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St. Paul, Minn. — Elmer L. Andersen once said the greatest challenge to life is to be ready to accept new knowledge and accept change. He met those challenges many times over starting at the age of six when his parents separated and he moved with his mother from Illinois to Michigan.
At 9, he contracted polio but recovered. At 15, his mother, whom he dearly loved, died of pneumonia. Less than a year after that, his father died of a heart attack forcing Elmer and his siblings to care for themselves. His long-time friend, Tom Swain says Andersen lived life by learning from adversity:
"He didn't grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth," Swain says. "His background was he knew how tough it was to raise a family and make a living. Was it his mother? his early employers, it's a combination of all those things."
As an adult, Andersen held jobs ranging from factory worker to door-to-door salesman, a job that landed him in Minnesota. In 1931, he graduated from the U of M's business school and married the woman whom he called his most important influence, his college girlfriend, Eleanor Johnson. In 1934 Andersen began doing sales promotion at a company where he'd spend the next three decades, the glue company H.B. Fuller. In seven years, he rose to company president where he brought a philosophy unheard of in business at the time. He invested in employees.
"It meant more to him to be listed as one of the 100 best companies to work for rather than to make the Fortune 500 list," says the editor of Andersen's biography, Minneapolis Star Tribune editorial writer Lori Sturdevant.
Sturdevant says Andersen implemented a number of ground-breaking benefits: health care coverage, bonus vacation time with the condition that employees were required to use that time to have fun, parental leave with 40-percent pay and first in the nation to give employees their birthdays off. Andersen believed that if employees worked in a comfortable, friendly and inspiring environment, they would perform high quality work which would satisfy customers.
"When H.B. Fuller went public in 1968, he announced to the shareholders at the first stockholder meeting, that if they really wanted to make money, maybe they should consider investing their money someplace else; that this wasn't necessarily going to be an investment based on big profits but rather concerned with public service."
Andersen brought that philosophy to state government where he ran and won a seat in the state Senate for nine years. Considering himself a liberal Republican, he sponsored the 1957 ground-breaking Fair Employment Practices Act, which banned discrimination based on race.
"It's one of the happiest, most touching, moving memories I have is leaving a Senate chamber late one night. We'd had a harsh debate and finally won, it was clear the bill was going to pass. And as I left the chamber, a fine black man who was serving as sergeant-at-arms, I could see he wanted to talk to me as I left. So I paused and greeted him. And he said, 'you know Senator, tonight for the first time, I felt like a real man.' And that's a tremendous thing when another human being had to feel that somehow they're not quite up to other people; that's a dreadful thing," Anderson recalled in an interview.
In 1960, using the Glen Miller's "Elmer's Tune," he ran and won the governor's race.
He ran for re-election in 1962, one of Minnesota's most controversial elections. During the last few weeks of the race, Andersen said Hubert Humphrey played a key role in floating charges that Andersen presided over shoddy construction on Interstate 35. Those charges later proved groundless. But after a four month recount, Andersen lost to Karl Rolvaag by 91 votes.
Tom Swain was Andersen's chief advisor at the time and remembers telling Andersen there was no legal basis to challenge the results.
"We met with him in the St Paul Athletic Club and said, 'it's the end of the line; the jig is up.' And as tough as it was, he accepted it and with great grace and provided for the transition," Swain recalls.
Swain, who believes Andersen was victimized by the charges, says he wrote Humphrey asking for an apology for Humphrey's involvement in the 1962 campaign. He says he didn't get an answer. Andersen said he was disappointed at the time but later believed his personal life was enhanced by the defeat.
"But as a matter of fact, it added much to our life because when I got back to H.B. Fuller I could see the company needed me back. There were some decisions that needed to be made and only I could make and I had no involvement in the business. there's so much that a family can stand of public life."
Andersen remained as Fuller's CEO until 1976. Then at the age of 67, he created ECM, a company that published newspapers in small cities and suburbs. He also served on numerous foundations and boards including chairman of the University of Minnesota's Board of Regents.
Andersen was not all work. He was an avid reader and collector of rare books. In 1999, he donated $10,000 to create a Minnesota State Law Library special collection in memory of state Supreme Court Chief Justice Peter Popovich.
Andersen also gave the University of Minnesota library his lifetime collection of more than 12,000 books, a collection that's been appraised at over $700,000.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty says the late Minnesota governor Elmer L. Andersen epitomized the Minnesota spirit. Pawlenty says Andersen may be best known for his civic involvement that continued long after his time as governor.
"He wrote a book called 'A Man's Reach', and I think his life reflects how if a person dedicates himself or herself, the reach that they can achieve and the impact they can have," Pawlenty said.
Pawlenty ordered state flags flown at half-staff in memory of Andersen.
Andersen called himself a liberal Republican, but in recent years he seemed more of a Democrat. In October he wrote a commentary in the Star Tribune of Minneapolis supporting Sen. John Kerry and claiming President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney "spew outright untruths with evangelistic fervor." Still, Pawlenty said Andersen's politics never got in the way of a good talk. "You could have a discussion and disagree, but come away feeling good," Pawlenty said.
Although times have changed since Andersen left office, Pawlenty said current politicians could look to Andersen's style and be more civil to each other, he said. In one of Elmer Andersen's last speeches, he summed up his views on life in Minnesota. What follows is the end of a speech he gave for the Minnesota Book Awards on April 20, 2001.
"I think we're coming to the end of a materialistic age, where money was more important than anything else and the heart of a future is going to be in meetings like this. And in Minnesota, the heart of the culture is right here because it's in the expression of the poetry in the lives of people, the history of politics, the generations that have gone before that should stand as a springboard for future citizenship that will be more appreciative of our government, more respectful of the views of others, dedicated not to private gain but to public service for the welfare of all. That should be the mission of all of us"
The Associated Press contributed to this report.