Luanne Nyberg devoted her career to shaping public policies to help disadvantaged children and low-income Minnesotans, especially with their medical care.
The founder of the Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota in 1985, she was among the most ardent advocates at the Legislature for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which became a national model.
Nyberg was a public health adviser on tobacco issues to the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office during the state’s lawsuit against tobacco companies. She later served as a senior analyst on health policy for Hennepin County for more than a decade, toward the end planning initiatives to improve graduation rates and education opportunities for children in the county system.
Nyberg, 73, died unexpectedly in her sleep on Jan. 5.
“She was a fighter who could get things done, who could get funding to put programs in place,” said Peter McLaughlin, a former Hennepin County commissioner. “She was smart, tactical and had ideas all the time. She was always finding ways to make people’s lives better.”
Nyberg grew up in Minneapolis and graduated from Southwest High School. She graduated from the University of Minnesota and received a Bush Fellowship in 1993 to earn a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Early in her career, Nyberg worked as the first client advocate in the Hennepin County welfare office, said Jim Westcott, a longtime friend and former county human service manager. But in the mid-1980s, Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the national Children’s Defense Fund, was looking to expand the reach of her children’s research and advocacy group, said Laura Kadwell, assistant director of the Minnesota CDF during Nyberg’s tenure. Minnesota was a likely prospect.
Nyberg founded the Minnesota office and served as executive director. She was a policy wonk and passionate advocate for children at the Legislature, her colleagues said. The CDF argued not just for children’s supports but also for financial aid for parents, including child-care subsidies and child-support enforcement.
“Her primary tools were data and stories,” Kadwell said. “She had an instinct how to reach people.”
Working at Hennepin County, Nyberg changed policies to expand access and patient coverage at Hennepin County Medical Center, Westcott said. She later was in charge of a project to reduce teen pregnancy, he said, and in her usual fashion, invited all sides of the issue to get involved.
“She invited everyone to the table, from the ‘just say no’ people to the people handing out condoms,” said Wescott. “And there was always food.”
Nyberg retired from the county in 2011, coinciding with the birth of twin grandchildren, said her daughter, Ingrid Culp, of St. Louis Park. But she never retired from community service.
Nyberg served on the board of directors of Books for Africa, Culp said. She cooked meals for Sierra Club volunteer events and also for people living with HIV/AIDS at Agape Dos housing in Minneapolis. She was active at St. Joan of Arc Church in Minneapolis.
She recently became a pet foster home for a local humane society. “My kids roped her into that,” Culp said.
Nyberg’s son Will Ziegenhagen, of Minneapolis, said his mother instilled in her children the need to give back to their communities. That was a central focus of her life.
“She had a vision for the world and for her place in it, in her personal life and professional life,” Ziegenhagen said.
Survivors also include her son Brian Ziegenhagen of Santa Barbara, Calif., and three grandchildren. Services have been held.