Whatever was worth doing, Richard Magnuson figured it was probably worth doing with others.
Whether revising Minnesota’s statutes governing agriculture cooperatives or building a raft at the family’s lake cabin, Magnuson was known for his expertise at — and love of — building a team to accomplish a task together. Magnuson, a longtime leader in the state’s agricultural policy and cooperative law, died March 16. He was 93.
Born in Willmar in 1925 and raised in Montevideo, Magnuson was connected to, and forever enamored of the rural environment of 20th-century America. In 1943, he graduated from high school and enlisted in the U.S. Navy, serving as a navigator on tank-landing craft in the South Pacific.
When World War II ended, he attended college on the G.I. Bill and earned his law degree in 1952 from the University of Minnesota Law School. He went to work as an attorney for Farmers Union Central Exchange, which became Cenex, a predecessor to CHS Inc.
In 1970, Land O’Lakes recruited Magnuson to be its general counsel and set up its legal department at a time when the dairy cooperative was facing complicated issues that affected its members and the co-op differently.
“They were unique because of their tax structure, and that was always an area of dispute, particularly as the businesses grew. Dick was very much at the forefront to address those issues,” said Mark Hanson, a former associate of Magnuson’s.
Magnuson went on to become senior vice president of government relations for Land O’Lakes, regularly testifying at the Minnesota State Capitol, before joining the private practice of Doherty, Rumble and Butler in 1983. Five years later, he persuaded top experts in the field to work together to simplify the state’s cooperative laws, consolidating five different codes into one.
Outside his day job, Magnuson helped establish the then-fledgling Group Health Inc. that eventually became HealthPartners. In 1960, he was elected to the board of Group Health three years after it was founded as one of the nation’s first member-based, prepaid group health plans. He was later elected president of Group Health.
Marcus Magnuson, his oldest son, said much of his father’s work for Group Health was pro bono. “Both he and my mother really believed in doing your part in the community,” he said.
Richard Magnuson often tried to impart values to his kids through stories. “Once he told me about wolves and how they hunt in packs and go after the weakest animal,” said his son Scott Magnuson. “That’s fine in nature, but that’s not acceptable in humans, he said. It was his way of telling us to treat everyone at camp equally.”
Magnuson and his wife, Finette, worked on Walter Mondale’s Senate campaign and Wendell Anderson’s run for governor.
Magnuson also worked on environmental issues, serving on the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board and the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute at Northland College, near his Wisconsin lake home.
In retirement, he took his legal expertise global, helping nations in Eastern Europe, formerly part of the Soviet Union, transition from state-owned agricultural cooperatives to more Western-style cooperatives. This work, which he did with his wife’s help, took the pair to Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Russia. Later the couple offered similar help to Eritrea and the Kyrgyz Republic.
Magnuson is survived by his wife; sons Marcus, Scott and Leif, and daughter Nettie; and multiple grandchildren and great grandchildren. A memorial service will be held on April 26 at 3 p.m. at Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul.