November 27, 2004

Elmer Andersen, the Minnesota Mensch

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN -- The indispensable Elmer L. Anderson played many roles during his long lifetime – traveling furniture salesman, liberal Republican, glue-company tycoon, dairy farmer, Minnesota State Senator, Minnesota Governor, serious book collector, and newspaper executive, to name just a few.

But if he were to choose just one name for himself – the role that he was proudest of and tried hardest to be – I bet he’d go with global citizen.

He often said that of all the many honors he received, he was proudest of a plaque that named him as a “mensch,” the Hebrew word for useful citizen.

“That’s what I’ve always wanted to be, an honorable, useful citizen,” he wrote in his autobiography, A Man’s Reach.

There are a hundred ways you could point to Anderson’s undying passion not only for the people of Minnesota, but the people of the world.

Global Cooperation

As the son of immigrants from Norway and Sweden, he naturally saw no essential distinction between Americans and people of other nationalities, while at the same time seeing America as a blessed land of opportunity.

He said he loved the iron workers of northern Minnesota because he shared the immigrant heritage with them. “I understood why they were the way they were. I knew what it was like to work in a factory. I shared their values – family, hard work, education, each succeeding generation getting ahead.”

When he scrambled up from traveling salesman to own his own company, H.B. Fuller, which he built into a multinational firm, he often stressed the potential for business to push government towards global cooperation.

“Industry has a wonderful opportunity to show leadership and use its muscle to bring the United States into close alliance with the world community,” he wrote. He argued tirelessly for closer American involvement in the United Nations, even at the cost of some sovereign control.

“I liken the necessity of risking some of our sovereignty through U.N. participation to the risk the thirteen original American states faced as they formed a new nation,” he wrote in I Trust to be Believed, a book published earlier this year.

"Joy Was Joy"

When the constitution replaced state independence with federalism, “that was a big change for the people at the time, just as it’s a big change now to think in world terms. But it’s absolutely vital, and the sooner we get to it, the better.”

Anderson’s global citizenship was part of his philosophy of life. He found interest and beauty everywhere. “Aging is a wonderful thing,” he wrote. “It is an extension of life.” For him, beauty was beauty, joy was joy, a good idea was a good idea, no matter how humble or ordinary or for that matter how exotic or foreign its country of origin. He was open to life in all directions.

“The Quakers have a wonderful trait,” this Lutheran wrote. “They never vote on anything. When people feel that their point of view is outside the consensus and a consensus is forming, they ‘stand aside.’ That is such a lovely expression: to stand aside. Let life go on. Let a person live his or her personal belief, without making an issue of it.”

At a farm in Sweden, “I remember their strawberry patch. They cared for those strawberries as if every one was precious. Those Swedish farmers lived modestly, yet richly. Compared to them, we ricochet through life. The speed of American life and the gulping of experiences can be an unfortunate thing. Too much of life is gone before it is really lived.”

A New Century

Is it possible that so gentle a soul, one so subtly and joyously attuned to life, could ever have been our Governor, could have mastered the rough and tumble of politics, could have risen to the top of the corporate ladder?

He did. And perhaps his lesson to us therefore is that idealism is not so fragile, nor hope so naïve, as we may all think in these cynical times. Maybe one lesson we can take from Elmer Anderson is that optimism is not unrealistic, but in fact is inevitable given a true openness to life.

“Many years of living have given me a sense of confidence about the future,” he wrote. “No matter how bad things seem to be on some front, they will change, usually for the better.

“A wonderful new century is dawned, and I am glad to be among those who greet it,” he wrote in 2000. “There is so much to live for.”

All the energy this state will ever need is encapsulated in those words. And all the love, too. Thank you, Elmer L. Anderson, our Governor, our mensch.

Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report