidate for governor to carry all 87 counties,” said David Lebedoff, a close adviser, speech writer and campaign chairman for Anderson.

“The politics of the Anderson years were the opposite of politics today, which are polarized and angry,” Lebedoff said. Anderson strove to build bipartisan consensus on issues, and both parties were dominated by moderates who believed government could improve people’s lives.

As governor, Anderson was “determined, decisive and knew where he wanted to go,” said Jim Pederson, who served as his administrative assistant.

“He was a fun guy to be around, but in some respects he was a hard guy to be around because he had a wicked needle, a wicked sense of humor,” Pederson said.

Anderson — “almost a health fanatic,” in Pederson’s words — usually blocked off the noon hour on his schedule to go running, and he relentlessly needled his staff members who smoked or didn’t exercise. “I smoked,” Pederson said, “and he’d say, ‘You’d better do this now because you’re not going to be around very long at the rate you’re smoking.’ ”

Next to the Minnesota Miracle, his record on environmental protection probably stands out most. In his first inaugural address in 1971, Anderson said, “Our first concern must be the preservation of what we have left of the natural resources that sustain our very lives.” He outlined an ambitious environmental program that he acknowledged might be controversial and would not be cheap.

“In one day in May of 1973, he signed into law 14 or 15 bills that at that time — and today — were probably the most comprehensive set of environmental statutes that any legislature, at the recommendation of a governor, had ever passed,” said Peter Gove, Anderson’s longtime policy advisor.

Anderson enacted several clean-water laws, preserved natural areas, created a state energy agency, beefed up the Pollution Control Agency and Department of Natural Resources and supported the legal challenge that eventually forced the Reserve Mining Co. to stop dumping taconite tailings into Lake Superior and switch to an environmentally safe on-land site.

“I think he’s the greatest environmental governor the state has ever had,” Gove said.

While Anderson compiled a liberal record on most policy issues, he worked closely with Republican lawmakers on many issues.

Former GOP Gov. Arne Carlson said one of his most effective initiatives that “he hasn’t gotten sufficient credit for” was his Loaned Executive Action Program that brought business leaders into state agencies to improve efficiencies. It became a model for other states and the federal government.

“He was a transformative governor,” Carlson said.

Former Senate DFL Majority Leader Roger Moe agreed. “I don’t know of any other six-year time frame that rivals the kind of progressive policies that were passed during Wendy’s tenure as governor,” he said.

But Anderson committed a colossal blunder in 1976 that brought his soaring political career to a crashing halt.

When Walter Mondale was elected vice president, Anderson arranged to have himself appointed to Mondale’s vacant U.S. Senate seat. That angered Minnesota voters, who tossed him out of office in 1978, effectively ending his political career.

“We win and we lose in this game. It takes time to get over losing. It took Wendy a long time,” said former Republican U.S. Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, who unseated Anderson.

Despite personal and political setbacks, Anderson considered himself one of Minnesota’s most fortunate sons.

“He really, truly believed that he was lucky to have been born on the East Side of St. Paul to working-class parents, the son of immigrants who was educated at the University of Minnesota,” said his son, Brett Anderson of New Orleans. “He was most proud of being a Minnesotan.”

Born Feb. 1, 1933, in St. Paul, Anderson started playing hockey at age 10 on outdoor rinks on the East Side. He graduated from Johnson High School in 1950 and enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where he received a hockey scholarship. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the U in 1954.

He married his college sweetheart, Mary McKee. They had three children before they divorced in 1990.

A defenseman, he played on the 1956 U.S. Olympic hockey team that won a silver medal in Cortina, Italy. After he left public office, Anderson skated on an “old-timers hockey team” every Sunday evening for about 40 years, said his brother Rod Anderson. “Even when he could no longer skate, he’d show up and watch them.”

Anderson served as a U.S. Army infantry officer in 1956 and 1957 before enrolling in the University of Minnesota Law School. After his first year there in 1958, he was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives, becoming one of the youngest Minnesota legislators in state history at the time. While serving in the House, he earned his law degree in 1960.

After two House terms, he won a seat in the state Senate in 1962, a post that he held for eight years until he was elected governor in 1970.

“As a legislator and as governor, he was always the working man’s friend, and he never forgot where he came from,” said former Attorney General Warren Spannaus, a lifelong friend. “All his actions were directed at helping the common person.

“Personally, he was as good and kind and helpful a friend as anybody will ever find,” Spannaus added.

For his efforts to pass the Minnesota Miracle and other progressive policies, Anderson appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1973, topping a story that described Minnesota as “a state that works.”

In the mid-1970s, he chaired the Democratic Governor’s Conference, served on the Democratic National Committee and was often mentioned as potential presidential timber.

His political stock crashed with his defeat in 1978.

He attempted a comeback in 1984, seeking the DFL endorsement to challenge Boschwitz. But he came in fourth in a field of four at the party’s state convention.

After leaving office, Anderson practiced law briefly and tried his hand at several business ventures, but he never matched his political success in the private sector.

“His great loves, in addition to his family, were the University of Minnesota, his connection to Sweden and his old-timers’ hockey group,” said Rod Anderson.

He was elected to the U’s Board of Regents in 1985 and served until 1997. He was an ardent Gophers hockey and football fan and participated in numerous other academic and social events on campus.

A proud descendant of Swedish immigrants, Anderson told friends he traveled to Sweden at least 100 times. He was named “Swedish-American of the Year” in 1975 by two fraternal organizations, received a royal medal from the king of Sweden in 1976, was appointed Honorary Counsel of Sweden in Minnesota in 1989, and was a longtime member of the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. He also was instrumental in arranging student exchanges between Swedish law and medical schools and the University of Minnesota.

The former governor was fit as a star high school athlete well into his seventies. In addition to playing hockey, he was an avid jogger and a fiercely competitive golfer and tennis player. His trim physique helped him land a few modeling jobs.

His active lifestyle was cut short in recent years by dementia.

In addition to his brother Rod of Minneapolis, son Brett of New Orleans and former wife, Anderson’s survivors include brother Orv of Stillwater, daughters Amy Anderson of Long Lake and Elizabeth Crow of Minneapolis, and five grandchildren.

Before his death, Anderson arranged to donate his body to the University of Minnesota for medical research.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.