Gertrude P. Ulrich could have moved out of Richfield when her house on Aldrich Avenue and 76th Street was torn down in the name of progress in 2003.
But she had too much to stay for. Ulrich decided to stay in the city where she’d spent 50 years representing its civic interests while raising a family of six. She’d helped build the place behind the scenes, like many women during the postwar boom years while the salesmen and servicemen were away for long stretches.
“I’ve often said that Richfield was run by women all those years because the men were gone all the time,” Ulrich told an interviewer with the Richfield Oral History Project in 2007. “All the kinds of things that we now have … like the [Wood Lake] Nature Center, for example, and the Human Rights Commission … they were put together by women. Although we did not have any women elected officials.”
That also changed through the work of female civic leaders like Ulrich, who died April 22 at age 87 from natural causes, her family said.
“On Friday, we learned of some sad news: The passing of Gertrude Ulrich, the matriarch of Richfield civic and political activism,” Councilwoman Edwina Garcia announced at the start of the Richfield City Council’s meeting on April 28.
People who knew her say Ulrich never stopped building up her city, whether helping establish institutions like the Human Rights Commission, guiding nascent candidates like Garcia, or just engaging in a vibrant civic and social life with groups like the League of Women Voters of Richfield.
Despite having some difficulty getting around recently, Ulrich had signed up to volunteer at an upcoming garage sale fundraiser run by her beloved Richfield Rotary Club. But she died too soon to help out.
“The doctor had said that she could live well into her 90s, and that’s what I had on my mind. So it is a shock,” said one of her sons, Ted Ulrich, a theology professor at the University of St. Thomas. “She seemed like she would never die because she was so active and so involved.”
Ulrich was born in the town of Heron Lake, Minn., on June 11, 1927, and met Jerome Ulrich, a Navy Air Corps veteran and future dentist, while both were attending the University of Minnesota. They married in 1952 and bought the house at 7601 S. Aldrich Av. the following year.
The births of six kids quickly followed, but a busy family life didn’t prevent her from becoming a founding member of the Human Rights Commission, serving on city planning commissions and volunteering in politics. Ulrich got her first big political appointment in 1971 when she became chairwoman of the Minnesota Cable Communications Board. She would eventually be appointed by Gov. Rudy Perpich to two terms on the Metropolitan Council and then elected to the Richfield City Council in 2000.
She lost her share of races, including runs for City Council and the Hennepin County Board in the 1960s and 1970s. But she was best known as a campaign adviser, not a politician. She was widely described as the person local DFL candidates went to see after they’d decided to run for office.
“She more or less groomed me,” said Garcia, who in 1991 became the first Hispanic woman elected to the Minnesota House with Ulrich’s help before joining the City Council. “She was not really a partisan person. She was a strong DLFer, but she always said, ‘You don’t want to get into a nasty debate with your opponent. When you run for office … it’s always good to know what the other side is saying, too.’ ”