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Moorhead, Minn. — The woman Minnesotans came to know simply as Coya, was born Cornelia Gjesdahl. Her family gave her the nickname Coya. It later became her political identity.
Coya grew up on a North Dakota farm where she learned about agriculture, and politics. Her father was a prairie populist, part of a socialist movement called the Non Partisan League.
The young Coya dreamed of being an opera star. After graduating from Concordia College in Moorhead, she moved to New York to study at Juilliard School of Music.
After a year she realized there was little chance she would achieve operatic stardom, so she gave up her dream and moved home.
Coya married Andy Knutson and settled on a small farm near Oklee, Minnn. She taught school and ran a small hotel with Andy. He drank heavily, and their marriage soon soured. Coya was restless and started thinking about politics.
"I thought, holy smokes there must be more to this world than where I am, so I busted out," Coya told a family member in 1990.
The conversation was recorded as part of a school project. It provides a sense of the woman who was never afraid to speak her mind.
In the late 1940s, Coya planned her escape from Oklee. She first got involved in county politics. Soon the Democratic Farmer Labor Party asked her to run for the state legislature. She won a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1950, and was re-elected in 1952.
But Coya had her eye on a bigger prize. She wanted a seat in Congress so she could help struggling family farmers.
"Here were farmers that didn't make enough money on the farm and I thought maybe I could make a difference, maybe I could help it along a little bit," said Coya.
Local DFL officials told Coya they already had a candidate for Congress. They wanted her to stay in the state legislature.
But Coya ignored the wishes of party leaders and challenged the endorsed candidate. She surprised everyone by winning the 1954 primary election.
DFL party officials were not happy.
Arvonne Fraser was one of the few women inside the party power structure in 1954.
They wanted to run me, they wanted to run my office. They wanted to put people they wanted into my office. My goodness, I didn't want to do that. I was the boss of my office. To heck with them!
"Coya would start off the on the wrong foot by running against an endorsed candidate. That would have been treason at the time," recalled Fraser.
Fraser says in the 1950s, the DFL party was trying to move beyond its farmer-labor roots. The party wanted candidates who conveyed an air of sophistication. Coya was a brash, accordian-playing farm wife.
"She was just too unconventional. They didn't like her loud voice. They didn't like her singing and playing the accordian. She wasn't the proper lady," said Fraser.
Coya Knutson had no money for the general election campaign. She recalled getting $25 from the party. She had some farm land inherited from her father. She sold it for $5,000. Then she hit the road with her accordian in the back seat and a Thermos® of coffee at her side.
Coya's adopted son, Terry, was 14 in the summer of 1954. He recalls a week spent campaigning in Ottertail County, a Republican stronghold in the southern end of the 9th Congressional District.
"We slept in the car. I drew the front seat because I was smaller; I could get under the front seat. She'd sleep in the back seat," said Knutson. "She'd gone into the courthouse in Fergus Falls and bought the plat book for the county that lists who the farm owner is. She'd lay out the farms to visit every day. And you'd wake up early sleeping in the car. She'd meet the farmers in the barn. And then she'd start milking with them and talking politics."
Farmers didn't know what to make of this woman who talked their language, understood farming, and met them in the barn. Word spread and Coya began attracting bigger crowds at campaign stops. Bill Kjeldahl, then a recent college graduate, was her campaign manager. He knew farmers were the key constituency of the largely rural 9th District.
County fairs were the place to meet big crowds of farmers in 1954. Bill Kjeldahl can still see Coya standing outside the grandstand, surrounded by a crowd of curious farmers.
"It's kind of funny, you know I remember those farmers time and again. They'd have their go to town overalls on, brand new overalls. She just had them in her hip pocket. She was just one of them," said Kjeldahl.
Farmers upset with the farm policy of Republican President Dwight Eisenhower turned out big for Coya in November 1954. She upset the incumbent Republican congressman.
With campaign manager Bill Kjeldahl in tow, she headed for Washington.
She had little idea what lay ahead. "I was so new to everything it was all exciting, it was all wonderful. And all the time I was scared to death," recalled Knutson.
The upset win was noticed by Democratic party leaders in Washington. U.S. House speaker Sam Rayburn offered her any committee seat she wanted. Coya became the first woman to sit on the powerful U.S. House Agriculture Committee.
She quickly made friends in the Capitol corridors. There were articles in the New York Times and Washington Post. Reporters loved the plain-spoken Minnesota farm wife with the infectious laugh. Coya appeared to be loving the the attention, but later in life, she remembered feeling overwhelmed.
"It was so much coming at you all the time. All the publicity. I wasn't prepared for that. I wanted to do my job, forget the publicity, the dickens with it, and let me get on with my business. But there were reporters at every stop, followed you everywhere, and they had to know everything. And what they didn't know, they made up," said Knutson.
The new congresswoman was trying to change her image. She made a conscious effort to look more sophisticated. She colored her hair blonde, wore nicer clothes, and played down her Scandinavian accent.
Coya quickly learned her way around Congress. Her primary legislative interest was agriculture, But she championed other notable causes. She authored legislation which created the federal student loan program.
She pushed for surplus farm products to be used in school lunch programs. She convinced lawmakers to start funding research into the deadly disease cystic fibrosis.
Aide Bill Kjeldahl remembers watching in amazement as she got her way with U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn and the mostly male members of Congress.
"She was so positive there was no escape. She just asked people for stuff and she'd get it. And she was sitting so well with the speaker that other members asked her to get something and she went right to his office and they'd get it for her. She just had the run of the place," exclaimed Kjeldahl. But Coya's personal life was not going so well. She barely spoke with husband Andy back in Oklee.
Son Terry spent the summer of 1955 volunteering in his mothers Washington Congressional office. He says Coya had no social life.
"She was lonely, very lonely. She worked 7 days a week,and on Sundays she'd go out to national airport to eat lunch just so she'd be around a crowd. Then she'd go into the office alone Sunday afternoon," said Knutson.
Coya was likely to spend those Sunday afternoons scanning the newspapers from back home. Anyone who got married or had a baby was likely to get a congratulatory note.
Coya sent a weekly column to newspapers in the 9th District. It was called Coya's Capitol Chat. She demanded prompt constituent service from her staff. She expected an immediate response to the letters that arrived each day from Minnesota.
Relations with the DFL Party were a much lower priority. Coya felt she owed no loyalty to the party leaders. After all, they didn't help get her elected. She didn't want their advice.
"They wanted to run me, they wanted to run my office. They wanted to put people they wanted into my office. My goodness, I didn't want to do that. I was the boss of my office. To heck with them," said Rep. Knutson.
Coya was stubborn. The more party leaders pressured her, the deeper she dug in her heels. That independence angered DFL leaders who placed a high value on party loyalty. A storm was building that would soon end Coya's political career.
The last straw was the 1956 presidential campaign. Estes Kefauver and Adlai Stevenson were competing for the Democratic nomination.
In Minnesota, Hubert Humphrey was the star of the DFL Party. He was hoping to be Adlai Stevensons running mate. So the stake were high, and the DFL Party desperately wanted Stevenson to win the state primary. Coya Knutson threw her support behind Estes Kefauver primarily because farmers in her district preferred his position on farm policy.
Kefauver beat Stevenson in the Minnesota primary. It was a humiliating loss for Hubert Humphrey and the DFL Party.
Party leaders were furious.
"This was the threat to party leadership, and it was intense," recalls Arvonne Fraser. "People hated each other for the rest of their lives based on that split."
The stage was set for a political drama that would play out on the front page of newspapers across the country.
Party leaders let Coya know she was in trouble. The DFL Party chairman wrote a letter demanding party loyalty from Coya and her staff.
Rumors began circulating that Coya was having an affair with her chief of staff, Bill Kjeldahl.
Just before the district convention in 1958, a letter was circulated to reporters. It was signed by Coya's husband Andy. This letter was printed in newspapers around the country.
"Coya, I want you to tell the people of the 9th District this Sunday that you are through in politics. That you want to go home and make a home for your husband and son. As your husband I compel you to do this. I'm tired of being torn apart from my family. I'm sick and tired of having you run around with other men all the time and not your husband. I love you, honey," it said.
Coya knew her troubled marriage was was a potential political disaster. In fact she wrote a speech for the 1956 9th District DFL convention, explaining Andy's alcoholism and her estrangement from him. But she never gave that speech. Advisors told her the public would not understand.
In 1958 Andy's letter made Coya's disfunctional marriage national news. Headlines trumpeted; Coya come home. The phrase would forever define Coya Knutson.
The infamous letter still prompts vigorous debate nearly 50 years later. Some are convinced it came from the highest levels of the DFL Party. Others contend it was written on a kitchen table by local party officals.
Harding Noblitt was a young political science professor at Concordia College in Moorhead in 1956. He was also active in the 9th District DFL leadership. Noblitt is certain Andy Knutson did not write the Coya-come-home letter.
"Old Andy, somebody might have paid him or bought him a few drinks to get him to sign the darn thing. There are still arguments about who wrote the thing and induced him to(sign it). The people who should know have told me in recent years they don't know who wrote the darn thing. They're all convinced Andy didn't write it. But he did sign it," said Noblitt.
The mystery of who wrote the letter is well guarded by those who know.
Gretchen Beito spent several years researching and writing a biography of Congresswoman Coya Knutson. The letter remains one of the few stories that still eludes her.
"The closest I've come is 'yes, I was there', it was a smoke-filled room and it was late, in fact it was early in the morning and a whole group of DFLers were agreed she had to go and she was going to go no matter what," said Beito.
Many of Coya's friends and political allies abandoned her.
Arvonne Fraser felt what was happening to Coya was wrong. But in 1958 women did not speak out.
"I guess I saw it but I was part of the group. I'm one of the guilty," said Fraser. "We talk about it among women now. Why didn't we speak up? But we didn't stand up to defend her. And I feel very sad about that."
The scandal shook Coya and those close to her. Former aide Bill Kjeldahl says it was months before he could pick up a newspaper and read about politics without getting physically ill. He's still angry. Kjeldahl says Coya lost her will to campaign. She didn't have the stomach for a personal fight.
"You know it was hard for her to face somebody after a confrontation. I think that's true. There were only two or three times I saw her in a confrontation. You just never saw it," recalled Kjeldahl. "They wound up taking the starch out of her completely."
Coya lost the 1958 election by 1,390 Votes to Republican Odin Langen, a farmer from Kennedy, Minn. She was the only incumbent Democrat to lose a seat in Congress that year. Minnesota did not send another woman to Congress until Betty McCollum was elected in 2000.
Soon after the 1958 election Coya and Andy were divorced. Andy died a few years later.
Coya ran and lost again in 1960. She stayed in Washington, where she took a job at the Defense Department. After she retired Coya tried to reclaim her Congressional seat in 1977. She lost the DFL primary.
Coya Knutson quickly faded from the Minnesota political scene, remembered mostly for the Coya-come-home headline.
Bill Kjeldahl doubts she will ever get the recognition she deserves in Minnesota. Kjeldahl says his stomach still churns when he thinks about what happened nearly 50 years ago.
"It just made me so mad that there could be democrats like that. I sure do remember a glorious person. Just a fantastic, I couldn't have been more privileged to have a better candidate to work for," said Kjeldahl.
Political observers are divided about Coya's place in Minnesota history. Retired professor and political activist Harding Noblitt thinks she got more attention than she deserved. "Her big importance as you look at it in history was she was the first effective woman candidate for higher office. She always received more attention that the typical two term congressman who wasn't involved in any big issues," said Noblitt.
A distinctly different view is held by Mary Pruitt. The Minneapolis Community College professor, who is writing a book about Coya Knutson, has heard many disparaging remarks about Coya Knutson.
"She never did anything, she never passed a bill. Nobody besides a couple of loonies up in the 9th District ever cared about her. That's just not true. She was a star on the national stage," said Pruitt.
The federal student loan program, school lunch legislation and cystic fibrosis research are three significant achievements of Coya Knutson's time in Congress, according to Pruitt.
Those who knew Coya Knutson best insist she wasn't one to look back and wonder what might have been.
How would Coya want to be remembered? Author Gretchen Beito asked her that question. "She laughed and she said, 'Oh I dreamed they put a statue of me on the Capitol mall.' Well, there's your answer," laughs Beito.
Congresswoman Coya Knutson died in 1996. She's most remembered for three words: Coya come home. She's still a complicated, charismatic and divisive figure in the history of the DFL Party.
A year after she died lawmakers tried to appropriate money to build a memorial at the Capitol in St. Paul. The legislation failed to become law. There are no statues honoring the first Minnesota woman elected to Congress.
Minnesota Public Radio would like to thank Terry Knutson, Mary Pruitt, Kathy and Tim Ray for their assistance in the preparation of this story.