As a high schooler in little Embarrass, Minn., Warner Wirta appeared in newspapers because of his speed. He ran a mean mile with the Flying Finns, a state champion track and cross-country team that often beat bigger schools.
Later, Wirta regularly appeared in the newspaper for another reason — his letters to the editor. These passionate defenses of the environment and critiques of the federal government, printed in the Duluth News Tribune, spoke to his work as an activist and a teacher.
“He was active in the political, social and economic issues in the Duluth area,” said Will Munger, owner of the Willard Munger Inn and son of the late state lawmaker after which it’s named. “Very much someone who always stood up for the little guy.”
Wirta died of cardiac arrest Dec. 19 in Duluth, where he had lived for 35 years before moving recently to Superior, Wis. He was 80.
Wirta was born in Embarrass in 1933. His father, Samuel, was Finnish, and his mother, Clara, was Ojibwe. His coach scouted the schoolyard for talent and, because there was no track, had his recruits train on gravel roads.
“We knew deer tracks and cow tracks, but most of us had never seen a running track,” Wirta said in a 2008 interview.
Wirta, known to some locals as the “Flying Finndian,” won the state cross-country championship in 1951 and the mile in 1952.
He often talked about “the way people looked at him when they saw him as an Indian, compared with the way people looked at him when he was a Finlander,” said Marvin Lamppa, a track teammate and historian.
Running helped him nab a scholarship to Kansas State Teachers College — where he met his wife, Martha.
After college, he returned to northern Minnesota to teach civics and physical education in Orr for 13 years. Troubled by the small share of American Indian students graduating from high school, he worked to raise that graduation rate, bringing in speakers and devising programs, Martha Wirta said.
“Then, they didn’t expect the kids to finish high school,” she said. “Now, we have enough students in college that it’s not extraordinary.”
Upon earning his master’s degree at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Wirta took a job with the Veterans Administration and developed a mental health outreach program for fellow Indian veterans. In the early 2000s, he was crucial in establishing the Duluth American Indian Commission, a group that advises city leaders.
Wirta would often stop by the Willard Munger Inn to discuss issues, including his opposition to ATV riding at Spirit Mountain, to him a sacred site. “He would call, write letters, come to visit you,” Munger said. “He was not afraid to give his opinion.”
But Wirta was rarely loud. He was “quiet and kind,” Munger said. He “listened more than he spoke,” Lamppa said. He was “a quiet, thoughtful, and powerful voice for the environment and justice issues,” Duluth Mayor Don Ness said in a Facebook post.
Before his health declined, Wirta submitted letters to the News Tribune once a month for years. They tended toward environmental issues but also touched on mining and war.
“Warner was a regular,” said Chuck Frederick, editorial page editor. “He was a great voice for the Northland’s Native community, a real watchdog of government … how its actions impacted his neighbors and all of us everyday folks.”
A member of the Bois Forte Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Wirta is survived by his wife; children Anna Wirta-Kosobuski, Les Wirta and William Wirta; nine grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Services are at 10 a.m. Friday at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Duluth.