When James Hetland looked at Minneapolis and St. Paul, he didn't see two cities, twins or not. Hetland saw a unified metropolitan region.

It was that sense of broad civic responsibility that guided the life and career of the former University of Minnesota law professor and first chairman of the Metropolitan Council. Hetland, who died Wednesday in Minneapolis, was 86.

"It was very important to him that the metropolitan area had a high-quality standard of living," daughter Janice Hetland said. "He believed that the time you put into making the region better was worth it. So he took the time."

Born in Minneapolis, Hetland graduated from Southwest High School in 1943 and immediately enlisted in the U.S. Army. He fought at Normandy and in the Battle of the Bulge.

After the war ended, Hetland attended the University of Minnesota, where he graduated first in his law class. He entered private practice and later joined First National Bank, the predecessor to U.S. Bancorp, where he served as senior vice president of urban affairs, general counsel and counsel to the board of directors.

Hetland also taught law at the university and co-authored several textbooks used by students and attorneys, including "Hetland and Adamson on Evidence and Trial Practice."

Hetland made perhaps his greatest contribution to the region by serving as the first chair of the Metropolitan Council. In 1967, the Legislature created the organization to coordinate economic development and provide services to the seven-county metropolitan area.

At the time, Minneapolis and St. Paul were intense rivals, but Hetland immediately sought to unify the council, said Ted Kolderie, a former head of the Citizens League, which had pushed for the formation of the council.

"It was a nice touch that at the initial meeting of the new Metropolitan Council, when it came time to vote on where its offices would be, the vote was 7-7, the east metro voting for St. Paul and the west metro voting for Minneapolis, Kolderie said. "Jim, a Minneapolis resident, broke the tie by voting in favor of St. Paul."

"That maybe says as much about him as anything," Kolderie said.

Under Hetland's leadership, the council developed the region's first long-term economic growth strategy, called the Metropolitan Development Plan. In one of its first major decisions, the council vetoed plans to build a new airport in Ham Lake in Anoka County. The council feared the airport and its noise could damage the nearby 23,000-acre Carlos Avery Wildlife Refuge.

Hetland later served on a variety of civic and charitable groups, including Civic Caucus, the Downtown Council and the Minnesota Supreme Court Rules of Civil Procedure Task Force, which he chaired.

"We don't have many of Jim's kind around any more," Kolderie said. "The kind of person who had a successful and productive career and took time for an incredible amount of civic work. This is what 'civic leadership' really is."

Hetland is survived by daughters Janice of St. Louis and Nancy Colbenson of Rushford and sons Steven and James, both of Minneapolis. The funeral will be held at Washburn-McReavy Edina Chapel at 11 a.m. June 2.

Thomas Lee • 612-673-4113