Columbia Heights is an inner-ring suburban city of 20,158 people at the southernmost tip of Anoka County. The Heights has been a city for 96 years, and one person — Bruce Nawrocki — worked as an elected official for about half of them.
Nawrocki died this month, having spent his life personally inspecting leaning trees, alleys in need of paving, and plans for projects that he did not want to build. He served 22 years as mayor and another 24 on the City Council, finally losing his last election, in 2017, at age 85.
Nawrocki's name was "pretty much synonymous" with Columbia Heights, especially when he worked for organizations larger than the city, like the Metropolitan Council and the National League of Cities, said former Columbia Heights Mayor Gary Peterson, who sparred often with Nawrocki over civic priorities when the two served in city government together.
"You could get into it with him. But when the argument was over, it was over," Peterson said. "He really looked out for the people of the Heights. The longer I knew him, which was 50 years, the more I respected him."
In a city of less than 4 square miles, Nawrocki was known for taking calls at all hours on a dedicated home line. When the lights went out in the city, Nawrocki's phone would ring. If a tree was hanging over a fence, the phone would ring. Potholes? Yes, all the time.
Columbia Heights became a city in July 1921, and Nawrocki was born 10 years and one month later, a few stops south of the Heights by streetcar.
In June 1948, Nawrocki was attending the city's annual Jamboree on his first date with Geraldine Shaw, whom he wooed on the Ferris wheel in an act of romantic daring that he would talk about for the rest of his life. The couple married in '52 and stayed together 65 years, until Nawrocki passed away April 6.
While Columbia Heights was developing from farmland to residential and industrial zones, a newly married Nawrocki was drafted into the Army for the Korean conflict. His service took him to parts of Korea and northern Japan that left him very grateful for the American standard of living he'd grow up with, Geraldine said.
After he returned, the couple built a house. Though he'd long studied public affairs, he wasn't motivated to go into government service until power lines were installed on his street. "He didn't like that," Geraldine said. "He thought they could have gone down the alley. That got him interested in politics."
It proved an enduring interest. Nawrocki's first stint on City Council, starting in 1961, led to a streak of consecutive terms as mayor that lasted from 1965 until 1987. Then came his second turn on the council, 1990-94. His third and final stint ran from 2000 to 2016. As the various factories and foundries decamped the Heights to more distant sites, Nawrocki worked with, and sometimes against, his colleagues to keep the community of postwar homes both livable and affordable.
Nawrocki has a reputation for reading all the relevant paperwork before public meetings and also visiting the sites and people affected. A Democrat, Nawrocki was known as a penny-pincher and strong-willed debater who didn't mind seeing a public meeting stretch until 2 in the morning.
Peterson recalled Nawrocki's opposition to a remodeling project at Murzyn Hall, a WPA project that dated to 1939.
"Oh, he fought that tooth and nail," Peterson recalled. "The pressure on him got too great after a year or two, and by golly, he finally says, 'OK, let's do it.' Bingo. Then it went so fast."
Nawrocki is survived by his wife, two children, and numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren. Services have been held.