Richard P. Braun, 91, a longtime public servant who was commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation from 1979 to 1986, died this week.
A civil engineer, Braun led MnDOT under Republican Gov. Al Quie and was retained when DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich was elected, a rare feat in Minnesota politics.
MnDOT Commissioner Charles Zelle said Thursday that Braun is “warmly remembered. He was very inspiring for many of us. At MnDOT, he was really a foundation of a lot of our culture of innovation and professionalism.”
In a statement Thursday, Gov. Mark Dayton said, “He was one of the finest public servants I have ever known. He combined unsurpassed transportation expertise with impeccable integrity and genuine personal warmth.”
A native of St. Cloud, Braun began working for MnDOT in 1948 after graduating from the University of Minnesota with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering.
He held a series of positions as an engineer and a manager, working in five of the department’s nine districts.
In 1970, he left MnDOT to accept a job with Barton-Aschman Associates Inc., opening a Twin Cities office for the Chicago-based firm.
He returned to MnDOT in 1976 as deputy commissioner of operations before ascending to the department’s top post three years later.
Under Braun, MnDOT progressed from the “highway department” to a true multifaceted agency, championing initiatives such as the Minnesota Road Research Project and Minnesota Rideshare.
He elevated MnDOT on a national level, serving as president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
In 1982, Braun closed St. Paul’s High Bridge because it was deemed unsafe — an unpopular but critical decision. “I did what I thought was right,” Braun recalled many years later.
Braun occasionally appeared as a substitute co-host on a popular WCCO radio show in the early 1980s, swapping jokes with co-host Roger Erickson.
Minnesotans’ perennial complaints about road construction proved great comedic fodder.
Despite a high-pressure career, Braun’s children said their dad always made time to attend their tennis matches, basketball and softball games, and piano recitals.
Every Saturday night during summers at their home in Columbia Heights, he’d mow the lawn and then shuttle the neighborhood kids to the Dairy Queen.
“He was very, very funny — a bit of a rascal,” said his daughter, Catherine Braun. As he prepared to lead her down the aisle at her wedding, he said, “I just have one question,” she recalled. “I thought it was going to be something mushy,” but then he produced a handful of jelly beans and made her laugh. “He said, ‘What color do you want?’ And I walked down the aisle chewing on a green jelly bean.”
In 1986, Braun stepped down as MnDOT commissioner to lead what is now the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota.
The idea behind the center was to “strengthen the connection between the professionals working in the department and the faculty conducting transportation research at the university,” said CTS Director Laurie McGinnis.
“This partnership and collaboration launched Minnesota’s reputation as an incubator for transportation innovation, a designation that remains true today,” McGinnis said.
Braun also served as chairman of the Metropolitan Airports Commission in the 1990s and as a member of the Columbia Heights school board.
In 2006, the Richard P. Braun/CTS Endowed Chair in Transportation Engineering was created to foster new educational programs, enhance teaching activities and expand research in transportation engineering.
Braun was further honored when the dual bridges spanning the Mississippi River between Brooklyn Park and Coon Rapids were named the Richard P. Braun Bridge.
Always active, Braun was a fervent tennis player well into his ’80s and worked out three times a week with a personal trainer up until a week before he died.
He also loved Dixieland jazz, attending nearly 65 shows at Preservation Hall in New Orleans. And he was passionate about travel, visiting 27 countries the world over.
Braun, who died Tuesday, is survived by his children, William of Hamden, Conn.; Jane of New Brighton, and Catherine of Waban, Mass.; brother Jack of Deephaven, and a longtime companion, Phyllis Johnson of St. Louis Park.
He was preceded in death by his wife, Ellen; siblings Virginia, Mary Lou and Thomas, and daughter Barbara.
A celebration of his life will be held in June.