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Willard Munger, 1911-1999
By Bob Kelleher
July 12, 1999
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Minnesota's oldest serving lawmaker died Sunday. Eighty-eight-year-old Duluth DFLer Willard Munger was diagnosed with liver cancer this spring, in the middle of his 43rd year in the Minnesota House. No House member has served longer.

Widely acknowledged as a leading state and national environmental leader, Munger was also deeply respected for his support of people and social issues.

Willard Munger:
Born: January 1911
Family: 2 children.
Occupation: Motel Owner.
Education: Extension, University of Minnesota-Duluth.
Elected: 1954.
Legislative Committees: Environment and Natural Resources Finance; Environment and Natural Resources Policy; Ways and Means.
Photo: Minnesota House of Representatives
WILLARD MUNGER'S LEGACY can be seen across Minnesota - in undeveloped wetlands, woods allowed to grow to old age, and lakes and rivers abundant with fish and wildlife. Duluth State Senator Sam Solon says Munger's reputation grew beyond the state's boundaries.
Solon: You can go anywhere in this county, you mention the name Willard Munger and it is recognized anywhere in this country where the environment is concerned.
Munger's first bid for office was an unsuccessful 1934 run for the Minnesota House on the Farmer-Laborer party ticket. He lost another in 1952, finally earning a House seat to represent West Duluth in the 1954 election. He left the House for two years after an unsuccessful bid for the state Senate in 1964. He said it was his grandfather who got him interested in environmental protection.
Munger: He used to get me so wrapped up and dedicated, that I used to become quite angry with what was going on way back when I was a kid.
And it was his grandfather who encouraged Munger to use political office to stop the clear cutting and stream degradation that was already evident early this century.
Munger: And he says, "the only way that you can correct this sort of thing and protect the environment for future generations, because if you don't protect it now, then when you grow up there won't be anything left for you; the only way you can do it you've got to sometime get elected to the Legislature when you can pass laws to protect the environment."
His political accomplishment include a ban of the pesticide DDT in Minnesota before a national ban was enacted; creating sewage sanitary districts, rivers and wildland protection, recreational trails, and legislation that created the state's Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund.

Munger's defense of the environment may have been born where he was raised among western Minnesota farmlands, but was honed in a wooded Duluth neighborhood on the banks of the St. Louis River. By the 1950s, the St. Louis had come to carry the heavy burdens of industry. Paper-mill effluent, coal tars, and toxic waste from steel production were choking all life from the lower St. Louis River.

People were warned to stay out of the water. Mike Janis, a close friend from Duluth, says Willard Munger set out to restore the river and preserve the region he calls "God's Country".
Janis: To defile some of that land, and waters, was just an abomination to him. He basically singlehandedly led the fight to clean up the St Louis River. Now to see people out there walleye fishing, boating, ice fishing and all that is quite a treat for him.
Friends knew Munger to spend hours, just gazing at the river from his waterfront home on Duluth's Indian Point.

Munger's Willard Motel stood across the street from one of his pet projects: the Lake Superior Zoo. Munger took an early interest in the zoo, which became known to his fellow legislators as "Willard's Zoo." It was well known that Munger was willing to trade support for other lawmakers projects for those who supported state funding for the Lake Superior Zoo.

Janis, the Zoo's director, says it's hard to believe where the zoo would be without Willard Munger. What was once a menagerie of animals in small cages, has become a regional center for modern animal exhibitry, conservation and preservation - all under the leadership of Willard Munger.
Janis: In a way, he put some money where his mouth is, you might say. He represented us well in the Legislature to bring funds to the zoo. Over the last, say 12 years I'd guess, he's brought in over $10 million to the zoo.
The Zoo is honoring its favorite sponsor by naming it's new animal care clinic, which is now under construction, for Willard Munger.

While Munger's closely identified with the environmental movement, his political training was on social issues. When still in high school, Munger supported the openly socialist Non-partisan League. Partisan League founder A.C.Townley became a close friend. Munger campaigned for Farmer-Laborer Governor Floyd B. Olson, a confessed radical who sprung from Partisan League roots. Munger admitted a sympathy for socialists like Norman Thomas and Eugene V. Debs. Munger worked closely with Hubert Humphrey when Humphrey reformed the struggling DFL party in the early 1950s.

Munger was a social activist; described by friends as a people person. Janis points to Munger's support of labor unions and working people, and says Munger believed supporting people was closely related to supporting the environment.
Janis: You need to give people an honest wage for an honest days work, and to give them the land that is out here for them to enjoy.
Another close friend, environmentalist Aldin Lind of Duluth, says Munger supported social justice, equity and quality of life.
For More Information
See a list of bills authored recently by Willard Munger. (Legislative Reference Bureau site)
Lind: What good was social justice and equity if you were ruining the world around these people, if you were depriving their children of an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors and enjoy a clean environment? And, he never saw that those were distinctive concerns. But, what ties them all together is that, from his point of view, they've never been self-serving. He never saw them as self serving.
Munger was respected by his West Duluth neighbors for his adherence to principals, and for taking counsel from constituents. Lively, but informal, political debates, would erupt every Saturday morning in his West Duluth motel and cafe. A core of political activists and environmentalists became regulars, known to some as "Munger's Kitchen Cabinet," but known among themselves as "The Grumpy Old Men." The tradition moved to Munger's home on the St. Louis River when he turned the hotel over to his son two years ago.

Lind was one of the Grumpy Old Men. He thinks Willard Munger's legacy will reflect Munger's renown honesty.
Lind: His most enduring legacy will be just the the presence of an honest person and the example he sets, and the model that he presents to people.
Willard Munger's health began to decline last spring. He was diagnosed with liver cancer when hospitalized for dizziness and confusion in February. He briefly returned to the House floor late in the session, but has spent many of his last months under hospitalization. When Munger died Sunday at the age of 88, he was believed considering another run for the House District 7A seat in 2000. Munger was preceded in death by two wives, losing Martha in 1960, and Frances more than a year ago. He's survived by a son and daughter and several grandchildren.