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Continued: Obituaries: State Rep. Willard Munger

  • Article by: LARRY OAKES and TERRY FIEDLER , Star Tribune
  • Last update: July 11, 1999 - 11:00 PM

Deep political roots  

Munger's life in public service intersected many of the major political movements, events and people in 20th-century Minnesota.

He grew up on a farm in Otter Tail County. He went with his father, Harry, on organizing trips for the Nonpartisan League, a populist, agrarian movement headed by A.C. Townley.

"He went through that whole Depression, Nonpartisan League, farmer unrest stuff," said Craig Grau, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. "Someone said they used to call Willard 'Little A.C.' "

His love of nature was nurtured on hikes with his grandfather, Lyman Munger, a socialist and naturalist who compared logging companies to locusts and told his grandson that only strict laws could preserve the land and water.

In the pre-DFL days of 1934, he ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature as a Farmer-Labor candidate, then held patronage jobs in the late 1930s as state grain, fruit and vegetable inspector under Farmer-Labor governors Floyd B. Olson and Elmer Benson.

Those jobs required him to move to Duluth, a port for ships carrying the commodities he inspected. He helped build ships in the Duluth-Superior shipyards during World War II, and he owned and operated a grocery and gas station, and later a motel and coffee shop, all in the western Duluth neighborhood that became part of his legislative district.

At the urging of his first wife, Martha, he ran again for a seat in the Legislature in 1952, but lost.

Built a legacy  

Though jobs nearly always topped the environment on the scale of issues in Munger's blue-collar industrial district, his constituents allowed him his activism, though he occasionally paid a price for it.

In the 1970s he sided with those who wanted Reserve Mining Co. to stop dumping taconite tailings in Lake Superior, at the possible cost of hundreds of jobs.

During that battle, two men with ballpeen hammers visited the Willard Motel and went to work on the windows in the motel's coffee shop.

Stories abound of legislators crossing party lines to join ranks, trade favors or maintain friendships with Munger. His friends say the allure wasn't his charisma, of which he had little, but rather from his hard work, good heart and often-endearing quirks.

His personal traits -- mumbling, frequently garbled syntax, homespun sense of humor and outspoken feistiness -- became legislative legend.

An example was Munger's 1994 floor debate with Sen. Steve Novak, a New Brighton DFLer, over whether radioactive waste should be stored at the Prairie Island plant in Red Wing. Novak, then 44, suggested that Munger's stance must mean he wanted to close the plant and idle 500 employees.

"You quit saying that!" Munger said. "I may be 83, but I can still kick your ass!" Colleagues gave him boxing gloves to hang in his office and started calling him "Kid Munger."

Munger always had preached that in the long run environmental protection created jobs, not destroyed them. Some would say he'd been around long enough to know.

"I was sent to the Capitol as a green activist thinking I knew something about the environment, and when I got there I found out Willard had invented it," said Diane Jensen, who worked around Munger for 13 years as a lobbyist for Cleanwater Action.

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