Copyright (c) 1999, Duluth News-Tribune
Sunday, May 2, 1999
By Daniel Bernard/News-Tribune staff writer 



   Willard Munger walks haltingly to his seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives these days, carrying an 88-year-old body that has been drained of energy by cancer surgery and chemotherapy. He lowers himself into his seat, too tired to speak even when his own amendment is under attack.
   For his colleagues, it is difficult to watch Munger expand the effort. But is is not difficult to understand.
   "That's the thing that's sustaining life in him," said Rep. Irv Anderson, DFL-International Falls.
   Munger is the first to admit that politics is his life. But hardly by choice, he argues. And then he tells the story of another walk he took many times as a child -- through the woods with his grandfather, to fish at Mule Lake.
   That was a fishing hole a couple of miles from the family farm in Northwestern Minnesota. On the way, Willard's 7-year-old feet would sink into the moss of a Tamarack swamp where pink lady slippers grew in beds 20 feet wide.
   In tall woods saturated by the birdcalls, grandfather Lyman Munger would peel bark from a birch and roll it into a basket for the raspberries they picked. He'd point to a pitcher plant and explain that the flower survived by feeding on the insects that drowned in its upturned blossom.
   And Lyman Munger would speak angrily and with sadness at the degradation of Minnesota's woods, prairies and wetlands -- of how the state was being settled into submission -- like the over harvest he saw while working at a logging camp.
   Lyman told his grandson that only government could stop the destruction. And when Willard turned 8, Lyman told him he would have to run for office when he grew up.
   ''He had me pretty well indoctrinated,'' Munger recalled during a recent interview, his slow-flowing voice breaking into an earthy chuckle, his tired eyes focused on the memory.
   ''You've gotta realize, when you walked through the woods, half the time you were thinking and half the time you were talking,'' Munger said. ''You couldn't talk all the time because you had to admire the beauty. It made you feel like you're in heaven. It made you feel, why in the hell do I want to destroy this kind of beauty? Why do people want to destroy something like this, so beautiful?
   ''That's been in my system ever since.''
   Munger occasionally walks the path to Mule Lake in his mind before falling asleep at night. He is still carrying out the mission his grandfather assigned him. And he intends to continue doing so.


                         Conservationist's conscience


   Much has been made of Munger's age and longevity as a legislator, so much so that it has worked to overshadow his achievements. Of late, he is commonly known as the oldest sitting legislator in state history, the longest serving Minnesota House member ever, and, if he serves out his term through 2000, the longest serving Minnesota legislator ever.
   His admirers have been expecting invitations to Munger's farewell party for 25 years.
   But his confrontation with liver cancer this year has served as a very public reminder of the personal determination that drove the pioneering environmentalism of his legislative career.
   He holds onto his House seat as tenaciously as he has adhered, across a century of political change, to his belief in government's responsibility to serve as protector.
   ''He's a product of the Depression,'' said U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn. ''He's seen people in desperate times, and he knows how serious a business government is. It haunts him. It gnaws away at him. He's seen it all and done it all, but still he has this internal clock, driving away.''
   Munger's grandfather may have molded his beliefs, but they were sealed by the prairie fire of Depression-era protest politics in rural Minnesota.
   In 1911, Munger was born in the log house that his grandfather had built in Otter Tail County in order to lay claim to 160 acres of free farmland under the federal Homestead Act. At a time when the country's attitude toward business was shifting from laissez-faire to trustbusting, Lyman Munger was an avid reader of socialist treatises.
   As the grandfather imparted a conservationist's conscience, Willard's father introduced him to the concept of fighting for one's beliefs.
   Harry Munger was active in the Nonpartisan League, which successfully pushed for state ownership of parts of the grain trade in North Dakota and advocated similar changes in Minnesota. He was so proud of his affiliation that he told his children to wear buttons to school bearing the league's logo. But during World War I, the league was perceived as sympathetic to Germany. Members' homes were splattered with yellow paint.
   Munger recalls that schoolmates would rip the buttons off his shirt and he would get into fights with his peers.
   ''I stood up for my dad. I'd protect those pins,'' he said.
   Munger grew into an adherent of the Nonpartisan League's sharp-tongued founder, A.C. Townley, even imitating Townley's habit of wearing bowties.
   The economic distress of farmers intensified as Munger matured and as the Great Depression set in, with bank closings and plummeting crop values forcing increasing numbers of farmers to default on their mortgages. When banks auctioned off the farms, Munger helped Townley's group thwart the sale by intimidating outsiders not to bid against local farmers.
   In 1934, Townley recruited Munger to go to Washington, D.C., to ask the federal government to place a moratorium on farm foreclosures. The 23-year-old had no job, so farmers took up a collection to pay his way. But Munger had inherited his grandfather's financial sense. He spent his last $2.50 to see the Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas debate Huey Long, the fire-breathing populist senator from Louisiana.
   ''It was worth it,'' Munger said.
   He only made it home by borrowing money from a local jeweler who accompanied him, repaying the loan by painting the man's house.
   Munger had meanwhile come under the influence of a figure who looms large in Minnesota history -- Floyd B. Olson, a populist who broke the two-party lock on elected office 20 years before Jesse Ventura was born.
   Today, in Munger's office in the Capitol complex, the wall behind his desk could pass for a gallery in the Minnesota History Center. It's covered with photos of Munger gladhanding the state's greatest political legends. In the center of the collection is Olson, raising his fist and shouting into a microphone.
   ''I can remember exactly what he said there,'' Munger said, tapping the photo. ''He said, 'I am what I want to be -- a radical!' ''
   Olson's belief in activist government was in step with Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. Munger became an officer in the third party that propelled Olson to the governor's office in 1930, the Farmer-Labor Party.
   At 23, already seasoned in politics, Munger made his first run for public office, as a Farmer-Labor candidate for the state Legislature. He lost by a landslide. He then served as campaign manager for Townley's run for Congress, but Townley failed to get the endorsement.
   With the Depression raging, Munger found work at a gas station. Still, he remembers 1934 as a happy year. That was the year he married Martha Winter, whom he had courted at political rallies when he too broke for dinner or a movie. He nicknamed her ''Pink Lady Slipper'' after the orchids he had seen on those childhood walks. She gave birth to a daughter the next year.
   At 24, Munger was still far from finding his path to politics.


                                  To Duluth


   With his political ambitions on hold, Munger took a job as a state grain inspector in Duluth in 1935. It was a patronage or spoils job, secured through his Farmer-Labor connections, and it required him to move across the state.
   Munger had no idea how long he would stay in Duluth. But he was moved by the majesty of Lake Superior. He looked at the St. Louis River, befouled with sewage and industrial waste, and got irritated.
   He campaigned for the Farmer-Labor Party as it merged with the Democrats, the birth of today's DFL party. But his focus was raising a family and holding numerous jobs -- to a point. Principles, however, still mattered to Munger. He lost a job as a federal fruit and vegetable inspector in 1939 for refusing to take a loyalty oath to Republican Gov. Harold Stassen.
   ''How many guys today would be fired during a depression in order to hold his beliefs,'' Munger said in a 1987 interview. ''You have to be pretty dedicated to do that. Especially when your wife is pregnant and there is not a damn dime in the house.''
   Munger bought a gas station at 74th Avenue West and Grand Avenue and added a small grocery store. When World War II broke out, on the strength of having completed a single college course in marine drafting, Munger was recruited to be the first foreman at Butler Shipyard in Superior, building ships for the war. He returned to government work after the war as a federal price regulator.
   It was his wife who goaded him into taking another run at political office in 1952. He quit his federal job -- and promptly lost the election.
   This time he rebounded more quickly, though. Running in 1954 from West Duluth's District 7A, he was elected to the House of Representatives. The same year, he built the modest brick motel on Grand Avenue that would double as the family residence, its coffee shop becoming a de facto community hall for political complaints and chitchat.
   At age 43, he entered the Legislature and began to fill his grandfather's marching orders to protect both the environment and the state's working people.


                            Environmental pioneer


   His ideas were consistently ahead of the environmental awareness of the nation. Munger advocated banning DDT in the 1950s when most still considered the toxic pesticide harmless. He successfully argued that the state had a role to play in coordinating sewage treatment, subsidizing recycling, the location of and need for power plants, promoting energy conservation and preserving wetlands.
   ''He is one of the only visionaries we have ever had,'' said Rep. Bob Milbert, DFL-South St. Paul. ''He was looking a generation ahead -- not five years or 10 years.''
   After Martha's death in 1960, Munger gave up his House seat for an unsuccessful bid for state Senate in 1964. He married his second wife, Frances Herou, and regained the House seat in 1966. Until this year, when Republicans took control of the House, Munger reigned as chairman of the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee from 1973 to 1998, except for a two-year Republican takeover in 1985-86.
   His environmental focus sometimes alienated fellow Northeastern Minnesotans, as in 1977 when he became part of the effort to stop Reserve Mining from dumping taconite tailings in Lake Superior. One anonymous note warned, ''If you take away my job, we'll take care of you.''
   One night, when Munger was in St. Paul, vandals used hammers to shatter every plate-glass pane in the motel coffee shop back in West Duluth. Awakened in the family quarters, Frances Munger thought she heard shotgun blasts and hid. Munger was rattled but said he never considered moderating his position.
   ''There was a really vicious feeling going on. I could understand their feelings. I had to expect that,'' Munger said. ''But I never felt that anybody was gonna harm me personally or my family.''
   As usual, Munger's side prevailed. Reserve stopped dumping tailings into Lake Superior and began using an on-land tailings basin. The plant now operates as Northshore Mining.
   Munger also was one of a few northern lawmakers to support federal control of land in the region, such as the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park. Munger wanted even more, such as federal protections for more rivers, but northern politicians blocked those efforts. Rep. Anderson says Munger's faith in federal control of wilderness areas was long out of step with most northern Minnesotans.
   Munger didn't limit all of his Capitol efforts to environmental issues. At times, Munger manipulated the legislative system without shame. One year, when he was fighting for state money to keep the Twin Cities-to-Duluth Amtrak train running, he ''hid'' the necessary appropriation in four different bills -- just to make sure it passed.
   Rep. Tom Osthoff, DFL-St. Paul, said Munger's longtime strategy was to introduce an extreme bill and hold his tongue as the bill was watered down by committee after committee. But during the conference committee at the end of the process, he would call in his markers to get the bill restored to its original form.
   ''It took people a while to figure out that Willard didn't care what you did to his bill as long as you kept it alive,'' Osthoff said, laughing.
   Munger's cunning could be pleasant, said his longtime aide, Jackie Rosholt. When Munger was pressing for legislation to restrict development on fragile portions of rivers, he took his committee on a canoeing trip.
   ''We dumped plenty of farmer-legislators in rapids all over the state,'' said Rosholt, who served as Munger's committee administrator from 1973 to 1985.
   When Munger advocated funding for hot-water showers in state parks, he took committee members on an overnight trip to a state park in a chilly early May. The next morning, some legislators had a firsthand experience with cold showers in the outdoors.
   Munger pushed for many years to require a deposit on drink containers to encourage recycling and reduce waste -- the so-called ban-the-can legislation. He was undaunted by strong opposition of industry and labor representatives who said the move would cut production and eliminate jobs. According to Ros-
   holt, Munger agreed to stop the bill at least for the year when he was told to do so by then-Speaker of the House Martin Sabo, now a congressman from Minneapolis. Although Munger and Sabo both say they don't recall such an exchange, Rosholt said the story illustrates that Munger was not a zealot.
   ''He always put up a lot of bravado at the beginning, but at the end he always knew the need to accept what you could get,'' Rosholt said. ''He knew where that point was more than anyone.''


                                Staying power


   And Munger remained, and remained. He would sometimes co-opt a potential election challenger by telling the person he was grooming him as a hand-picked successor -- then, years would pass, said Randy Asunma, a former Munger campaigner who said he got that line himself.
   Most people in the Capitol would rather criticize Santa Claus than Willard Munger. But some have asked whether Munger has stayed on the job to serve the environment or to fulfill his personal need.
   ''I feel kind of bad for Willard because the Legislature has become so much his life,'' said Rep. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, emphasizing his personal admiration for Munger. ''There are a lot of people in this chamber that think they are absolutely irreplaceable. But they're not. If you're gone, this House doesn't miss a beat.''
   For Munger, incumbency is one of the last moorings of his life. He turned over the motel to son Will in 1992 and moved to a more secluded home near Indian Point Campground in West Duluth. His wife, Frances, died in 1997. The motel is now for sale.
   In January, Republicans took over the House and began undoing a passel of environmental regulations Munger had helped install. The next month, Munger experienced a series of health problems that reduced him to watching House proceedings on cable TV for most of the session.
   Even as he recovers from an initial round of chemotherapy and prepares for a second, he resists discussing his inevitable departure from the House seat. He says he would rather struggle to the House floor than relax at home.
   ''I wasn't built that way. I couldn't pull myself away from what I've been doing for 70 years. Not gonna change after 70 years,'' Munger said.
   ''When I leave here, I want to leave the environmental structure and the economic and social structure as good as I had it for future generations. I don't want to move out of here running away from the problems that I tried to fix.''
   People who have worked with him say that, past his prime, Munger still serves an important purpose.
   ''He doesn't have the energy any more. He doesn't have the groundswell of public support that existed in that first 10 or 15 years after the first Earth Day,'' Rosholt said. ''Yet he very much provides a kind of moral authority on these issues. When somebody votes against Willard Munger on an environmental bill, they know they're doing the wrong thing.''
   Ann Glumac, Munger's committee administrator in the late '80s, said some politicians have given Munger short shrift in his old age, presuming that his deliberate manner of speech indicates a slow mind.
   ''I see people underestimate Willard. It kind of makes me mad,'' Glumac said. ''But I also think that they're the fools. He kind of goes along in his own steady way and he gets pretty much what he wants.''
   ''He is in this for all the right reasons,'' Rep. Osthoff said. ''He brings dignity to all of us.''