The first shout-out Monday at former Gov. Wendell Anderson’s memorial service went to two of his favorites: “East-Siders and the University of Minnesota old-timers.”
Anderson, who graduated from St. Paul’s Johnson High School and played hockey at the U, died of pneumonia July 17 at 83. Friends, family and colleagues gathered at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in southwest Minneapolis for a public send-off that paid tribute to his commitment to public education, state parks, hockey, Minnesota and all things Swedish.
Of an estimated 300 mourners, many were recognizable figures in state politics from the past 50 years, including former Vice President Walter Mondale, who sat up front. With the exception of Gov. Jesse Ventura, every living former governor attended, along with scores of others who would like to have held the office.
During the 75-minute ceremony, the governor was remembered by Gov. Mark Dayton, former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, former university Board of Regents member David Lebedoff, and his son, Brett Anderson, a food writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Each of the politicians referred to the late governor as “Wendy.” Speakers blended the humorous and poignant, the golden moments and darker times that ranged from an Olympic silver medal in hockey to his early exile from Minnesota politics due to his own misstep.
Lebedoff said Anderson insisted on starting every speech with a joke regardless of the occasion, and Dayton did so. The current governor got the first of many laughs in the speeches when he said that if central casting came looking for a “quintessential” Minnesota governor, “You’d pick Wendy and send everyone else home” because he was tall, handsome, had a beautiful family and “a last name that ends in ‘son.’ ”
Like Moe and Lebedoff, Dayton touched on the legislative victories known as the “Minnesota Miracle,” where in his six years in office Anderson oversaw the equalizing of school funding between rich and poor districts along with the shifting of the tax burden from property taxes to income taxes.
Elected in 1970 at age 37, the DFLer was a telegenic star with policy gravitas and a dedication to making lives better, and the extraordinary political skill to bring together political parties, the rich and poor to get it done.
“I personally think the miracle was that it only required a special session of 157 days” to pass the changes, Dayton said, again getting laughs.
A Time magazine cover symbolized the robust high point of Anderson’s political career. In the cover shot, he wore flannel, held aloft a northern pike and smiled like he meant it. Recalling the moment, Dayton dryly noted, “Whether that fish was actually caught in that moment or chilled in someone’s refrigerator has never been substantiated.”
Later, Brett Anderson confirmed that his father did not catch the fish in the moment, but said the image fully captured his “fierce pride” and belief in the exceptionalism of Minnesota. “As far as our dad was concerned, people who lived in other states didn’t know any better,” Anderson said in his emotional comments.
Anderson talked about his father’s upbeat humor but noted that he never remarried after his first wife, and as he aged, he “battled loneliness and regret.”
Lebedoff emphasized that the governor also was passionately committed to the state’s university up to his last act. “Wendy left his body to the university, which already had his soul,” Lebedoff said.
He also spoke of how Anderson liked to save his speech writing until the last possible moment, literally when he was being introduced from the stage. Invariably, Lebedoff said the governor would look at him with a strong confident smile and say, “I’ve never been in such good shape so close to the event.”
Like everyone, Anderson said, his dad had some contradictions. He had a “blue-collar work ethic, but he also adored leisure,” his son said, noting that his dad loved to golf an early round then eat his weight in sweet corn.
The late governor played his beloved hockey well into his 70s. His son recalled how his dad would pack piles of food for the postgame gathering: pork roast, pickled herring, summer sausages and beer.
“If my dad could rewrite the rules of hockey, not hanging out after the game would be a penalty,” his son said.
Anderson’s political career went south when he arranged to have himself appointed to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Mondale’s election as vice president. Voters disliked his opportunism and elected Republican Rudy Boschwitz to the seat in 1978. A comeback attempt in the 1980s failed.
His friends say he never complained about the fall from grace. Dayton said most political careers end “harshly and abruptly.” He argued that politicians should be judged by what they accomplish, not their length of service.
Moe said what’s important is “what lasts, what endures. … Thank you for all that you did for all of us. Rest in peace, my friend.”
Flags flew at half-staff for the funeral.
Anderson is survived by two brothers, Rod and Orv; three children with former wife Mary Christine McKee — Brett and Amy Anderson and Elizabeth Crow — and five grandchildren.