In 30 years at the helm of the Minnesota Historical Society, Russell W. Fridley transformed the small St. Paul agency into a statewide system with enough legislative support to build a $50 million History Center in the state's capital city.

He was 27 years old when he became director in 1955, the youngest in the nation. The tireless historian played a leading role in rescuing Fort Snelling from the highway engineers' bulldozers, as well as the later restoration of the frontier post. Fridley also helped build a statewide network of 31 society-owned historic sites, including several interpretive museums where visitors can see pioneer life relived by actors in period costumes.

He was a low-key lobbyist who "did a really fine job of presenting history to a lot of people who weren't interested in history," said Rod Searle, 89, a Waseca legislator and former House speaker. "He and his sidekick spent days and nights lobbying the Legislature. He spent more time there than some legislators."

Fridley, 82, died of cancer June 17 in St. Paul, surrounded by his family.

Nina Archabal traveled to local historical societies around the state with Fridley and succeeded him as director in 1986.

"Russell was never more at home than in a cafe in rural Minnesota, traveling around and visiting people. He was very much a man of the people," she said. "But he was a terrible driver."

Fridley helped build county historical societies and local support for the state society projects. "He brought the society into a new generation in its life, developing credibility with the Legislature and arguing the society's needs," said Archabal, 70.

Fridley, raised by a single mother and relatives in Iowa, had Ivy League credentials. But he wasn't elitist and hired well-educated women, who had trouble being hired in academia in his early days, Archabal said.

He was a gentle leader, but a workaholic. Co-workers knew he had a day off when he wore a casual blue, instead of white, shirt at his desk, Archabal said. He was witty and intelligent, "but his socks never matched," she said.

Under Fridley's leadership, the society expanded its annual budget from $190,000 a year to $14 million, and its full-time staff grew from about 40 to more than 330.

He was an astute leader who once calmed Archabal after she rushed into his office after Gov. Rudy Perpich, a society supporter, lost an election.

"I said, 'Russ, what will we do?' He said, 'We work with Democrats and Republicans alike. The Democrats have bright ideas. The Republicans are conservative; they always want to save things. So, don't worry. Either way, we are fine.'"

Susan Fridley recalls her dad's late nights at the Legislature and his travels when he served as education director for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

"In the summertime, he'd take some of us along to county historical society meetings," Fridley said. "I saw every historic site" and some natural areas that he supported, such as the Pigeon River route of voyageurs that became part of the Grand Portage National Monument. She said he was a loving father who played basketball with his kids and grandchildren and talked about religion and politics with his kids when he made it home for dinner.

But the nationally known state historian made a serious misstep about the time he retired as society director. In November 1988 a federal judge sentenced him to six months in prison for understating his income on his 1983 tax returns. He took responsibility for what he called "a major mistake on my part and one I'll always regret." He did his time and paid more than $75,000 in back taxes.

"That was a very dark time for him," his daughter said. "I visited him in prison. He was the same wonderful father before and afterwards.''

In addition to Susan, of Golden Valley, Fridley is survived by his wife, Metta, of Shoreview; brother Robert and sister June Flowers, both of Des Moines, a son, Scott of Shoreview; daughters Nancy Bradehoft, of Vadnais Heights; Jane Fridley De Bigit, of Shoreview; Elizabeth O'Brien, of Marine on St. Croix; Jennifer Fridley, of Mendota Heights, and 10 grandchildren. Private services will be held.

Jim Adams • 612-673-7658