20th Century, Governors, Minnesota

Governor Karl F. Rolvaag

Karl F. Rolvaag: Governors of Minnesota. collections.mnhs.org

March 25, 1963-January 21, 1967
After the one hundred thirty-nine day recount, Lieutenant Governor Rolvaag becomes the thirty-first Governor of Minnesota by just 91 votes. Governing on principle more than charisma, this disciplined leader effectively changed: the junior college system, reapportioned legislative districts, and improved mental institutions. He had the distinction of being the first to serve a four year gubernatorial term. *

Few politicians of this era had more authentic bragging rights as to their Minnesota roots than Karl. Let’s recount a few that would deeply resonate with any Midwesterner of this age:
Karl was born in Northfield, MN. in 1913, and attended St. Olaf.
His father was the iconic Norwegian novelist of “Giants in the Earth”; Ole Rolvaag.
He dropped out of university the year his father passed, 1931, to “head out west”.
He spent six years as a railway “hobo” of sorts, chasing the man-camps and working as a logger, miner, teamster, and various roles on the rails.
He joined the I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of World), and experienced the infamous logging strikes of 1936.
He returned to St Olaf and finished his degree, got married to Florence, and promptly was sent to serve in WW II where he won a Silver Star, and a Purple Heart.
He showed himself to be a man who could work with his brains, and his hands. **
After his military service, he had more education at the University of Minnesota, and earned his LL.D (legum doctor) from the University of Oslo. *

This dichotomy of life experiences shaped his ability to relate and show empathy to all kinds of Minnesotans. For example, he was a 3-term Lieutenant Governor under Democrat Orville Freeman, and also served as LG under his Republican successor, Elmer L. Anderson!? This kind of balanced character was an object lesson of the DFL platform of his era; an educated everyman!

Digging in, we find that his practicality drove his reforms in education; ie “How can one effectively attend junior college unless its nearby?” Formerly, the community colleges were run by local school boards. Rolvaag pushed to place more leadership under the state, capitalize on economies of scale, with the overarching goal to put these junior colleges in both financial and geographic reach of students. ***

During his era, the rural political districts had more representatives than the metro areas. In the session of 1965, rural representatives passed a bill that Governor Rolvaag called a “blatant, calculated, political gerrymander.” This battle lasted 3 more iterations before a consensus was reached on redistricting in a special session. ****

A tertiary set of accomplishments could be found in the governor’s advocacy for Minnesotan’s wrestling mental illness and the Minnesota Mental Health Association, as well as his promotion of groups such as ARC (Minnesota Association for Retarded Citizens). Below is a quote from the speech from the President of ARC circa 1964.

“I am equally certain that an educated, informed and aroused citizenry is absolutely essential if we are to solve and give top priority consideration to the critical problems relating to the lack of community services and gross understaffing, gross overcrowding, herd care, and continued use of some antiquated residential and other facilities in our state institutions for the mentally retarded.
Irrespective of your and my political affiliations, I assure you that we can all be most appreciative of Governor Rolvaag’s leadership and sincere interest exhibited on these tours. Governor and Mrs. Rolvaag were most impressed with the day care centers visit ed at Duluth, Atwater, St. Cloud and Rochester, and the Sheltered Workshop at Fergus Falls. They were also impressed, as were we all, with many of the dedicated and able employees of and some of the new projects being conducted in our institutions for the mentally retarded and mentally ill.” *****

Essentially, Rolvaag did for these two communities as he had done for junior colleges and their students: make them more accessible, make them affordable, provide State assistance and support to staffing and standards, and make the public aware of their pressing needs.

A wonderful summary of Karl’s term in office came from no less than then Vice President of the United States; Hubert H. Humphrey.
“Karl Rolvaag may not be a comet, racing across the sky, but I will tell you this: Karl is as steady and reliable as the North Star. You know where he is, you know where he has been, and you know his record-solid, solid as a rock.” ******

Avna, Ho Lithos, Stone the builders rejected, Capstone of the Universe; we remember You. We applaud Your perfect consistency in authority, truth and justice. Yet, You are as immovable in Your unchanging favor towards the human race!
It seems like Karl Fritjof Rolvaag learned some of this character trait from You, and applied it in the way he led Minnesota. Even his Norwegian middle name, Fritjof, speaks of balance; “thief of peace” or “tranquil”. Will You guide us to acknowledge this moment of his leadership in history?

Our first gratitude is given for the tremendous variety and breadth of his education before office: son of Ole (a giant Norwegian mind), educated in tremendous universities, strengthened by years of heavy labor, and battled hardened in World War II. All of this preparation decries Your hand: an educated man can invite the wisdom of others, a laborer knows the sanctity of the body, and a soldier savors the depths of peace like no other! We thank You that such a man could relate to so many of us because of these joys and trials.

Subsequently, we see these experiences fulfilled in a governorship of balance and boundaries. He was not a partisan, but served the people of Minnesota as Lieutenant Governor under both parties. He wanted fair boundaries for equal representation. He wanted our people to be able to attend a junior college nearby. He drew a circle of protection around our most vulnerable citizens a decade before American society caught up. Will You remember these gifts and examples of his leadership?

On the contrary, we see judgments made of him in this era. Clearly, he believed in government as a force for good, and consolidated some powers of individuals and associations into the hand of the State. He barely won his election, therefore, did not have a perspicuous mandate. For outstate citizens then, he redrew political districts to favor the power of the metro areas over them. Will You forgive this judgment and counter-judgment past, free us from such battles in the present, and bless the future of the integrity of all political redistricting?

Further, another bitter root in our state in Governor Rolvaag’s term is the usurpation of local control of junior colleges, tech schools, and community colleges. Yes, many problems are resolved with state funding of education, and a uniformity of standards. However, this necessitates the locus of choice be removed further and further away from the individual student and the desires of their town. An example of this would be how our schools still take a summer break that is relevant to an agricultural society, even though their urban students will never plant or bring in the harvest. Will You take the dance of state versus local control of education up, out, and onto the Cross? We have gained more education, and yielded our wisdom. Will You free these judgments past, heal this balance in the present, and bless the future of our junior colleges?

Another request, Avno? We honor the actions of Rolvaag in giving dignity to the mentally ill and the developmental disabled among us. There is so much of Your heart in that! Unfortunately, his generosity towards the mentally ill has become, in some cases, enabling dysfunction. Our mentally ill citizens are afraid to move towards wellness or they may lose their benefits. We give You this “catch 22”, and invite Your solutions. We thank You for both the developmentally disabled and the mentally ill among us. May we acknowledge the incredible value of their lives, and invite their participation in society. Will You forgive us our judgments of mental illness and developmental disabilities, and the counter-judgments of those populations towards others? Will You make us like Governor Fritjof; stealing peace from discontentment?

“Dishonest scales are an abomination to the LORD, but an accurate weight is His delight.” Proverbs 11:1 Berean Study Bible *******

Sobel, Robert, and John Raimo, eds. Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States, 1789-1978, Vol. 2, Westport, Conn.; Meckler Books, 1978. 4 vols. https://www.nga.org/governor/karl-fritjof-rolvaag/
** Ross, Carl interview of Rolvaag, Karl. Northfield, MN. “Twentieth Century Radicalism in Minnesota Oral History Project: Interview with Karl F. Rolvaag”. August 31, 1989. Internet. Minnesota Historical Society. http://collections.mnhs.org/cms/display.php?irn=10362505
*** Internet. Prabook. 2021. https://prabook.com/web/karl_fritjof.rolvaag/672210
**** Nelson, Paul. “Legislative Redistricting, 1959–1993”. Internet. MNHS. https://www.mnopedia.org/event/legislative-redistricting-1959-1993
***** https://mn.gov/web/prod/static/mnddc/live/past/pdf/60s/64/64-RBT-MDH.pdf
****** Quote by Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Speech at Minnesota DFL Beanfeed. October 29, 1966. http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00442/pdfa/00442-02055.pdf
******* https://biblehub.com/proverbs/11-1.html

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4 thoughts on “Governor Karl F. Rolvaag

    • I doubt it. What a broad background for public service. Like my old boss said, “Buildings would look different if every architect had worked delivery.” We forego a lot when we miss out on practical training. Thanks!

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