David Magnuson was a longtime city attorney who combined shrewd legal judgment with encyclopedic historical knowledge to guide the city of Stillwater from its riverfront origins to its fast-growing future.
The fourth-generation Stillwater resident died at 78 on Dec. 25, after celebrating Christmas with his family, from complications related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.
Mayor Ted Kozlowski said Magnuson was like “Google maps for Stillwater,” and that a drive around town with him was an education on its people and quirks. That knowledge was irreplaceable whenever the mayor and City Council debated new construction and renovations, he added.
When the council learned at one meeting that hidden underground storage tanks were delaying a hotel project, Magnuson smiled, the mayor recalled: “He chuckled. ‘That’s not surprising that old Bobby buried some stuff there without letting anybody know.’ It was classic. Unfortunately, that’s gone know. This stuff wasn’t written down.”
Magnuson was one of the longest-tenured city attorneys in Minnesota history, serving Stillwater from 1978 to 2018, and also representing Marine on St. Croix, Afton, North Oaks, Lakeland Shores, and Baytown and Grey Cloud Island townships. Magnuson drafted as many as half the ordinances on Stillwater’s books, and told the Pioneer Press in 2018 that he took pride in speaking his mind but also respecting the views of so many different city leaders. “There have been lot of different personalities … but I’ve always said, ‘It’s up to me to adapt to them. It’s their city. I’m just a servant,’ ” he said.
Magnuson stepped down from his Stillwater role in 2018, the same year he was diagnosed with ALS, but continued to work in private practice.
He graduated from Stillwater High School in 1959, then served in the U.S. Navy and conducted photo reconnaissance aboard an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and William Mitchell College of Law, now Mitchell Hamline, in St. Paul.
Magnuson was a first-year law student in 1968 when he met Mary Lowey, then a nurse at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul. The couple dated a few months before they drove to Las Vegas to get married, stopping in Grand Teton National Park on their way back for their honeymoon.
Survivors include his wife and three children — sons John and Jim and daughter Fran. As a father, Magnuson inspired through example — smiling, encouraging others, telling the same cheesy jokes, and showing the value of hard work, said his daughter, Fran Forse, of Minneapolis.
“He always said he never expected us to be the best at anything as long as we did our best,” Forse said.
Magnuson’s contributions to Stillwater included volunteer leadership for the Rotary Club and other organizations and coaching youth hockey teams. Stillwater Area High School had named him a distinguished alumnus.
His positivity was remarkable considering he was raised in poverty, with a father who struggled after fighting in World War II and a blind grandfather who made money tuning pianos, said Magnuson’s son Jim. “He was such a positive person. … That’s what really stands out to me.”
His impact was reflected by his funeral visitation: His children stood for three hours as people offered their condolences — starting with the tailor who sold him suits and his trademark bow ties, then followed by judges and clients, council members and police officers and former hockey players, and finishing with the local wine vendor.
“He cared so deeply about the community,” Kozlowski said. “He dedicated his life to the city of Stillwater.”