An iconic part of Minnesota’s self identity can be found on the cover of Time magazine on Aug. 13, 1973: A photo of Gov. Wendell Anderson at a lake, wearing a big grin and a flannel shirt, hoisting aloft a freshly caught northern pike.
But in addition to the handsome governor, the trophy fish and the headline, “The Good Life In Minnesota,” there was something else in the background of the photo: Another fisherman, wearing a baseball cap, with a pipe in his mouth, looking at something in the bottom of a boat.
Minneapolis resident John Uldrich was that guy, according to his relatives. Uldrich died Jan. 28 at the age of 82 after enjoying not just the good life, but “a quirky, quixotic, quintessential Minnesotan existence,” according to his family.
In addition to photobombing Anderson’s Time cover shot, Uldrich started a pioneering company that made electronic fish detectors for anglers. He became an expert in Asian culture and cuisine. He won cooking contests, wrote thriller novels, cookbooks and Civil War histories, launched long-shot campaigns for political office and got involved in searches for the wreckage of crashed World War II bombers.
He also claimed that as a young man he did some espionage work for the U.S. government.
And that fish that Anderson was holding for Time magazine? Uldrich said he caught that.
“He had so many things going, I couldn’t keep track of them,” said his daughter, Anne “Nan” Zosel. “Even to the last months of his life, he was living life exuberantly.”
Born in Grand Rapids, Minn., and raised in Little Falls, Uldrich as a young man was alternately a student at St. John’s University, a deckhand on a Norwegian tanker and a U.S. Marine.
For a while, he worked in public relations and sales promotion for insurance companies before he struck out on his own in 1960, co-founding an electronics company called Vexilar that pioneered fish-finding devices like depth meters and sonar systems.
Uldrich also got into selling CB radios and a three-wheeled electric car during the energy crisis of the 1970s. But they turned out to be bad investments or maybe just ideas ahead of their time. Vexilar went bankrupt in 1980.
The company survived, but Uldrich got out of the fish electronics business and moved on to other ventures that ranged from selling magnetic rings you could wear to improve your health to trying to grow shiitake mushrooms in northern Minnesota.
He once was pictured in the Minneapolis Star holding a 36-pound stuffed barracuda that he had caught off Key West while promoting his Vektor Fish and Game Activity Tables, a fish and game forecasting service that appeared in newspapers around the country.
In another newspaper picture, he’s shown wearing a Japanese “happi” coat demonstrating Japanese cooking techniques. Uldrich spent a lot of time doing business in Japan, so he taught classes on Asian cuisine and business culture. He also lived in China for a while, where he found remnants of a B-25 bomber that was involved in the Doolittle Raid on Japan during World War II.
His family can’t verify his claims that he was involved in Cold War spy missions during his travels in Europe as a young man. But the pike that made the cover of Time? That might not be a fish story.
When Wendell Anderson died in 2016, his son Brett confirmed that his father didn’t catch that fish.
Uldrich is survived by his sisters Valerie Windschitl and Claire Uldrich; children Anne Zosel, Tom Uldrich, Jack Uldrich, Catherine Glynn and Ben Ruoyu Zhou, four grandchildren and one great grandchild.
A memorial service will be held April 14, 3-6 p.m. at the Danish American Center, 3030 W. River Pkwy., Minneapolis.